Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel said this week that the longer we stay in Iraq, the more it looks like Vietnam. In so many ways he is right and as a decorated veteran of that earlier war he has the experience and the authority to offer that judgment.
But Vietnam comparisons are wrong in one respect. Listening to the Johnson White House tapes of the early months of 1963-1964, one cannot help but sense the anguish, turmoil and indecision as the president grapples with pressures to escalate the war and send more troops to the inescapable battlefields of Southeast Asia. Sleepless to the point that Lady Bird worried for his health, LBJ would go to the White House situation room at midnight to await the nightly casualty reports.
By contrast, George W. Bush is “hangin’ loose,” as he puts it, spending August at the ranch in Crawford, riding his bike, taking side trips to friendly conventions of veterans and hitting the sack by nine. At the VFW, he presented the latest version of his rolling rationale for continuing the war in Iraq. We must finish the task, he now says, to honor the fallen.
Yet he cannot find time to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier who demands to know what noble cause her son died for. “I’ve got to get on with my life,” said the president. His life? Could he have found a more infelicitous formulation?
As he prepared to invade Iraq, Bush said he did not consult his father; he consulted a higher Father. Whatever he was told in that venue, America would have been better off if he just stayed within the family. In his last major speech as president, Bush Sr. addressed a West Point audience, formulating a set of principles for using military force in the post-Cold War world. How much better off we would be if his son had taken seriously just one sentence in that speech: “But in every case involving the use of force, it will be essential to have a clear and achievable mission, a realistic plan for accomplishing the mission and criteria no less realistic for withdrawing U.S. forces once the mission is complete.”
For Iraq, we had none of the above. We found no WMDs, nor al-Qaida connections. We failed to secure the borders to keep out immigrant terrorists or even guard Saddam’s ammunition dumps. We failed to armor our vehicles so now local and imported terrorists are killing and maiming our soldiers. This week there was a report that the Iraqi exile we put in charge of running the defense ministry has stolen $1 billion, using phony and inflated contracts, paying double and triple the going rate for arms and gasoline.
We have bungled the war, the occupation, and now we hasten the governing council to adopt an Iraqi constitution that will effectively make Islamic law supreme. This is the democracy we promise for the Middle East?
The common explanation is that this disaster in Iraq grew out of “intelligence failures” at the outset. No one has been saddled with the blame; indeed, CIA director George Tenet got a Medal of Freedom for his blundering.
That is why a CNN documentary, “Dead Wrong: Inside an Intelligence Meltdown,” is timely. Produced by Sherry Jones and hosted by David Ensor, it will be broadcast several times on “CNN Presents” over this weekend.
“Dead Wrong” reviews the intelligence run-up to the congressional authorization and the invasion. You hear from all the main characters: Vice President Dick Cheney says there is no doubt that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushes the connection between Iraq and al-Qaida; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice says the aluminum tubes are suited only for nuclear weapons; Tenet says the CIA’s intelligence indicates a “slam dunk”; Secretary of State Colin Powell tells the U.N. that Saddam has biological weapons labs mounted on trucks; Bush says the smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.
What “Dead Wrong” carefully demonstrates is that none of the above proved true. More important, using testimony from government and CIA officials now out of office, the documentary shows how the administration built its case for invading Iraq by “cherry picking” — using scraps of intelligence to build a worse-case scenario. The intelligence was rigged and Americans were scared into supporting the war.
“Dead Wrong” makes a powerful, convincing case that the Bush administration hijacked the intelligence community. Watch it and make up your own mind.