How will history treat the war

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 19, 2005

After a newspaper ran Mark Twain’s obituary, the story goes, he protested that the reports of his death had been “greatly exaggerated”; so, too, the media accounts of an emerging national consensus against the War in Iraq are considerably at variance with what Americans are actually thinking.

The most recent Fox News poll, completed Nov. 30, suggests that while half of Americans would like to see a schedule for withdrawal of U.S. troops, a majority feel the war has done good things – and a larger majority feel that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when Bush told us there were.

By 52 percent to 27 percent, Americans believe that “the world would be worse off if the U.S. military had not taken action in Iraq and Saddam Hussein were still in power.” By 59-20, they feel Iraq would’ve been worse off if we hadn’t acted.

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Asked what they believe about WMDs in Iraq, 61 percent said there were still such weapons there or that there had been WMDs in the country but that they were destroyed or moved. Only 28 percent agree that Iraq had no WMDs.

These data show that Americans are still largely in sympathy with our objectives in Iraq and accepting of our reasons for entering the war – two good reasons for the Democrats not to overplay their hand in opposing it.

The irony of this war is that the normal definitions of words do not really apply. Success, for example, does not mean military victory on the battlefield, but a political victory in creating a stable, democratic, elected government in Iraq that can wage its own war and protect itself against terrorists. For America, “peace” does not mean the end of fighting, it just means that an Iraqi government will be battling its own terrorists with less and less American intervention or support.

Similarly, “defeat” does not mean that the terrorists prevail militarily – but that they force a political decision to withdraw American troops before the Iraqi government and military can take over the task of self-defense.

Even the political interface with the military operations is not what it appears to be. President Bush has been re-elected commander-in-chief for the next three years. No congressional majority will ever muster the gravitas to cut off funding for the war. Our troops are there to stay as long as he wants them to. With his apparent resolve, there is no real likelihood that we will be “defeated” in Iraq. We really won’t leave until the job is done. Obviously, in three years, 80 percent of Iraq can figure out how to govern, conciliate, rule and, if necessary, suppress the other 20 percent.

But the war will erode Bush’s popularity every day that it continues to rage and Americans die. There is no way around this central fact of our political life. No spinning, Iraqi elections or presidential speeches can do much to alter it. Bush will probably leave office with much diminished popularity and the Democrats will probably make large gains in the elections of 2006 and 2008 because of the cost of the war in Iraq.

Will the war have been worth it? Probably. Iraq will likely emerge as a key regional ally. And the demonstration of American resolve will hugely boost chances for a comprehensive deal between Israel and the Palestinians. North Korea is sounding more intimidated every month. The global coalition against Iran and Syria is forged in the wake of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s commitment to multilateralism in the shadow of Bush’s willingness to go it alone if Europe won’t move ahead.

How will history treat it all? As George Bernard Shaw put it in “The Devil’s Disciple,” “History, sir, will tell lies as usual.”

-Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years.