Promises to Keep
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The presidential election of 2004 is finally upon us. After a thousand days of fear, doubt, anger and set-jawed patriotism in the face of everything we as a nation have been forced to deal with, we are down to a single week in which to consider our place and position, a single week to decide where we go from here, a single week to remember where we have been.
John Adams once said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Today in America, politics has become a bloodsport where wishes, inclinations and passions lead us to attack those we disagree with as fools, as dangerous, as less than patriots. Both sides of the political aisle are guilty of recrimination and hyperexaggeration; debate, these days, is done at top voice, a means to shout your opponent down. It is a lessening of us all.
More than 1,100 flag-draped symbolic coffins line the reflecting pool at the base of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2004 in Washington. The tribute is in honor of the American service men and women who have been killed in Iraq to date. In the background is the Washington Monument.
Yet the stubborn facts and evidence remain, and no amount of red-faced bellowing by partisans and paid operatives can change their nature. The following facts are addressed to the fence-sitters, to the undecided voters, to the independent voters, to those who have come to see voting as a waste of time, and to the millions upon millions of Republicans in America who are of good conscience, who voted for George W. Bush four years ago and wonder now at the wisdom of their choice.
These are the facts.
George W. Bush and the members of his administration told us, beginning in September of 2002, that the nation of Iraq was a grave and growing threat to the security of the American people. We were told by this administration that Iraq was in possession of vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, that they were vigorously pursuing a nuclear weapon, and that they enjoyed operational connections with the al Qaeda terrorist network.
The implications were clear: Saddam Hussein would be more than happy to deliver these horrible weapons to the same terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11. "It would take just one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country," said Bush in his January 2003 State of the Union address, "to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known." Bush, in that same speech, went on to specify the exact volume of weapons in Iraq which were demanding invasion: 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agents – 500 tons equals 1,000,000 pounds – plus nearly 30,000 munitions to deliver these agents, and additionally, a plan to seek uranium from Niger for use in the production of nuclear weapons. If you doubt these facts, please reference the White House website. Their page describing these horrors is still there.
Now, of course, we know better. The American weapons inspection team sent to Iraq by the Bush administration itself – 1,625 inspectors investigating 1,700 suspected weapons sites over two years at a cost of $1 billion – came up completely empty. There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there have been no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq since the UN inspections of the mid-1990s, Hussein had no concrete plans to make any weapons of mass destruction, and even if he did, the facilities needed to create such weapons were no longer operational in any way, shape or form. Bush's threat of a "day of horror like none we have ever known" because of these Iraqi weapons was revealed to be devoid of substance.
The push to invade and occupy Iraq was so strong that it overwhelmed other, more pressing matters. The war in Afghanistan remains unfinished to this day because the Bush administration removed vital American military forces from that nation and sent them to fight in Iraq. Because of that decision, the warlords in Afghanistan are powerful again. Because of that decision, opium production in Afghanistan is booming. Because of that decision, Osama bin Laden is still alive and free.
As the occupation of Iraq ground on, as the promises that we would be greeted as liberators were rendered hollow by a steadily rising death toll among our soldiers and their civilians, the rationale for war proffered by the Bush administration began to drift. It wasn't about weapons of mass destruction anymore. It was about bringing freedom and democracy, and about bringing hope to a beleaguered populace that had lived long under a tyrant.
Leave aside the long argument about the efficacy of bringing democracy by the point of a sword, leave aside the reality that nothing approximating democracy is going to take root in Iraq while an American-installed government with no credibility among the Iraqi people sits in power, and leave aside the reality that no kind of true democratic election is going to take place in Iraq because large swaths of that nation are beyond the control of any government, are still at war with the American army, and will never see a ballot.
The fact remains that bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq was not the reason given to the American people for why war was necessary, and necessary now. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we were made to feel fear because Saddam Hussein was going to give his weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, and they were going to use those weapons against us.
Millions of people in America did not go out and buy plastic sheeting and duct tape to support democracy and freedom in Iraq. Millions of Americans bought plastic sheeting and duct tape because their government terrified them into believing a poison cloud would envelop them and their families at any moment.
It comes down to this. George W. Bush and his administration desired a reckoning with Saddam Hussein from the moment they took office. Powerful administration officials like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz had been advocating for an invasion and occupation of Iraq for many years, well before they ever took office. They used the fear and uncertainty that came after Sept. 11 to arrange that reckoning. They used Sept. 11 against their own people, against us all, deliberately and with intent.
Three new terms have entered the American political lexicon in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq: Abu Ghraib, Valerie Plame and transfer tube.
Abu Ghraib is, of course, the chamber of horrors well-known to the American people by now. Under the instruction of American soldiers and private military contractors, innocent Iraqi civilians were tortured, raped and murdered in the prison once used by Saddam Hussein for the same purposes. Photographs of these degradations were broadcast far and wide, delivering a crippling blow to the reputation of the United States.
The investigations which followed these revelations have revealed that such abuses were not relegated solely to Abu Ghraib, but had taken place in military detention facilities from Afghanistan to Cuba. Forty-five troops have been recommended for court martial, and some 23 others face summary discharge. Yet the officers who ordered or allowed all this to take place have thus far escaped any serious censure. The civilian leaders in Washington, whose lawyers argued that torture isn't really torture and is therefore acceptable in war, bear as much of the burden of responsibility for this as the soldiers who put the policy to living flesh. They, too, have not been called to account.
