Stranger Than Fiction

By BOB HERBERT

New Yprk Times

May 9, 2005

When Bob Woodward asked President Bush if he had consulted with his father about the decision to go to war in Iraq, the president famously replied, "There is a higher father that I appeal to."

It might have been better if Mr. Bush had stayed in closer touch with his earthly father. From the very beginning the war in Iraq has been an exercise in extreme madness, an absurd venture that would have been rich in comic possibilities except for the fact that many thousands of men, women and children have died, and tens of thousands have been crippled, burned or otherwise maimed.

The world now knows that the weapons of mass destruction were a convenient fiction. Less well known is that bumbling administration officials eagerly embraced the ravings of a foreign intelligence source known, believe it or not, as "Curveball." He helped promote the fantasy that Iraq had mobile laboratories for the manufacture of biological weapons.

The C.I.A. was warned that Curveball was as crazy as a Peter Sellers character, but the administration wanted this war in the way that a small child wants candy. Curveball's information was swallowed whole.

Amateurs and incompetents have run the war from the start, and fantasy has trumped reality at every turn. If a movie were to be made of the war, the appropriate director would be Mel Brooks. Even as the administration was listening to the likes of Curveball, it was showing the door to the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who made the mistake of speaking the plain truth to officials fluent only in self-serving gibberish.

General Shinseki said it would take hundreds of thousands of troops to pacify Iraq. That was the end of his career.

Bush & Co. sent far fewer troops into the war, and many of them were never properly trained or equipped. The results have been nightmarish. Roadside bombs have caused 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq. The military was not prepared for this tactic and has had a miserable record providing protective armor for Humvees and other vehicles carrying soldiers and marines.

So G.I.'s from the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the history of the world have been dying because their nation wouldn't give them up-to-date combat vehicles.

As for training and preparedness, the scandal at Abu Ghraib is instructive. The problems there went far beyond the photos of Lynndie England and others humiliating the Iraqis under their control. We learned last week that Janis Karpinski, the brigadier general whose reserve military police unit was in charge of the prison, had been arrested for shoplifting at a military base in Florida in 2002. The same army that's scouring Iraq for insurgents and terrorists was apparently unaware of the arrest record of the woman assigned to such a sensitive position at Abu Ghraib.

Abu Ghraib was not an aberration. It was a symptom. This is a war in which the people in charge have had no idea what they were doing. One of the recommendations of Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated the scandal at Abu Ghraib, was that a team be sent to Iraq to teach some of the soldiers how to run prisons. How's that for an innovative step?

The United States is now stuck with a war it should never have started. The violence continues to rage out of control. The latest fantasy out of Washington is that somehow, miraculously, Iraqi troops will be able to take over and win the war that we couldn't.

The American public is becoming fed up and with good reason. Support for the war is declining and the reputation of the military is in jeopardy. The Army has been unable to meet its recruitment goals and the search for new soldiers is becoming desperate.

Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers, told Congress that the war in Iraq was taking a toll on the military and would make combat operations elsewhere in the world more difficult. That was hardly a comforting thought as the administration was ramping up its rhetoric about North Korea.

If President Bush had consulted with his father before launching this clownish, disastrous war, he might have gotten some advice that would have pointed him in a different direction and spared his country - and the families of the many thousands dead - a lot of grief.