Heads in the Sand

By BOB HERBERT

The New York Times

September 3, 2004

When asked this week on CNN how long the U.S. military is likely to remain in Iraq, Senator John McCain replied "probably" 10 or 20 years. "That's not so bad," he said, adding, "We've been in Korea for 50 years. We've been in West Germany for 50 years."

Reporters have come to expect candor from Senator McCain, and in this case he didn't disappoint. But there weren't any speakers mounting the podium at the Republican National Convention to hammer home the message that G.I.'s would be in Iraq for a decade or two.

That's not the understanding most Americans had when this wretched war was sold to them, and it's not the view most Americans hold now.

If Senator McCain is correct (and the belief in official Washington is that he is), then boys and girls who are 5 or 10 years old now will get their chance in 2015 or 2020 to strap on the Kevlar and engage the Iraqi "insurgents" who, like the indigenous forces we fought in Vietnam, will never accept the occupation of their country by America.

Marcina Hale, a protester who came to New York this week from suburban Westport, Conn., said she has two teenage boys and that Iraq "is not a war that I'm willing to send my sons to." As the years pass and the casualties mount, that sentiment will only grow.

The truth is always the first casualty of politics. But there was a bigger disconnect than usual between the bizarre, hermetically sealed perspective that was on display in Madison Square Garden this week and the daunting events unfolding without respite in the real world.

Iraq is a mess. While the cartoonish Arnold Schwarzenegger was drawing huge laughs in the Garden and making cracks about economic "girlie men," reports were emerging about the gruesome murder of 12 Nepalese hostages who had traveled to Iraq less than two weeks earlier in search of work.

At the same time, an effort to disarm insurgents in the militant Baghdad slum of Sadr City collapsed, and the death toll among American forces in Iraq continued its relentless climb toward 1,000.

The Los Angeles Times noted yesterday that a report by the respected Royal Institute of International Affairs in London has concluded that Iraq will be lucky if it avoids a breakup and civil war. The often-stated U.S. goal of a full-fledged Iraqi democracy is beyond unlikely.

In Afghanistan, a legitimate front in the so-called war against terror, much of the country remains in the hands of warlords, and the opium trade is flourishing. Experts believe substantial amounts of money from that trade is flowing to terrorist groups.

In Israel, 16 people were killed by suicide bombers who blew themselves up on a pair of crowded buses on Tuesday. In Russia, a series of horrific terror attacks, in the air and on the ground, have cast a pall across the country.

Despite all the macho posturing and self-congratulating at the Republican convention, the wave of terror that's been unleashed on the world is only growing. The American-led war in Iraq is feeding that wave, causing it to swell rather than ebb.

Any serious person who looked around the world this week would have to wonder what the delegates at the G.O.P. convention were so happy about.

The Republican conventioneers spent the entire week reminding America that we were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. But interestingly, there was hardly a mention by name of those actually responsible for the attacks - Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Discussions about the nation's real enemies were taboo. We don't know where they are or what they're up to. The over-the-top venom of some of the speakers and delegates was reserved not for Osama, but for a couple of mild-mannered guys named John.

What Americans desperately need is a serious, honest discussion of where we go from here. If we're going to be in Iraq for 10 or 20 more years, the policy makers should say so, and tell us what that will cost in money and human treasure. The violence associated with such a long-term occupation is guaranteed to be appalling.

Vietnam tore this nation apart. As we've seen in this campaign, the wounds have yet to heal. Incredibly, we're now traveling a similarly tragic road in Iraq.