Where does the awful reality of Abu Ghraib fit into the global puzzle that is this war on terror? Philip Carter, writing for Washington Monthly, said it best. "America suffered a huge defeat the moment those photographs became public," writes Carter. "Copies of them are now sold in souks from Marrakesh to Jakarta, vivid illustrations of the worst suspicions of the Arab world: that Americans are corrupt and power-mad, eager to humiliate Muslims and mock their values. The acts they document have helped to energize the insurgency in Iraq, undermining our rule there and magnifying the risks faced by our soldiers each day. If Osama bin Laden had hired a Madison Avenue public relations firm to rally Arabs' hearts and minds to his cause, it's hard to imagine that it could have devised a better propaganda campaign."
If the story of Abu Ghraib strikes at the heart of our reputation worldwide, the story of Valerie Plame reaches into the guts of our ability to defend ourselves at home. Plame was a deep-cover CIA agent running a network dedicated to tracking any person, nation or group that would give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was dispatched in February of 2002 to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was seeking uranium there for use in a nuclear weapons program. Wilson returned from Niger after a diligent investigation and reported to the CIA, the office of the National Security Advisor, the State Department and the office of Vice President Cheney that the claims had no merit whatsoever.
In January of 2003, during the same State of the Union speech in which he spoke of that "day of horror" and described Iraq's weapons by the numbers, Bush used the debunked Niger uranium claim as further evidence that the invasion of Iraq was an absolute imperative. Wilson, in July of 2003, exploded the administration's Niger-uranium claim in a detailed editorial in the New York Times. Days later, his wife Valerie Plame was exposed to several reporters as a deep-cover agent by operatives for the White House. Plame's operations against those who would give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists were wrecked. Her intelligence network was destroyed. The front company she worked out of, Brewster Jennings & Associates, was likewise exposed, a fact that had the corollary effect of ruining the operations and networks of any other agents working under the cover of that office.
The White House agents who blew Plame's cover did so for one reason, and one reason alone: To intimidate and silence any government analysts or whistleblowers who might go to the press and contradict the Bush administration's carefully crafted story line about the threat posed by Iraq. A number of people had come forward before Wilson wrote his article, but few came after Plame was attacked. It is one thing to put yourself at risk by taking on the Bush administration, but it is another thing entirely to be shown that the decision to do so puts your family in the line of fire.
Beyond the fact that our capacity to track and interdict the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists was damaged by the outing of Valerie Plame – and isn't that the reason we went to war in Iraq in the first place? – there is the damage done to our overall capacity to watch a world filled with threats. The Bush administration ignored the data and warnings coming from the American intelligence community before the war, because that data did not fit the decision for war which had already been made, and then scapegoated the intelligence community after their story line did not match reality. The attack upon Valerie Plame is but one example of the administration's dangerous misuse and abuse of our intelligence services. Today, the CIA is at war with the White House because of this. In no way does this deplorable situation heighten our security here at home.
Finally, there are the transfer tubes. One thousand one hundred and six transfer tubes have been put to use by the American military since the invasion of Iraq was undertaken 17 months ago. You may not have heard of these things, because the Bush administration has forbidden the press from taking pictures of them. The term itself is a bland Pentagon-created euphemism. Once upon a time, "transfer tubes" were called coffins.
It has been widely reported since Monday that almost 400 tons of high explosives disappeared from a storage facility in Iraq called al Qaqaa. The International Atomic Energy Agency voiced public warnings about the danger of these explosives before the war, and after the invasion specifically told United States officials about the need to keep the explosives secured. These warnings went unheeded; American soldiers were used to guard petroleum facilities after the invasion, and were used to tear down statues in politically helpful photo-opportunities in Baghdad. The explosives were left unprotected.
How much of the stuff has been used in the last 17 months to kill American troops? How many of the 1,106 are dead because of a decision to ignore the al Qaqaa facility? Because of the woeful ineptitude of the Bush administration in managing the occupation and in guarding the borders of Iraq, that country has become the terrorist haven it never was before March of 2003. How much of this missing material has fallen into the hands of people who would use it to explode airplanes and buildings, along with American soldiers in convoys and military bases?
When a man or woman raises their right hand and swears the oath, when they don the uniform of the United States military and take up arms in the common defense of us all, they are promising to give their lives. They stand and deliver, and the honor and nobility of their service goes beyond description. The only promise they expect in return is that their lives will not be spent by their leaders for anything less than the greatest need.
That promise has not been kept by George W. Bush and his administration. The failure to secure the al Qaqaa facility is but one example of this. Some have argued that 1,106 dead American soldiers in Iraq is a paltry number compared to the death toll absorbed by American troops in places like Normandy and Iwo Jima. Some have argued that, compared to annual murder rates in places like Detroit and Los Angeles, 1,106 dead American soldiers is statistically insignificant.
One American soldier sent home to his family in a transfer tube after dying in an unnecessary and mismanaged war is exactly one American soldier too many. No manipulation of statistics can alter this last, heartbreaking, stubborn fact. If nothing else touches you, if the missing weapons of mass destruction and the deliberate use of fear and the shame of Abu Ghraib and the abuse of our intelligence services and the re-creation of Iraq into a terrorist stronghold does not touch you, if the fact that all of this combined has birthed a world where we are all far less safe does not move you, remember that promise.
They made it. We must keep it.