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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Challenging the Myths of Iraq

Forty-three years ago today, on June 11, 1962, President John F. Kennedy addressed the graduating class of the Yale University. In his speech he said:

For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest--but the myth--persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

At this moment in our country’s history, it is appropriate—indeed, necessary—to reflect on the wisdom of his words. Recently, the secret “Downing Street memo” has proven what many Americans long suspected and what a few former Bush administration insiders (Dick Clarke and Paul O’Neill) have been publicly saying: President Bush—contrary to pronouncements to the American public suggesting otherwise—“had made up his mind to take military action” against Iraq as early as July 2002 and then worked to make sure “the intelligence and facts were being fixed” around this controversial policy.

The president’s “deliberate, contrived and dishonest” comments about his desire to wage war deserve to be treated as “a great enemy of truth” by both Congress and the American public. However, it is not enough to simply hold President Bush accountable for his blatant disregard for the truth. We, as citizens, must also take to heart the second part of President Kennedy’s prescient advice and challenge the many myths that still shroud our policy in Iraq because they are just as insidious—if not more so—than the president’s deliberate lies.

Two myths are especially troubling. The first is that we sought to overthrow Saddam Hussein to establish a democracy in Iraq. The second is that this war is making the world and America a safer place.

To the first myth, I will accept that America is now struggling to establish a democracy in Iraq (and would go even further and acknowledge that we have a responsibility to help the Iraqi people achieve a viable form of self government); but it is sheer hypocrisy to retroactively state that it was our intention all along to establish a democracy. No amount of public posturing, patriotic speech-making or partisan spinning can free us from the fact that we invaded Iraq on the false grounds that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction.

We now know that he did not. Let us have the courage to admit it. Contrary to the opinion of some, our willingness to take a critical look at ourselves and our motives does not make us weaker, it makes us stronger.

Also, the fact that we have fought just and honorable wars in the past and “made the world safe for democracy” does not mean that this war can be made to fit within those same noble notions. As Kennedy reminds us, too “often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears.” The current war in Iraq is not comparable to World War II and it is disingenuous for supporters to suggest otherwise.

The second myth is even more dangerous and will undoubtedly cause a deal of “discomfort” among many supporters of the war who refuse to be shaken from the “comfort of their opinion” and it is the myth that this war is making the world and America more secure.

It is not.

Every time we kill an innocent man, woman or child or falsely imprison one, we gravely wound our future security by fostering an environment that breeds new enemies. And every dollar we spend prosecuting the war in Iraq is another dollar not invested in creating a brighter, more secure future for our own citizens.

Just imagine if instead of spending $200 billion to fight this unnecessary war, Bush had invested a fraction of that money to develop home-grown alternative fuels and instituted a bold energy policy to wean ourselves off of our costly addiction to foreign oil and help extricate ourselves from having to maintain such a large military presence in the Middle East.

Alternatively, imagine for a comparable investment how much more secure our ports, cities, nuclear power plants and food supplies would be from the very real dangers of a possible chemical or biological terrorist attack. Or, better still, imagine how much stronger we would be if the same amount of time, money and human capital we are now spending in Iraq were dedicated to improving our own education, health care and our transportation systems.

To paraphrase another wonderful quote from President Kennedy, it is time for all of us to start asking “what we can do for our country.” And as he reminded us more than four decades ago in his speech at Yale, one simple way we can do that is by challenging our own “comfort of opinion”—as well as those of leaders—and start engaging in the “discomfort of thought” about our current policy in Iraq.