We were warned there would be no ticker-tape parade, no soldiers kissing nurses in Times Square, no spoils of war.
What we got was a president so somber and worn, it looked as if he needed a good rest, even though he just got back from one.
No amount of rest could have made it more palatable to announce the end of what began as shock and awe, but then turned shockingly awful. More than 4,400 American lives lost in Iraq so far, more than $700 billion spent, and what do we have to show for it?
Yes, Saddam Hussein and his murderous sons are gone, Iraqis have held up fingers stained purple to indicate they’ve voted, and there’s a hospital here, a school there. But we didn’t leave behind a functioning government.
Barack Obama’s Oval Office address Tuesday evening prompted American television networks to air daylong retrospectives on the war. It remains painful to watch snippets of bravado from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as they insisted, contrary to reports from arms inspectors on the ground, that our choices were an invasion of Iraq or mushroom clouds caused by Iraq.
One piece of video starred a leader with an icy soul.
At a formal Washington dinner in March 2004 -- by which time some 600 Americans had died in Operation Iraqi Freedom -- a jocular, tuxedo-clad Bush narrated a slide show that must have had sides splitting during rehearsals at the White House.
He cracked up his audience -- including, shamefully enough, members of the television and radio news organizations that hosted the event -- with pictures of himself searching the Oval Office for weapons of mass destruction.
“Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” he drolly remarked. “Nope, no weapons over there. Maybe under here?”
That’s about as funny as remembering the credible reports that the Bush team was intent on invading Iraq even before the 9/11 attacks that made us all so fearful of terrorists getting their hands on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
Republicans were up in arms that Obama kissed off Bush’s role with a brief, nothing-burger mention -- “no one can doubt President Bush’s support for our troops or his love of country,” he said -- and didn’t give him credit for the surge of American troops in 2007. But there would have been no surge had there been no decision to go to war in the first place. You don’t get credit for improvements made necessary by catastrophes you create.
I found myself wondering why Obama had asked for our time and attention, especially in primetime. That was before he turned his time and attention to the economy, stupid.
“Our most urgent task,” he said, “is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs back to work.”
Obama had reason to connect Iraq and the U.S. economy in the same speech. Unchecked risk-taking, greed and a housing bubble caused the economy to crash, but diverting wheelbarrows of money into Baghdad did not help. After our rebuilding efforts, I wonder how much worse Baghdad’s infrastructure is than Detroit’s.
It took Obama to end Bush’s war. It’s difficult to imagine the conditions under which Bush would have called it a day.
War blinds presidents. If you doubt that, go see the brilliant documentary, “The Tillman Story.”
The film takes us back to the heady days for Bush when Pat Tillman, a talented and hard-charging National Football League defender, traded in his football uniform and enlisted in the U.S. Army after the 9/11 attacks. He became an Army Ranger and fought in Iraq, then in Afghanistan.
It was in Afghanistan in April 2004 that Tillman was gunned down in a hail of bullets, by his own comrades, in a raid gone horribly wrong.
That awful end didn’t fit the rosy propaganda the Bush administration was peddling, so from General Stanley McChrystal on down to the grunts who burned Tillman’s uniform and other evidence, a fantasy was crafted, one that didn’t include the grim reality of friendly fire.
The administration blithely assumed Tillman’s family would meekly, perhaps gratefully, stand for a horrible series of official lies. They didn’t.
Friendly fire is an inevitable problem in war. Lying about it isn’t. What the Tillman story tells us is that modern war is uglier still, the same old mistakes compounded by a big spin machine to cover up the messes, Ivy League posts for retired generals and no parades for the grunts.
When you start a war with such a big lie, the others you’re tempted to tell seem smaller and get easier.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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