Thursday, February 01, 2007

The First and the Last

Two interviews with two of the key players in the Iraq War debate offer some insight into why the American decision to go to war has turned out so disastrously. The first interview, with Vice President Dick Cheney, underscores the old adage that the first casualty of war is truth. The second interview, with Senator Chuck Hagel, reminds us that Dr. Johnson might have been wrong in his definition of patriotism; but he understood precisely how it could be abused.

The first interview, with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, illustrated how invested the Vice President is in this war. When asked if his credibility had been damaged by the blunders in Iraq, Cheney's response was, ". . .I simply don't accept the premise of your question. I just think it's hogwash." This from the man who claimed that Americans would be greeted by Iraqis as "liberators," and who claimed a year ago that the insurgency was "in its last throes."

When pressed to explain the many successes Cheney claimed were America's unappreciated bleesings to Iraqis, he said, "There have been three national elections in Iraq. There's a democracy established there, a constitution, a new democratically elected government. Saddam has been brought to justice and executed, his sons are dead, his government is gone. And the world is better off for it." All of this, of course, conveniently ignores the original rationale for the war, which was self defense. Remember those weapons of mass destruction? The rationale for the war shifted when the facts on the ground proved inconvenient. Throughout the war, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld have ignored facts on the ground when they proved inconvenient -- as they continue to do, now that Iraq is embroiled in a civil war. "Stuff happens," Rumsfeld said. All of this "stuff" is merely the work of "deadenders." The troika at the top have been loathe to admit the failure of their enterprise -- perhaps because to do so would be the equivalent of declaring moral bankruptcy.

Chuck Hagel has a completely different take on what is happening on the ground. In an interview in this month's GQ, Hagel says, "The administration likes to point to these bench marks -- the Iraqis wrote a constitution, they had an election, they elected a unity government. The administration takes great pride in saying, 'It's now a sovereign nation. They're in charge of their own affairs.' It's completely untrue but they say it anyway."

How does one account for such differing perspectives? The personal history of each man tells the story. Hagel is used to looking at war from the ground up -- from a place where it is hard to ignore facts. Hagel says, "When I got to Vietnam I was a rifleman. I was a private, about as low as you can get. So my frame of reference is very much geared to the guy at the bottom who's doing the fighting and dying. Jim Webb and I are the only ones in the Senate who had that experience." He does not disparage the experience of others, like John McCain or John Kerry. And he has "never doubted the motives of those who wanted to go to war so badly." The problem is that none of them had the experience of war, certainly not from the perspective of a rifleman: " . . . President Bush served a little time in the National Guard. Secretary Rice never served. Wolfowitz never served. Feith never served. Cheney had five deferments."

When asked about those five deferments at an earlier confirmation hearing, Cheney claimed that he had "other priorities at the time." When asked about a congressional resolution expressing opposition to the administration's plan to "surge" another 21,500 troops to Iraq, Cheney declared, "It won't stop us. And it would be, I think, detrimental from the standpoint of the troops." Hagell's take on the surge is straightforward: "I am not willing to sacrifice more young men and women for a policy that isn't working."

Cheney claims that people like Hagel and Webb don't have the "stomach" to finish the job. Given the bottom up experience of both senators -- both of whom were wounded in Vietnam -- it's not hard to understand the thinly veiled contempt they have for the vice president and his boss. And, when the President and Vice President question the patriotism of those who do not support their vision, it's easy to see why Dr. Johnson believed that patriotism is "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

Webster's by the way, defines scoundrel as "a mean worthless fellow."

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