Mark Shields: Needed: An Honest Debate on War

By Mark Shields

Our country in September 2014 needs an open, serious and honest public debate so that this time, we can make an informed decision on whether to once again send Americans into war in Iraq. Tragically, the most recent time, 12 years ago, before the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, there was no such honest public debate. Republicans on Capitol Hill failed to question the Bush administration’s campaign of misinformation in support of military action, while too many Democrats, apparently fearful of being tagged “soft” on terrorism on the eve of a national election, followed suit.

Let’s give credit to three U.S. House members — Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Jim McGovern, D-Mass. — who have just written a letter to House Speaker John Boehner arguing that “the situation in Iraq is a grave one and before sending our uniformed men and women into danger we owe it to them and the people we represent to fully debate the matter and have a vote.” They urge the speaker to bring a resolution to the floor for debate and a vote when the House reconvenes Sept. 8. This does not make Lee, Jones and McGovern popular with many of their colleagues, because, as former Republican Senate leader Bob Dole candidly explained, members of Congress like to make tough speeches and to avoid casting tough votes. The Obama White House has shown no interest in seeking either congressional authorization or debate on Iraq.

It is worth noting just how misleading and dishonest the Bush administration’s case for war was. On Aug. 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ national convention: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” What the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group would learn, after 18 months of investigation, was that Saddam had terminated his nuclear weapons efforts in 1991, and his biological and chemical research efforts had been ended in 1995.

How long would the U.S. war in Iraq last? In November 2002, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld confidently announced, “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” What about the cost? Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress, “We’re really dealing with a country that could finance its own reconstruction.” The war, which the Bush administration initially predicted would cost $2 billion a month, has now exceeded a total of $1 trillion.

Advocates for going to war against Iraq were wrong about WMD, wrong that U.S. troops would be “welcomed as liberators,” wrong that Iraq’s emergence as a thriving democracy — instead of a land crippled by sectarian strife — would lead to a veritable domino effect of democracy throughout the Middle East.

Before we go to war once again — even to stop such hatefully barbaric extremists as the Islamic State — we must understand that an army does not fight a war, that a country fights a war. And if we, as a country, are unwilling to fight a war, we must never send our army. We must also accept that war truly demands equality of sacrifice, which means that we must be willing, as Americans have done since the Civil War, to tax ourselves more to pay for the costs of war — something we did not do last time. Lee, Jones and McGovern are right: Congress needs to vote, and the country needs to decide.

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