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The Cruelest Month

Bush Owes America Answers on Iraq

by Sen. ROBERT BYRD

Senator Byrd, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered the following remarks regarding the continued lack of security and stability in Iraq. Mr. Byrd also addressed the claim made in a book by Mr. Robert Woodward that the President and his Administration shifted funds without Congressional approval from the war in Afghanistan to prepare for war in Iraq.

It is the poet T.S. Eliot who reminds us, as if we needed to be reminded, that "April is the cruelest month." How prescient his words ring this April, as we reflect upon the deepening crisis and the steadily mounting death toll in Iraq. This April, this month in which millions of Americans marked the holiest season of the Judeo-Christian calendar, has been an unholy nightmare for American military forces and American policy in Iraq.

April 2004, 11 months after the President proclaimed the end of major combat operations in Iraq, has proved to be the deadliest month for American forces in Iraq since the onset of the war more than a year ago. Major combat operations may have ended, as the President asserted nearly one year ago, but major combat casualties have not. The "Mission Accomplished" banner under which he spoke so confidently on a May 1st, 2003, has come back to haunt us and to taunt us many times over.

In the weeks and months leading up to the war, Americans were assured by the President and his cadre of top advisers – most particularly Vice President Dick Cheney – that we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq, our path to victory strewn with cheers and flowers. Those flowers, it now appears, are less like rose petals tossed at the feet of liberators and more like Eliot’s mournful April lilacs – "Lilacs out of the deadland, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain."

April has indeed become the cruelest month. Memory and desire cannot supplant reality in Iraq. More than one hundred American military personnel have been killed in Iraq so far this month, the highest number of deaths in a single month since the beginning of the war. In all, more than 700 American military members have died in Iraq since the beginning of combat. Today, more than one year after the fall of Baghdad, America’s military forces are being greeted in too many quarters of Iraq, not with flowers but with gunfire; not with cheers but with jeers, not as liberators but as oppressors.

In the harsh glare of hindsight, it is now clear that the President’s preconceived notions of the war and the aftermath of the war in Iraq were profoundly flawed. Even the President’s Secretary of Defense – one of the supreme architects of the Iraqi offensive – has been forced to admit that the battle has not gone according to plan, that the level of casualties, continuing so long after the fall of Baghdad, was neither anticipated nor planned for before the invasion.

And yet President Bush refuses to admit any flaws in his grand strategy to invade Iraq and overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein without giving adequate consideration to the potential perils awaiting America in the seething streets and towns of post-war Iraq. Despite the fact that debate over the war in Iraq rages worldwide, despite the fact that the American occupation is reeling from unexpected opposition from the very people it was intended to liberate, still the President is hard pressed under questioning to come up with any mistakes he might have made in dealing with Iraq.

In his press conference last week, President Bush acknowledged "tough weeks" in Iraq, but he clung to his oft-repeated assertion that Iraq is mostly stable, and shrugged off the violence of recent weeks as the work of a small faction of fanatical "thugs" and terrorists bent on imposing their will over the popular will of Iraq.

In this assessment, I hope and pray that the President is right. For the sake of America’s military families, who have had to bear the burden of the increased violence in Iraq, I hope that the President is right. I hope that Iraq achieves stability and security soon. For while Iraq and the world may indeed be better off with Saddam Hussein behind bars, alas I do not believe that an Iraq in turmoil is either a boon to the Middle East or an asset to the security of the United States.

Instead of reflecting candidly on the current challenges in Iraq, President Bush would prefer to focus on his grandiose vision for reforming the Middle East. In this he speaks in ideological, almost messianic, cadences as he paints a picture of Iraq as a central front not just in the war on terror but also in a battle of Biblical proportions pitting "good" against "evil."

President Bush is a man of absolutes. Either we stay the course in Iraq, or we cut and run. Either we fight terrorists on the streets of Iraq, or we fight them on the streets of New York or Washington. Either we support the President’s policies absolutely, or we give aid and comfort to the enemy.

No, no, a thousand times no. Either-or propositions like those invoked by the President to describe the war in Iraq are nothing more than politically inspired slogans, like last year’s ill-advised "Mission Accomplished" banner, designed to whip up emotions while masking the complexity of national security considerations.

Fighting in the streets of Iraq has not prevented terrorists from striking in Saudi Arabia or Bali or Madrid, and there is no guarantee that it will prevent them from striking again in the United States. Just this week, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge disclosed the formation of a federal task force to respond to heightened threats that al Qaeda will strike again in the United States sometime before the November elections. Significant events, including the dedication of the World War II memorial in Washington and the political conventions in New York and Boston, are among those viewed as prime targets for a new al Qaeda offensive.

This is the sobering reality. Osama bin Laden remains at large, and his minions appear to be multiplying, not diminishing. If anything, the war in Iraq has served as a rallying cry for anti-American and anti-democratic extremists in the Middle East and beyond. Sadly, given the distraction from the war on terror that the war in Iraq has proved itself to be, the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden, when and if it comes, is likely to be an anti-climactic footnote to a widening and ever more deadly surge in international terrorism.

Despite the often invoked and patently misleading conclusion drawn by the Bush Administration, "cutting and running" is not the only alternative to staying the course in Iraq, especially when that course is fraught with disaster. Altering a flawed and dangerous course of action, seeking meaningful support from the international community, is another alternative, one that this President is loath to acknowledge but evidently more than willing to embrace in the face of the calamity that has befallen his own roadmap for Iraq.

