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COLUMN

Blown Leads on Capitol Hill

Vivek Rao

Red Sox and Cubs fans, take heart. You aren’t the only ones blowing seemingly insurmountable leads these days. In fact, you have rather prestigious (and I use the term loosely) company.

During the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush, whose retaliation efforts in Afghanistan were rallying the masses, enjoyed a staggering approval rating of somewhere around 90 percent. This past month, that number had fallen precipitously back to earth, as about half of American voters expressed their displeasure with the president, with more soon to follow after the recent wave of attacks on soldiers in Iraq.

So how did the man do it? Sure, the public is fickle, but it’s simply not that fickle. It takes skill, or rather, a staggering lack of skill, to squander a position this favorable, especially in the climate of extreme “patriotism” and jingoism that has been Bush’s one crutch throughout his term. But the slick Texan managed to pull it off. Unlike baseball’s most accursed teams, however, Bush hasn’t been unlucky; he has earned his downfall through an avalanche of lies, propaganda, and greed that may eventually form one of the worst scars on this country’s conscience.

Let’s rewind back to earlier this year; the hubbub over the campaign in Afghanistan having subsided, the focus of the American people, and more importantly, the American media, started to shift back home, with more and more attention paid to the failing economy. If there’s one thing that can offset the increased popularity a leader gains via a successful military campaign, it’s a troubled economy, and Bush -- remember, he’s not stupid, just inept -- realized this.

Like any smart leader would do, Bush cooked up a war. Just as Bill Clinton had opportunely raided Iraq during the Monica Lewinsky debacle, Bush fortuitously discovered Iraq to be a monumental threat to United States security, capable of raining its suddenly potent nuclear arsenal down on New York and Washington and Los Angeles. He determined irrefutable ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, with over half the American population believing that the Iraqi dictator had a significant hand in 9/11.

Not surprisingly, the public took their president’s words at face value. After all, it isn’t too difficult to convince a nation terrified of terror that a bitter enemy is up to no good, and that the government has stores of evidence to prove it.

So we went in, and despite a hitch here and a setback there, we stormed into Baghdad, kicked out the Hussein regime, and went about establishing a new oil colony, ready to be exploited by Dick Cheney’s longtime bedfellow, Halliburton.

A funny thing happened after that, though. With the entire country at our disposal, we sent in a massive team, with 1,400 specialists carefully scrutinizing the Iraqi countryside for half a year, searching for those elusive weapons of mass destruction. Now, no matter what Bush and his cronies would have you believe, evidence of Saddam’s WMDs are absolutely crucial.

You don’t just invade countries because your approval rates are falling, or because you don’t like their leaders, or because you think their people would be more happy under the regime you want for them, or because your “former” company could really profit from a massive overseas oil contract, or because big business might reap some big benefits. I am of the opinion that you shouldn’t invade a country under the pretext that it might attack you, but that happened to be the Bush administration’s justification. If that’s the case, then at the very least, Iraq had better been at least capable of producing an attack worth fearing. It’s looking more and more like it wasn’t. It appears as though Iraqi researchers may not have even been investigating WMDs since the early 1990s. Numerous buildings suggested by leading military men like Colin Powell to be arms stores or weapons production facilities have turned out to be civilian constructions. Chemicals thought to be related to vicious weaponry or bioterrorism have eventually been identified as innocuous. Lots of smoke and many mirrors, but little, if any, hard evidence of a threat.

Bush and his advisers knew they didn’t have much of a concrete reason for storming Iraq, but they did accurately see the potential benefits to such a war. Establishing control in Saddam’s domain would convince the American people of increased international security, inject some much needed energy into the sagging economy, and revive the patriotism and conformation to the president’s views for the good of the nation that had so impressively skyrocketed Bush’s popularity following 9/11 and during the war in Afghanistan.

So we waged an unjust war, its justification steeped in mystery. We lost favor in the eyes of the international community. We spent billions of dollars that could have gone to end hunger in the United States or alleviate medical costs for those who can’t afford them or protect an environment that has been thoroughly neglected by the Bush administration. We killed anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Iraqi civilians, depending on which estimates you believe. We lost over 100 soldiers of our own.

The ironic side to all of this is that everything I’ve described so far is not actually why Bush’s approval ratings have fallen so stunningly. Instead, Bush managed brilliantly to manipulate the media, using a vast repertoire of lies and propaganda to twist much of what went wrong into a far rosier picture, one in which nothing the United States government did over the last year was unjustified.

But Bush’s master plan was like one straight out of a heist movie. He took care of just about every detail, but he left a crucial one out, which is why his approval rating is down. He neglected to consider how the Iraqi people would respond to an occupation by a foreign army. In the end, no matter how much they might have hated Saddam Hussein, the Iraqis -- not all, but certainly the more militant ones -- can hardly be thrilled with the vast American presence in their country, and Bush should have been able to anticipate the post-war insurgency. He did not, at least not sufficiently, and the result has been catastrophic.

The death toll of American soldiers killed in guerrilla attacks will ultimately serve as the biggest obstacle Bush faces on his previously unhindered path to reelection. Ironically, due to the priorities of the American public, it will be one of the things Bush has relatively little direct control over that will determine his fate, and not the lies that have flown freely and shamefully from his and others’ mouths.