On Jan. 12, 1848, while the Mexican-American War raged on, a 38-year-old Illinois congressman introduced a measure that would censure former President James K. Polk. During a lengthy speech, that young member of the Illinois House of Representatives called into question Polk’s justification for war with Mexico – a war which was, in the words of the speaker, “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced.”
The congressman said Polk would have “gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter, that the truth would not permit him” and noted that the war was “from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” The congressman exclaimed, “Let him answer fully, fairly and candidly. Let him answer with facts and not with arguments.” More importantly, “Let him attempt no evasion, no equivocation.”
Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln, who suspected that Polk was “deeply conscious of being in the wrong.”
As it happens, in a round-table discussion with 12 reporters last week President George W. Bush described Lincoln as the best president in U.S. history. One wonders how Bush would respond to Lincoln’s request for answers from the president. Moreover, does Bush have any deep consciousness that would enable him to recognize that he is wrong? Not until Sept. 17, following Vice President Dick Cheney’s Sept. 14 appearance on “Meet the Press,” in which he said, “It is not surprising people make that connection” between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks, did Bush finally admit that there was no evidence linking Saddam to Sept. 11. Bush’s comment was a step in the right direction, but one wonders when we will wake up and recognize that our leaders are lying to us.
The illusion: Repeatedly, in February and March of this year, we were told the price tag would not be much for the reconstruction in Iraq, especially because Iraqi oil -supposedly owned by the Iraqi people – would pay for any necessary expenses. We were told about countless weapons of mass destruction Iraq had amassed. We were told Iraq was a breeding ground for terrorists. (Now it definitely is.) We went to war because Iraq was an integral part of our war on terrorism. We flattered ourselves with the idea that we could go it alone. We had a so-called “coalition of the willing” – a long list of countries at our side. (Watch as India, Germany, Turkey and France, among other countries, continue to stick it to the United States.)
The reality: We now realize, only partially, the mess we are in. The Iraqi oil will not in the foreseeable future help with the cost of the Iraq occupation. We still have not found Osama bin Laden or Saddam, but the likelihood we will see major terrorist attacks is as great as ever. We now recognize that Larry Lindsay, Bush’s first economic adviser, was right when he estimated the war could cost $200 billion. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki nearly agreed with Lindsay’s forecast. Shinseki also predicted the coalition would need 200,000 troops in Iraq before he, like Lindsay, was replaced. Meanwhile, Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, said the numbers were “way off the mark.” He led the coalition to believe the cost of war and the number of troops would not be large. As the manager of the Pentagon, however, Wolfowitz did not do his job. But the president cannot let him go because to do so would be to admit that the reasons for going to war were bogus.
So how did we allow ourselves to be treated like sheep? Herman Goerring, Adolf Hitler’s designated successor, once said, “Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war Ö but after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.” Observed Goerring, “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” Goerring said the above plan “works the same in any country.” Indeed.
We should remember that Bush, along with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and other so-called leaders defied the will of the international community to go to war. Now they are asking economically downtrodden nations that are worse off than we are to help us out. That is not how it works. Nor will we let our leaders forget their egregious mistakes. We must remain consistent with our message and persistent with our criticisms. Remember the words of Bush’s favorite president, Theodore Roosevelt. “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, not only is unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public,” Roosevelt exclaimed in 1918 during World War I, as then-President Woodrow Wilson initiated broad crackdowns against dissent at home. Likewise, we should hold our leaders accountable and seek the truth.
Joel T. Helfrich’s column appears alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]