Falsehoods and the Iraq War

Two political conservatives recently had a lot to say about Iraq. The first was Rep. John Murtha, a conservative Democrat and decorated Vietnam War Marine veteran who has served on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee for three decades. He has supported every U.S. war, and he has been one of most hawkish advocates of the war in Iraq, until now. Murtha created a political earthquake when he called for the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq. His words were prophetic in a town usually devoid of prophetic utterances. “It’s a flawed policy wrapped in illusion,” he said. “The future of our country is at risk.”

The speech was a shock to Republicans and Democrats alike, and from one of the last people the anti-war movement would have expected to speak out. But that’s just the point. Murtha’s impassioned plea wasn’t a political statement at all. It was more a cry of agony, born of grief for the sufferings of American soldiers and their families in a brutal war that seems to have no end.

Rep. Murtha frequently visits wounded soldiers, often at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the families of dead American servicemen and women in his home district. He has seen too many broken bodies and lives, too many severed limbs and maimed futures, and too many spouses and children who have lost their beloved partners and needed parents. Thirteen soldiers from his congressional district in southwestern Pennsylvania have died.

Murtha has also been to Iraq and seen how the American occupation has become more the catalyst than the solution to a violent and bloody insurgency. He has seen the truth in Iraq—the warring factions are engaged in a civil war that the occupation is only making worse. Military leaders talk to Murtha, who is extremely well-connected at the Pentagon and with the military in the field. They give him a much grimmer picture of the prospects for success in Iraq than the political (and mostly civilian) architects of the war who repeat tired mantras about “staying the course.”

Murtha was criticized for not having a “plan” for American withdrawal. But that also misses the point. He wasn’t offering a detailed plan, just an appeal for a fundamental change of American policy. And the Democrats, instead of distancing themselves from Murtha’s call for withdrawal, should offer a plan.

A plan for the successful withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq needs three key elements. First, the United States must disavow any plans for permanent military bases and promise to close the bases already built. Second, the United States must give up preferential treatment for American companies in the reconstruction, while continuing necessary and appropriate American aid, allowing the new Iraqi government to make its own decisions about who will rebuild their country. Third, the United States must give up any proprietary interests in Iraq oil profits.

The Bush administration would need to be content with having removed Saddam Hussein from power, which it now claims was the real goal of the invasion. It would have to give up the control over Iraq that the neoconservatives who run American foreign policy have long desired—despite the administration’s rhetoric about democracy.

If the administration were to make those clear disclaimers and disavowals, it would finally open up the situation for genuine international participation in securing Iraq’s security and reconstruction. Only that kind of international involvement will ultimately achieve security and stability in Iraq and eventually end the costly insurgency.

One of the grand architects of an American empire in Iraq and the Middle East is another political conservative, Vice President Dick Cheney. Two days before Murtha’s speech, Cheney attacked war opponents, saying that those who claim the administration had manipulated intelligence are making “one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city.” The vice president has been relentless in attacking critics who accuse the administration of being selective or manipulative with prewar intelligence as “opportunists” using “cynical and pernicious falsehoods.” When asked to respond to Cheney’s attacks, Murtha shot back that he wasn’t going to be lectured by people who obtained several deferments instead of serving in the military themselves.

While Cheney now accuses war opponents of “falsehoods,” the fact remains that the major justifications he and others used to lead America into war were based on a series of untruths. They said that Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons constituted an imminent threat. That wasn’t true. They said that Iraq was reconstructing its nuclear weapons program. In August 2002, Cheney declared, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” That wasn’t true. They suggested a vital link between Iraq and the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, when there was never any evidence of that. It wasn’t true.

Were all these allegations, made with such utter confidence, just a mistake or were they deliberately misleading? Did intelligent men such as Dick Cheney really think all their false statements were true, or were they indeed “lying” to the American people to lead us into war? George W. Bush admits almost cavalierly that he doesn’t read very much, and perhaps he didn’t personally examine all the intelligence carefully enough to know the case for war wasn’t true. But that can’t be said of his inner circle—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others—who decisively shaped the Iraq war policy. Several reliable accounts now suggest that they were busy creating the momentum for war even before Sept. 11.

Vice President Cheney has a serious moral problem with truth-telling. And his political vitriol against the dissent of his fellow Americans should not obscure his responsibility for helping to lead America into war based on false pretenses.

The architects of the war now bear the responsibility for its tragic human cost in American and Iraqi lives, and they should be held accountable. I invite Dick Cheney to turn his attacks on the many religious leaders who, from the outset, said this was a war of choice, not necessity, and that it failed to meet the criteria of a just war. We said the evidence did not support the decision to go to war, and we stand by that theological and political judgment. And if the vice president would like to debate religious leaders about the moral obligations of truth-telling, we would be quite happy to oblige. n

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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