The Destroyers

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

February 14, 2006

We've pretty much forgotten about Keith Maupin, an American soldier who was kidnapped near Baghdad in April 2004. He was 20 at the time. His captors released a videotape that showed him in the custody of masked gunmen. Looking nervously into the camera, he said: "My name is Keith Matthew Maupin. I am a soldier from the First Division. I am married with a 10-month-old son."

He has not been heard from since.

We've also pretty much forgotten about Marla Ruzicka, a 28-year-old humanitarian aid worker who was killed in April 2005 when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy that was passing near her car in Baghdad. There was a flurry of news coverage at the time, much of it focused on the gruesome fact that a young, fun-loving California girl had been consumed in the flames of a burning vehicle in Baghdad.

Yesterday The Times ran an extraordinary front-page article detailing the physical agony and profound emotional distress being faced by troops trying to cope with absolutely ruinous wounds suffered in Iraq. "The worst car crash is nothing in terms of what we see here," said a surgeon at an American base in Balad.

Most of the discussions in the media about the Bush administration and its allies center on how the president is doing politically. Is he up or down in the polls? Are the Democrats gaining steam, or will the Republicans make them look like wimps again when it comes to national security? How harsh is the song that Jack Abramoff is singing? And what about those pictures of Mr. Abramoff with the president?

Talk about focusing on the trees! The forest in this instance is the incredible mess that the Bush crowd has made with its policy blunders, relentless duplicity and outright incompetence. This sorry track record has resulted in, among other things, the horrible suffering and premature deaths of thousands of men, women and children.

I remember talking with Bernice Jones, a 64-year-old New Orleans woman who had to pry her way through the roof of her attic to keep from drowning in the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina. "I had to use a board to hold my head above the water, 'cause it was up to my neck," she said. "So help me, I thought I was going to die."

I remember talking in Ottawa last February with a traumatized 34-year-old family man a Canadian citizen with two children named Maher Arar who was seized by American authorities at Kennedy Airport in the fall of 2002 as part of the reprehensible practice known as extraordinary rendition. He was flown out of the U.S. surreptitiously and handed over to Syrian authorities, who tortured him and kept him caged for a year like a nocturnal animal in an unlit, underground, rat-infested cell.

Then he was let go. No connection between Mr. Arar and terrorism has ever been made.

The litany of tragic incompetence continued unabated last week. On Wednesday we learned that the federal government has still been unable to provide the trailers it promised as temporary shelters for tens of thousands of people driven from their homes by the hurricanes that slammed the Gulf Coast last summer.

As for Iraq, James Glanz reported in The Times on Thursday that newly declassified statistics on insurgent violence "appear to portray a rebellion whose ability to mount attacks has steadily grown in the nearly three years since the invasion."

Mr. Glanz has also reported that despite an infusion of $16 billion in American taxpayer money, virtually every measure of the performance of Iraq's oil, electricity, water and sewage sectors has fallen below prewar levels, according to government witnesses who testified at a Senate committee hearing.

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the Bush administration to rebuild Iraq or New Orleans. These are not the folks you'd call on to create a shining city on a hill. This is a crowd that's more comfortable with the destructive arts squandering money, wasting lives and undermining the potential of a great nation like the U.S.

Can you imagine what Republican politicians and conservative commentators would be saying if a Democratic president say Al Gore or Hillary Clinton had compiled exactly the same track record over the past five years as George W. Bush?