The day after the first 9/11 anniversary, on September 12, 2002, George W. Bush addressed the United Nations and served up one fiction after another about why Iraq, not al Qaeda, was America's most important enemy. "al Qaeda terrorists escaped from Afghanistan and are known to be in Iraq," said Bush. He assured the world that Iraq has "failed to account for more than three metric tons of material that could be used to produce biological weapons," and "retains physical infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon."
Also on September 11, 2002, citizens in communities across the nation, including Chapel Hill, were speaking out against the rush to war. Sensible voices cautioned not to let the urge to avenge 9/11 blind us to the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.
We were warned that an unprovoked war would enrich defense contractors like Halliburton, could help multinational oil companies get their hooks into the world's second largest proven oil reserves, and might boost Bush's re-election chances in 2004. But it wouldn't help America in the long run.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration's crusade to take the country into war in Iraq was on a fast track. Secretary of State Colin Powell would go on TV a few days later, September 15, to help make Bush's case against Iraq.
Appearing on NBC's Meet The Press, he asserted that "Iraq does present a danger," referred to Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction activities," and said the threat the U.S. faced was that Saddam Hussein would continue "enhancing his ability to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction."
The 2002 mid-term congressional campaigns were heating up, and the timing of Bush's push to war was seen by many observers as an especially transparent attempt to boost support for Republican candidates. In Georgia, Democratic U.S. Senator and triple amputee Vietnam war hero Max Cleland would be defeated for re-election that fall by a Republican campaign that questioned his national security record, including ads featuring pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.
Five years later, the war drags on with no end in sight. We've seen more than 3,700 U.S. soldiers needlessly killed and nearly 28,000 wounded, according to the Pentagon's official figures. America has poured almost half a trillion dollars down the drain, only to end up less safe today than we were before the war started.
North Carolina's communities have borne their share of Iraq's casualties. Last Thursday, Chapel Hill native Army sergeant Lee C. Wilson became the latest N.C. servicemember to die in Iraq, killed when a bomb exploded near his vehicle during combat in Mosul. The 30 year-old had enlisted in 2001, was on a mind-boggling fourth deployment, and due to return home in December. When contacted by reporters, his father said, "We always talked about what we were going to do when he got out. He didn't want to be there."
Bush has destroyed Iraq while supposedly trying to liberate it, and thrown the Middle East into turmoil in the process. The bungled U.S. occupation has turned out to be the greatest recruiting tool al Qaeda could have hoped for. Iraq has become a shooting gallery where a new generation of terrorists are honing their skills using our troops as sitting duck targets.
And the Sept. 11 mastermind, Osama Bin Laden? Last week he released another propaganda video, implicitly taunting the United States for having failed to capture him, referring to events so recent it erased any doubt he was still alive.
Another 9/11 anniversary wouldn't be complete without another well-timed push to rally the nation around the flag in support of the Iraq fiasco. This time, it's Gen. David Petraeus who's shilling for Bush, having delivered his Sept. 10 report to Congress on how this year's "surge" in troops is coming along.
Despite his history of exaggerating progress in Iraq, most notably in a Washington Post op-ed published six weeks before the 2004 elections, Petraeus is Bush's last hope as a salesman for staying the course. There's nobody else left in his administration with any credibility. Meanwhile, more and more nervous Republicans are peeling away over Iraq, realizing voters are fed up with the war and want the troops to come home.
Unless the Republican Party wants to suffer more congressional losses in '08, and probably elect a Democratic President, it's far past time for Bush to declare victory in Iraq and leave. There's always a chance this message has finally gotten through Bush's thick skull, and true, he has been recently hinting at troop reductions. Yet considering his stated desire to hand Iraq over to his successor, any cutbacks in U.S. forces are likely to turn out to be a shell game, taking troop numbers down only to pre-surge levels.
As long as he's in the White House, the Decider will determine whether and how fast we extricate ourselves from Iraq. Forget about what the citizens want, forget about what military officials more candid than Petraeus advise, and forget about what's in the best interest of the United States. Bush will continue playing with our soldiers' lives until his term runs out. But he's wrong to think one more Sept. 11 snow job will salvage his tattered political legacy.