Taking Mr. Bush at his Word

On the anniversary of the invasion, we look back at what has come of the president’s sell four years ago to the American people.

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The fourth anniversary of the Iraq war this week has led many in the media to look for the milestones in the conflict—the casualty figures, both American (3,223 dead, 15,129 wounded) and Iraqi (perhaps as many as 65,160 in media-reported violence and as many as 601,000 in the entire course of the conflict); the changes in personnel and policy; and the swings in public opinion. But one memory worth recalling, since so many in the pro-war punditocracy appear to have caught a rare case of collective amnesia, is the president’s sell to the American people at the outset of this catastrophe four years ago this week.

“My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”

These are the bold words that launched the United States into perhaps its worst foreign policy misadventure in the country’s entire history.

“The people you liberate will witness the honorable and decent spirit of the American military. In this conflict, America faces an enemy who has no regard for conventions of war or rules of morality.”

How many could have predicted that those words would lead to Abu Ghraib, to Hadaitha, and the sex crimes—many of them directed at female soldiers—committed by American
; to an increase in the terrorist threat against us; to the destruction of our international reputation; to the disintegration of any kind of personal security for most Iraqis; and the collapse of Iraq’s economic infrastructure, to say nothing of the hundreds of billions—potentially trillions—of dollars thrown away in this never-ending sinkhole. And oh yes, the thousands of American soldiers killed, the tens of thousands wounded, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis similarly maimed and killed.

Bush has even managed to turn the murderous Saddam Hussein into a martyr across the Arab world with a Kangaroo Court murder trial and botched execution of the dictator and his sons and collaborators.

“I want Americans and all the world to know that coalition forces will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm.”

The casualty figures here speak for themselves, as do the fact that 2 million Iraqis live as refugees outside their country. Even after invading Iraq with questionable motives in the first place, numerous policy choices led to the insurgency and now the civil war that daily threatens Iraqi and American lives, whether failing to prevent looting after the fall of Baghdad, disbanding Hussein’s army and leaving it nowhere to go, or not sending enough troops to maintain order despite repeated warnings force.

“More than 35 countries are giving crucial support—from the use of naval and air bases, to help with intelligence and logistics, to the deployment of combat units.”

Thank God for Palau. The much-mocked coalition of the willing, which lacked even symbolic support from major European powers and Arab states like in the Gulf War, made the U.S. coalition hollow at best and should have been a sign that international opinion was not with us. And the number of troops contributed was hardly an equal share of the burden; the U.S. deploying at least five times as many troops, if not much more, than any other country. Today, 16 countries have withdrawn from the coalition of the willing.

“The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder. We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of fire fighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”

It hardly bears repeating that, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Bad intelligence, purposely manipulated by the Bush administration, convinced well over half the country that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It also convinced the balance of the Senate and many political opponents who literally could not imagine the degree to which this administration was willing to go to deceive Americans into war.

Of course, the constant demagoging of the non-existent connection between Iraq and 9/11—a notion finally and authoritatively debunked by the 9/11 Commission Report—convinced 55 percent of Americans the relationship existed. But there was no genuine threat to the U.S. from Iraq back then as there is today. Even worse, the unrest in the Middle East has emboldened terrorists and rogue states alike, leaving us in more dangerous security situation than when the war began.

“Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly—yet, our purpose is sure.”

The administration’s phony scare stories led the vast majority of the country into war with the support of about seventy percent of the country. Thank goodness for the dissenting voices that spoke out in the midst of the campaign of vilification against those who disagreedand the high spirits following the fall of Baghdad. Back then, as The Washington Post reported in a story headlined, “GOP to Hammer Democratic War Critics,” “Bush and GOP congressional leaders [reacted] with vitriol” towards anyone who questioned their wisdom.

In the elite media, The Weekly Standard excoriated war critics in an article headlined, “The Cassandra Chronicles: The Stupidity of the Antiwar Doomsayers.” The New Republic joined in, as did blogger Andrew Sullivan who now shares the views of people he called traitors. But as Paul Krugman noted in a December New York Times article recognizing the accuracy of these pre-war pessimists, the thing to remember about Cassandra is that she was right. If only one could say the same about the Bush cheerleaders who dominated our media—and amazingly, still do.

“[H]elping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment. … And I assure you, this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory.”

Half measures have characterized the entire campaign, from the lack of body armor and now rest and training for the troops, to the incompetence and political prioritizing of the civilian administration. Military commanders during the first weeks of the war weren’t expecting insurgents, and there was never a plan for the post-war occupation and reconstruction—the famously lacking “Phase IV.”

“We come to Iraq with respect for its citizens, for their great civilization and for the religious faiths they practice. We have no ambition in Iraq except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people.”

Iraq today has been sadly ripped apart by sectarian violence. Even worse, The New Yorker reports that the U.S. is doing little to aid the people who did respond to the U.S.’s call for action. Iraqis who worked for the American troops and civilian authorities are being cast aside and often killed by their countrymen for collaboration. Sound familiar?

Bush’s war lacka a military solution and is facing rapidly dwindling chances for a political solution, yet it will continue through the end of his presidency because no one of authority in the administration is capable of admitting a mistake. The saddest part of this entire horrific story is how much of it was predictable from the start. Remember John Kerry’s question about being the last person to “die for a mistake?” How would you like to be the mother, father, son, or daughter to lose your loved one for the same damn mistake a second time?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is

Research assistance: Tim Fernholz

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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