It Just Gets Worse

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

July 11, 2005

Back in March 2004 President Bush had a great time displaying what he felt was a hilarious set of photos showing him searching the Oval Office for the weapons of mass destruction that hadn't been found in Iraq. It was a spoof he performed at the annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association.

The photos showed the president peering behind curtains and looking under furniture for the missing weapons. Mr. Bush offered mock captions for the photos, saying, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere" and "Nope, no weapons over there ... maybe under here?"

If there's something funny about Mr. Bush's misbegotten war, I've yet to see it. The president deliberately led Americans traumatized by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, into the false belief that there was a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and that a pre-emptive invasion would make the United States less vulnerable to terrorism.

Close to 600 Americans had already died in Iraq when Mr. Bush was cracking up the audience with his tasteless photos at the glittering Washington gathering. The toll of Americans has now passed 1,750. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died. Scores of thousands of men, women and children have been horribly wounded. And there is no end in sight.

Last week's terror bombings in London should be seen as a reminder not just that Mr. Bush's war was a hideous diversion of focus and resources from the essential battle against terror, but that it has actually increased the danger of terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies.

The C.I.A. warned the administration in a classified report in May that Iraq - since the American invasion in 2003 - had become a training ground in which novice terrorists were schooled in assassinations, kidnappings, car bombings and other terror techniques. The report said Iraq could prove to be more effective than Afghanistan in the early days of Al Qaeda as a place to train terrorists who could then disperse to other parts of the world, including the United States.

Larry Johnson, a former C.I.A. analyst who served as deputy director of the State Department's counterterrorism office, said on National Public Radio last week: "You now in Iraq have a recruiting ground in which jihadists, people who previously were not willing to go out and embrace the vision of bin Laden and Al Qaeda, are now aligning themselves with elements that have declared allegiance to him. And in the course of that, they're learning how to build bombs. They're learning how to conduct military operations."

Has the president given any thought to leveling with the American people about how bad the situation has become? And is he even considering what for him would be the radical notion of soliciting the counsel of wise men and women who might give him a different perspective on war and terror than the Kool-Aid-drinking true believers who have brought us to this dreadful state of affairs? The true believers continue to argue that the proper strategy is to stay the current catastrophic course.

Americans are paying a fearful price for Mr. Bush's adventure in Iraq. In addition to the toll of dead and wounded, the war is costing about $5 billion a month. It has drained resources from critical needs here at home, including important antiterror initiatives that would improve the security of ports, transit systems and chemical plants.

The war has diminished the stature and weakened the credibility of the United Sates around the world. And it has delivered a body blow to the readiness of America's armed forces. Much of the military is now overdeployed, undertrained and overworked. Many of the troops are serving multiple tours in Iraq. No wonder potential recruits are staying away in droves.

Whatever one's views on the war, thoughtful Americans need to consider the damage it is doing to the United States, and the bitter anger that it has provoked among Muslims around the world. That anger is spreading like an unchecked fire in an incredibly vast field.

The immediate challenge to President Bush is to dispense with the destructive fantasies of the true believers in his administration and to begin to see America's current predicament clearly. New voices with new approaches and new ideas need to be heard. The hole we're in is deep enough. We need to stop digging.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com