Other People's Sacrifice

SYNOPSIS: Bush still won't own up to his mistakes in Iraq and, as with all of his mistakes, refuses to take responsibility for them and will make others suffer for them

In his Sunday speech President Bush made a call for unity: "We cannot let past differences interfere with present duties." He also spoke, in a way he hasn't before, about "sacrifice." Yet, as always, what he means by unity is that he should receive a blank check, and it turns out that what he means by sacrifice is sacrifice by other people.

It's now clear that the Iraq war was the mother of all bait-and-switch operations. Mr. Bush and his officials portrayed the invasion of Iraq as an urgent response to an imminent threat, and used war fever to win the midterm election. Then they insisted that the costs of occupation and reconstruction would be minimal, and used the initial glow of battlefield victory to push through yet another round of irresponsible tax cuts.

Now almost half the Army's combat strength is bogged down in a country that wasn't linked to Al Qaeda and apparently didn't have weapons of mass destruction, and Mr. Bush tells us that he needs another $87 billion, right away. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I (like many others) told you so. Back in February I asked, "Is this administration ready for the long, difficult, quite possibly bloody business of rebuilding Iraq?" The example of Afghanistan (where warlords rule most of the country, and the Taliban remember those guys? is resurgent) led me to doubt it. And I was, alas, right.

Surely the leader who brought us to this pass, and is now seeking a bailout, ought to make some major concessions as part of the deal. But it was clear from his speech that, as usual, he expects to take while others do all the giving.

The money is actually the least of it. Still, it provides a clear test case. If Mr. Bush had admitted from the start that the postwar occupation might cost this much, he would never have gotten that last tax cut. Now he says, "We will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary. . . ." What does he mean, "we"? Is he prepared to roll back some of those tax cuts, now that the costs of war loom so large? Is he even willing to stop urging Congress to make the 2001 tax cut permanent? Of course not.

Then there's the issue of foreign participation. The key question here is whether the Bush administration will swallow its pride and cede substantial control over the occupation to the U.N.. That's surely the price of a large contingent of foreign soldiers. Mr. Bush didn't address this issue directly, but he did say that he is seeking only one more multinational division, which suggests that he isn't going to make major concessions.

Yet as I understand it, one more division won't make much difference in the security situation. In particular, it will do little to alleviate the looming problem identified by the Congressional Budget Office: in March, the U.S. will have to start withdrawing most of its troops if it wants to maintain "acceptable levels of military readiness" in the Army as a whole.

Meanwhile, the administration is still counting on Iraq's receiving billions of dollars in aid from other countries. Unless the U.S. makes major concessions, forget about it.

But the most important concession Mr. Bush should make isn't about money or control it's about truth-telling. He squandered American credibility by selling a war of choice as a war of necessity; if he wants to get that credibility back, he has to start being candid.

Yet in the speech on Sunday he was still up to his usual tricks. Once again, he made a rhetorical link between the Iraq war and 9/11. This argument by innuendo reminds us why 69 percent of the public believes that Saddam was involved in 9/11, despite a complete absence of evidence. (There is, on the other hand, strong evidence of a Saudi link but the administration's handling of that evidence borders on a cover-up.) And rather than acknowledge that the search for W.M.D. has come up empty, he declared that Saddam "possessed and used weapons of mass destruction" 1991, 2003, what's the difference?

So will Congress give Mr. Bush the money he wants, no questions asked? It probably will, but it shouldn't. Mr. Bush created this crisis, and if he were a true patriot he would pay a political price to resolve it. Maybe it's time for him to do a couple of things he's never done before, like admitting mistakes and standing up to the hard right.

Originally published in The New York Times, 9.9.03