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Saturday, Jun. 28, 2003 at 7:26 AM
Almost two months after the president said major combat in Iraq had ended, U.S. troops are still being killed and the White House's plans are in disarray.
A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 26, 2003
On May 1, President Bush was the star of an elaborately staged event that may come to symbolize his administration's illusion-over-reality approach to the war in Iraq.
That evening, the president donned a flight suit, climbed aboard a Navy jet and flew to the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, which was kept adrift just off the coast of California so it could serve as a dramatic setting for a nationally televised spectacle. The jet carrying the president made a screeching stop on the carrier, and the commander in chief emerged with all the strutting bravado of a Top Gun ace. The president's handlers, who filmed the event for later use during the 2004 presidential campaign, set the camera angles so that the open Pacific, rather than the nearby San Diego skyline, served as the backdrop for the president's performance.
The event drew criticism from those who still find it unseemly for public officials to use matters of war for such brazen political gain. Yet it was the substance of the president's speech, not just the heavy-handed symbolism of the surroundings, that looks most suspicious in retrospect.
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," the president, surrounded by thousands of Navy personnel under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," told the world that day. Yet we now know that the president's assertion was, at best, premature.
Since the president declared that major combat had ceased, dozens of American and British soldiers have been killed or wounded in daily skirmishes. If anything, Iraqis opposed to the continuing presence of U.S. troops have become more violent and better organized in recent weeks. Those still loyal to Saddam Hussein have been emboldened by U.S. forces' failure to capture Hussein or account for his fate. Even many Iraqis who were originally inclined to give U.S. and British authorities the benefit of the doubt have since turned against them. If occupying forces don't quickly show more success in restoring order and rebuilding the Iraqi economy, we may lose any hope of building broad Iraqi support.
Thousands of undermanned U.S. troops - most of whom expected to come home once the president announced the war was effectively over - continue to perform admirably in Iraq. But they have not received adequate support and guidance from their political leaders. Few of our forces are trained for the peacemaking role that has been thrust upon them. President Bush and his top advisers often have derided the notion of nation-building, the crucial but thankless task our forces are being asked to perform in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, the administration's doctrinaire unilateralism has rejected broader help from the United Nations and NATO, two organizations with valuable experience in such operations.
Yet the White House often seems more interested in denying problems than in solving them. For example, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, was chastised by his political superiors, and eventually removed from his post, after he estimated early this year that 200,000 troops would be required to occupy Iraq in the months following the war. That clear-eyed assessment conflicted with the White House's script for a quick, clean military victory. Today, Shinseki's prediction looks optimistic.
Congress and the American people finally are beginning to raise serious questions about the credibility of the case the Bush administration made against Iraq in the weeks leading up to war. At the very least, the president and other top officials grossly exaggerated the immediate threat posed by Hussein's regime. Claims about Iraq's purported nuclear weapons program and links to al-Qaida were based on transparently phony documentation. And while the search for chemical and biological weapons continues, it already is clear that the White House's specific claims about the scope and location of those weapons have not been borne out.
A scrupulous investigation into charges that the Bush administration intentionally distorted intelligence to fit its political purposes in Iraq should continue. Our government's credibility depends on it. At the same time, though, Americans should be asking similar questions about the credibility of the Bush administration's ongoing postwar effort. Even on its own terms, the White House has shown little of the patience, foresight and flexibility that will be required for the long-term job of building a peaceful, stable Iraq. It is a far more complex task than the one the White House set for itself in Afghanistan, where the government of President Hamid Karzai and his U.S. protectors have made little progress in curbing the power of regional warlords, Taliban loyalists and other enemies of peace.
Wars cannot be neatly choreographed, and the end of combat operations cannot be precisely timed to fit the schedules of political consultants. Americans were heartened by our troops' military successes in Iraq this spring, but there are growing concerns across the nation about the dangerous circumstances in which our troops still find themselves, almost two months after the president declared that major combat operations were over. Everyone would be more confident if the Bush administration's plans for pacifying Iraq appeared to be as meticulously thought out as its made-for-TV pep rallies have been.
© Copyright 2003 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved
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