Beleaguered is the polite word now most often used to describe the Bush administration. Yet making sense of the administration’s failures requires stronger language. As the events and revelations of the last few weeks remind us, almost nothing this administration does works and almost nothing it says adds up.

What is one to make of the deplorable treatment of wounded and damaged Iraq war veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center? How could an administration that endlessly boasts of its “support for the troops” allow those who have paid the highest price for this unnecessary war to be neglected in this way? Evidently, similar problems pervade the military health-care system. Veterans Administration hospitals, which under the Clinton administration were models of what good government stewardship could accomplish, are now also in disarray. Like everything else associated with the Iraq debacle, the military medical system was simply not equipped to deal with the unintended consequences of the war, namely the tens of thousands of severely traumatized soldiers who will require decades of care. Some generals have been fired, and a bipartisan commission has been established to investigate the scandal, but this should not distract attention from the fact that the buck stops in the White House.

A rare moment of accountability occurred in the conviction of I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. Libby lied to FBI agents and to a grand jury investigating the administration’s efforts to discredit Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration’s unfounded claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The legal issues of the case, which initially involved an investigation into the “outing” of Wilson’s wife as a CIA agent, were far from clear, and Wilson himself is no paragon of truthfulness. What is undeniable, though, is that Libby lied about his role in the administration’s feverish effort to smear an opponent of the war.

More evidence of the administration’s cavalier attitude toward the law came to light in the congressional testimony of six U.S. attorneys fired by the Department of Justice. The federal prosecutors complained of Republican political interference with investigations, and of threats of retaliation if they went public with their stories. Later in the same week it was revealed that the FBI has carried out unauthorized surveillance on thousands of U.S. citizens under predictably elastic applications of provisions of the Patriot Act.

If things are going badly at home, not much is going better in Baghdad, where the carnage continues virtually unabated. Holding his first news conference after assuming control of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus said the “surge” strategy will require more than the 21,500 troops already committed. It was then learned that President Bush had already dispatched nearly five thousand more troops. Petraeus also strongly hinted that the surge, which was presented to Congress and the nation as a temporary escalation, will be open-ended in duration. In other words, there will be no end to the war in Iraq on Bush’s watch, and therefore no need to face up to any ultimate failure.

Bush’s defenders complain that Democrats have no alternative strategy. On the contrary, several plausible proposals for gradual disengagement are being debated in Congress, all of which recognize, as General Petraeus himself has said, that there must be a political solution to the conflict. As columnist Jonathan Chait writes of Bush’s apologists, “Trust the commander in chief, don’t undermine the troops, withdrawal equals defeat, aren’t arguments to support Bush’s strategy. They’re generic pro-war arguments.” And that is all the administration has ever offered.

The heartwrenching stories from Walter Reed remind us that a very small number of Americans are paying a very high price for this open-ended war. Many soldiers are now being sent back to Iraq for the third time, while others are having their deployments extended. There has been remarkably little protest about this unjust and ruinous policy. If joining the armed services is the job these men and women chose, then they have to live with the consequences of that choice, or so goes the common wisdom. But war is not a “job” in any morally coherent sense. Even if service in the military is voluntary, placing the burden of the nation’s decision to go to war only on those who have chosen to serve is not right. Their choice does not absolve us of our responsibilities to treat them fairly. What was shameful about the abuse of the wounded at Walter Reed was easily understood. What is shameful about sending the same young men and women to fight again and again in Iraq should be too.

March 13, 2007

Published in the 2007-03-23 issue: 
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