By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
July 01, 2005
This week on prime-time television, 28 months later, Bush said: "Our mission in Iraq is clear. We are hunting down the terrorists. We are helping Iraqis build a free nation that is an ally in the war on terror. We are advancing freedom in the broader Middle East."
To some, the change of words constitutes an inexcusable about-face. To others, the words are two ways of saying the same thing.
It is that disagreement, as Bush embarks on an effort to rally the country behind his Iraq policy, that lies at the heart of the nation's division on the war.
Opponents say Bush has manufactured scores of excuses to justify a war that was based on bad intelligence at best and outright lies at worst.
At various times over the past three years, Bush told the American people that war was necessary because Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, because he was developing a program to develop nuclear weapons, because he had oppressed his own people, because he violated U.N. charters, because he possessed "weapon-making capabilities," because Iraq was a breeding ground for terrorists and because Iraq was a grave threat to the United States and the rest of the world.
In Tuesday's speech, critics saw the latest incarnation of what they believe is a policy in search of a justification.
Bush hardly mentioned the overthrown Iraqi president, who has been in captivity for a year and a half, and made not even a fleeting reference to weapons of mass destruction, which have never been discovered. Instead, he portrayed the fight as part of a larger "war on terror," which critics say is being waged in Iraq only as a consequence of Bush's policy. Ironically, the terrorists who pose the greatest threats to Americans had only marginal connections to Iraq prior to the war.
"This has become a self-fulfilling prophecy," said P.J. Crowley, a staff member of President Bill Clinton's National Security Council and now a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.
"The rationale that he (Bush) used for going to Iraq two years ago has been discredited. Saddam Hussein did not threaten us as much as he said he did, there were no weapons of mass destruction and there are no meaningful ties between Iraq and terrorists," Crowley said.
On the eve of the war in March 2003, Bush assured a national television audience that "the terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed."
On Tuesday, Bush quoted Osama bin Laden's warning that a " 'Third World War ... is raging,' " and the president told Americans that "we fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens _ and Iraq is where they are making their stand."
Even Bush supporters acknowledge his 2-year-old warnings about the threat of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction make less sense today, though they cling to the notion that Iraq had the ingredients and the intent to inflict damage on the United States and its allies. In a larger sense, they say Bush's explanations _ while they may have evolved over the two-plus years of war _ still come from the same admirable instinct to defeat terrorists and protect America.
"The rationales may be different, but they are not inconsistent," Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said of Bush's explanations for war.
May said that evoking Sept. 11, as Bush did five times Tuesday night, is not the same as blaming Iraq or Hussein for the attacks.
"Surely, there are lessons to be learned from Sept. 11," May said. Among the lessons is that the United States did not take seriously enough warnings about the threat of bin Laden as he established a base in Afghanistan. It is a mistake that Bush was determined not to repeat in Iraq.
"The U.S. has not always responded seriously when people said they wanted to kill us. One of the simple lessons of Sept. 11 is that we don't wait for terrorists who say they are going to kill us to do something and then punish them. We take them to war," May said.
It is rare, though not unheard of, for commanders to shift war rationale as battles rage. President Lyndon Johnson was steadfast in warning of the peril of the communist advance into South Vietnam, as President Franklin Roosevelt consistently spoke of stopping fascism. Yet President Abraham Lincoln initially fought the Civil War to save the union, a rationale which evolved by the war's end into abolishing slavery.
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