Out of the Question
Is Bush's biggest mistake too awful to admit?
How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?
That's what it all comes down to—this debate, this war, this election. For all the differences between Iraq and Vietnam, the awful question John Kerry posed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 is the same one hanging over us now.
This time, however, Kerry isn't raising the question. His opponent, the president of the United States, is raising it. Why? Because Iraq is different from Vietnam. We were attacked on 9/11. We thought Saddam Hussein was behind it. We thought Iraq posed the next threat. We don't want to believe that we were wrong, that we've committed $200 billion and sacrificed more than 1,000 American lives in error. We can't imagine asking thousands more to die for a mistake.
Bush can't imagine it, either. So, he offers himself—and you—a way out. Ignore the bad news, he says. Ignore the evidence that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs had deteriorated. Ignore the evidence that Saddam had no operational relationship with al-Qaida. Ignore the rising casualties. Ignore the hollowness and disintegration of the American-led "coalition." If these reports are true, as Kerry suggests, then it was all a mistake. How can we ask our troops to die for a mistake? We can't. Therefore, these reports must be rejected. They must be judged not by evidence, but by their offensiveness to the assumptions we embraced when we went to war.
In tonight's debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush, "Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives—1,052 as of today?" Bush looked down. He recalled a woman whose husband had died in Iraq. "I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy," the president said. "Was it worth it? Every life is precious. That's what distinguishes us from the enemy. ... We can look back and say we did our duty."
That's how Bush judges the war's worth: not by costs and benefits, but by character. It shows our nobility. It shows we did our duty. He used the word "duty" seven times tonight. Kerry never used that word, except to refer to "active duty" troops. Eleven times, Bush called the mess in Iraq "hard work." To recognize error would be to abandon that work and shirk our duty. Again and again, he framed the acceptance of bad news as moral failure. Will. Resolute. Steadfast. Uncertainty. Weakness. Supporting our troops.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is "a brave, brave man," Bush told the audience. After Allawi addressed Congress last week, Kerry "questioned his credibility," Bush charged. "One of his campaign people alleged that Prime Minister Allawi was like a puppet. That's no way to treat somebody who's courageous and brave [and] is trying to lead his country forward."
That's how Bush judges Allawi's assurances: not by evidence, but by character. Never mind that Allawi's rosy speech didn't match his own statements back home, much less independent reports from Iraq. Never mind that according to administration officials interviewed by the Washington Post, Allawi "was coached and aided by the U.S. government" and by "a representative of President Bush's reelection campaign." Any suggestion that Allawi spun Congress or was coached must be dismissed, because these suggestions besmirch a brave leader.
When Kerry quantified the meager troop contributions of our coalition partners, Bush protested, "I honor their sacrifices. And I don't appreciate it when a candidate for president denigrates the contributions of these brave soldiers." Forget the facts. Kerry's numbers must be repudiated because they dishonor good men.
Kerry offered a different way to judge the war's truth and worth: by the evidence. "I don't know if he sees what's really happened," Kerry said of Bush's Iraq spin. He worried that Bush was "not acknowledging what's on the ground. He's not acknowledging the realities of North Korea. He's not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem-cell research or of global warming and other issues."
But when Lehrer transposed Kerry's famous question—"Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?"—Kerry balked. "No, and they don't have to," Kerry replied. "We have to win this. The president and I have always agreed on that. And from the beginning, I did vote to give the authority, because I thought Saddam Hussein was a threat, and I did accept that intelligence."
It doesn't add up. Kerry said tonight that Iraq was a diversion from the war on terror. He said the WMD intelligence was wrong. He added, "Two-thirds of [Iraq] was a no-fly zone when we started this war. We would have had sanctions. We would have had the U.N. inspectors. Saddam Hussein would have been continually weakening." The logical upshot of these beliefs—and the evidence—is that Americans are dying in Iraq for a mistake.
Why won't Kerry say so? For the same reason Bush accuses him of saying so: Because we don't want to believe it. On this ultimate question, Kerry clings to Bush's wishful thinking. Tonight, Kerry vowed to prevail in Iraq "for those soldiers and for those families, for those kids who put their lives on the line. That is noble. That's the most noble thing that anybody can do. And I want to make sure the outcome honors that nobility."
"I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right," Kerry said, explaining his vote against the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq. "That's what I learned in Vietnam. When I came back from that war, I saw that it was wrong. Some people don't like the fact that I stood up to say no, but I did. And that's what I did with that vote."
No, Senator. That isn't what you did with that vote. You haven't said no to the Iraq War as you did to the Vietnam War. And the reason is that this time, you're running for president.
But the greater shame belongs to the candidate who launched this war, refuses to admit his errors, and now holds the moral pride of his countrymen hostage, blackmailing them into shunning the truth. Tonight he scoffed, "If I were to ever say, 'This is the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place,' the troops would wonder, 'How can I follow this guy?' "
Exactly, Mr. President. If you were ever to give them the correct assessment, they would ask the correct question.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of George Bush by Jim Young/Reuters.