American Vanity

How many body bags will it take?

A week ago Sunday, 19 more young Americans died in Iraq serving the vanity of an American president who woefully betrayed them and who has no idea where his policies are taking the country.

As is now amply clear, this president has systematically lied to the troops and to the nation about the reasons for going to war, distorting evidence to claim that the United States was threatened by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Having led the country by the nose into a clumsy, ill-advised Middle East power grab, President Bush is faced with a terrible quandary: What do we do now?

The first thing is to resist the logic of the self-fulfilling prophecy: Bush claimed Iraq was a center of international terrorism — it wasn't — and now says that because terrorists are coming over Iraqi borders to take potshots at Americans, we need to stay and fight them.

"We won't run," Bush said, cavalierly dismissing the lives of the young soldiers mired in his folly. This amounts to using our young men and women as bait and assumes there are a finite number of fanatics who can be dispensed with once and for all.

In fact, the U.S. occupation of the historic center of the Arab world has provided Al Qaeda and other like-minded groups with their most effective recruiting poster yet, and we are fighting them on their terms and on their turf.

Meanwhile, attacks also are coming from various Iraqi quarters: those who enjoyed favors under Hussein and those who may have been glad to see the U.S. overthrow the tyrant but have since become alienated by an occupation that inevitably inspires nationalist as well as religious opposition.

Why can't we learn from our history in Vietnam and the experiences of the French in Algeria and the Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza that no occupation by an army of "the other" is ever welcome?

Only last week, Israel's army chief of staff issued a warning on the limits of an occupying power to achieve its goals through the exercise of military force. "It increases hatred for Israel and strengthens the terror organizations," Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon told Israeli reporters, adding: "In our tactical interests, we are operating contrary to our strategic interests."

Some pundits and politicians, even those who may have been skeptical about the war to begin with, now argue that we must "finish the job," even if it means increasing our commitment of troops or ruling Iraq indefinitely. This is exactly the kind of stubborn and mushy thinking that led us into the hell of the Vietnam War and the deaths of 58,000 Americans and more than 2-million Vietnamese and Cambodians.

The occupation of Iraq is not working and will not work. For Iraqis, our culture is offensive and our tactics heavy-handed. As none other than the American-sponsored Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi put it after the latest guerrilla attacks: "The Americans, their methods, their operations and their procedures are singularly unsuited to deal with this kind of problem."

And U.S. intentions in Iraq are far from clear. Though there may be an echo of "white man's burden" that seeks to export "civilization," even that highly questionable goal is clouded and undermined by the fact that Washington inevitably will put a higher priority on having a new Iraq serve the U.S.'s superpower needs — oil, commerce, military power — rather than meet the needs of regular Iraqis.

Unless we are willing to trade the lives of U.S. troops and Iraqis for the obsessions of empire, we must end the occupation now.

The U.S. can give Chalabi and his crowd the money they need to operate in the short run and similarly aid the more established Shiite groups. It can beg the United Nations Security Council to take over this mess, with financial support from the U.S., and smooth the transfer of power enough to let the president save face by declaring the mission a victory.

Such a wise reversal of course might even help Bush get reelected — his poll numbers on Iraq are sinking. If he can back off from the edge of the cliff to which his hyper-aggressive foreign policy has taken us, the public might be conned into giving him another term. Personally, I think the president should be impeached for his lies. But more important, he should redeem himself by coming to his senses and ending the carnage and instability he has wrought in Iraq and the world.

Robert Scheer is the coauthor of The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq, to be published this month by

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