For months, I and others have implored the President to return to the United Nations and to seek a greater role for the U.N. in the occupation, administration, and reconstruction of Iraq. Long before the war, we begged the President to seek the support of the U.N. Security Council before invading Iraq. Our pleas fell on deaf ears. This Administration was confident it could go it alone, with only a threadbare coalition of the willing to paper over its unilateral action.

How hollow that confidence now rings. In the face of disaster, in the face of mounting doubts among members of the coalition, the President has now been forced to seek shelter under the wings of the United Nations. The Iraqis have rejected every plan for transition of power put forward by the President’s Coalition Provisional Authority. Our only hope left is that they will embrace a plan put forward by the United Nations, the very body that the United States spurned when the President chose to invade Iraq without the support of the U.N. Security Council. Irony scarcely begins to describe the current state of affairs.

The fact is, while espousing hard-line rhetoric and iron-clad resolve, this Administration has ducked and bobbed and weaved at every opportunity. In the Administration’s ever-shifting explanation for the war in Iraq, the face of our enemy has ricocheted over the past 12 months from Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guard to disgruntled Baathist dead-enders to foreign terrorists taking advantage of the unrest in Iraq to pursue their agenda of jihad to today’s vague assortment of thugs and fanatics opposed to democracy for Iraq.

We hear the refrain: Stay the course. Stay the course. Exactly what course is it we are supposed to be staying in Iraq? The President failed to explain that to the American people at his press conference. How did we get from protecting the United States from the threat of weapons of mass destruction to the vague notion of fighting extremists opposed to democracy in Iraq? The President failed to explain that fact as well. Where were those extremists before the invasion? Why is it that they are emerging in force only now, a full year after the fall of Baghdad. Could it be that this Administration has created America’s own worst nightmare because of its colossal arrogance, clumsy mistakes, and painful misjudgments on virtually every aspect of the war in Iraq?

These are not the questions of an unpatriotic or reckless opposition. These are not questions intended to demoralize America or hearten our enemies. Rather, these are the questions that a free and open society – the kind of democratic society we envision for Iraq – is expected to pose of its leaders. And these are the kind of questions that a democratic nation’s leader is beholden to answer. Dogmatic admonitions and grandiose allusions will not suffice. In a democratic society, the people demand and deserve the simple and unvarnished truth.

So do the people’s representatives in government. Congress also demands and deserves the simple and unvarnished truth from the Executive Branch. As a co-equal branch of government, as the body in which the Constitution vests the power of the purse, Congress requires the truth from the President. This is what makes the recent allegations in Bob Woodward’s new book regarding the redirection of appropriated funds into clandestine preparations for the war on Iraq so disturbing. If the President, as alleged in this book, made the decision to wage war against Iraq and secretly spent appropriated funds to prepare for that war without prior consultation with Congress, then the letter of the law, the intent of the law, and the Constitutional power of the purse, have been subverted. This would be not only a very grave breach of trust on the part of the Administration, but also a very grave abuse of power.

I hope with all my heart that Iraq will emerge from the current chaos to become a free and democratic nation. I hope with all my heart that the sacrifices that America’s military forces have endured in Iraq will be validated by reality, and not justified merely on the basis of wishful thinking. The path forward is not yet clear, but this I do know. President Bush led America into a preemptive war that was neither dictated by circumstances nor driven by events. He led America into a war of choice that might well have been avoided with patience and prudence. Would that we could read that "April is the cruelest month" without reflecting on the cruel and terrible toll that the war on Iraq has taken on America’s men and women in uniform in Iraq during this sorrowful month of April.

It is said in the Bible that of those to whom much is given, much is required. Much is required of this Administration and this President with regard to Iraq. The American people expect answers, they expect a judicious strategy, and they expect a well thought-out military and diplomatic campaign. On all fronts, the American people have been let down. A President who wages war, and manages the aftermath of war, by the seat of his pants is not what the American people either expect or deserve, and that is what I fear they are seeing in Iraq.

The President, having blundered into this war in Iraq, does not have much time left to get the stabilization of Iraq right. We have spent our blood and treasure in Iraq, and it is now time – past time – to aggressively explore ways in which the burden on Americans can be mitigated. It is time to abandon the go-it-alone attitude established by this President. It is time – long past time – for the President to admit to mistakes made, to forsake his divisive either-or rhetoric, and to seek a way out of the deepening morass of Iraq with the full partnership of the United Nations, the region, and the international community.

President Bush needs to drop all pretensions that the war in Iraq and the battle for stability are going according to plan. Only by accepting the fact that a bold new direction is needed to untangle the mess in Iraq can this President extricate the United States from what is fast becoming a quagmire. It is time for the President to set aside his pride and to convene an international summit on the future of Iraq, composed of representatives of the Iraqi people, their Arab neighbors, NATO, and the United Nations. Then and only then will the Iraqi people be in a position to chart their own future with the help of the international community. Then and only then will the United States be able to relinquish ownership of the tiger it now holds by the tail.

America must alter its course in Iraq to deal with the volatile vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. America must be prepared to fight terrorism wherever it rears its ugly head, and not be lulled into the false belief that attacking terrorists overseas will stop them from attacking America on its homefront. And above all, Americans must never be cowed into believing that questions are somehow "unpatriotic" or that presidents, even war-time presidents, are ever above answering them.