National Opinions

Joseph Galloway: Only thing changing in Iraq is U.S. reason for being there

Year-by-year, month-by-month, now even day-to-day, we’re treated to a different rationale for the Iraq war from a different President George W. Bush.

In the beginning, the reasons for invading Iraq and toppling the dictator Saddam Hussein were his possession of weapons of mass destruction, his nuclear weapons program and his links to the real al-Qaeda.

When no evidence of the truth of any of those reasons could be found after a year and millions spent in a desperate, failed search, the rationale became the installation of a freely elected democratic government in Baghdad.

For the best part of a year, the Bush administration denied that a homegrown insurgency had taken root in Iraq. In their view, it was just a collection of Baath Party “dead-enders” and foreign jihadists who were killing Americans.

Then the administration grudgingly admitted that there was an Iraqi insurgency, but carried on with a campaign that focused on brute force — kicking in doors, searching families, carting off the men in wholesale sweeps that filled prisons and detention camps to overflowing — that had nothing to do with counterinsurgency warfare except to create many more insurgents.

Elections were held and a democratically elected Shiite Muslim majority took control of the Iraqi government and parliament.

By then, however, a sectarian civil war had taken root and the murder of innocent civilians, Shia and Sunni and Kurds, was the order of the day, and ethnic cleansing of entire neighborhoods in the capital was beginning. The administration denied that a civil war was under way, long after it was.

Our focus next was on training, equipping and standing up Iraq army battalions and Iraqi police units to take over security duties so U.S.

military units could begin standing down. The facts that the effort was underfunded and poorly managed, and that some Iraqi units refused to fight with the Americans and that others joined in the ethnic cleansing were ignored or covered with optimistic public pronouncements by the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Our ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was hobbled by his political ties to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that infiltrated or were inserted into key government ministries. American forces uncovered secret Interior Ministry prisons jammed with Sunnis who’d been cruelly tortured. Each morning’s toll of tortured and executed people found dead, alone or in groups, grew to as many as 100.

Vice President Cheney famously declared two years ago that the insurgency was “in its last throes.” The president steadfastly rejected any comparison of our lost war in Vietnam with our lost war in Iraq, as he also rejected any suggestion of doing anything but “staying the course.”

The commander on the ground and the commander in the region last year declared that this war couldn’t be won militarily and recommended against any surge or escalation in the number of U.S. troops. They were replaced by the fourth U.S. ground commander, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and the third head of the U.S. Central Command, Navy Adm.

William Fallon.

The bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Commission offered a new way forward in Iraq after nine months of study, recommending the beginning of a drawdown of U.S. forces and a new reliance on diplomatic negotiations with Syria, Iran and other neighboring countries. It also offered President Bush a way out of the quicksand.

He paid slight lip service to the recommendations and promptly opted for the surge, an escalation from 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to what’s now reached 160,000 and will go even higher to 171,000 later this fall.

There were two objectives — use U.S. troops to create a more stable and peaceful environment in and around Baghdad so the Maliki government and the Iraqi parliament could achieve a series of benchmarks. The most important benchmark was to begin reconciliation among the warring communities.

With Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker scheduled to report to Congress on what the surge has accomplished on September 11, we learn that the White House political aides actually will write the promised assessment.

This week we saw two President Bushes in action. In a news conference in Canada, he acknowledged that while security has improved somewhat thanks to the surge, the Iraqis have made little progress toward meeting the benchmarks. Two days later, speaking at the National VFW convention in Kansas City, the president spoke at length about the need to stay the course in Iraq indefinitely.

He pleaded for the patience he said is needed to win in Iraq, and surprisingly put forward the example of the Vietnam War and our withdrawal from there after 10 years and 58,249 dead American troops as a reason why we must stick to our guns in Iraq.

He trotted out his administration’s now shopworn fear tactics, arguing that persisting in this senseless war will prevent a massacre of millions in Iraq and attacks on us at home by a reinvigorated al-Qaeda.

The more things change in this administration, the more they stay the same.

Joseph L. Galloway is a military columnist for McClatchy Newspapers; he is co-author of the national best-seller “We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young.” Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340.