Even as President Bush was trying, once more on Sunday, to spin the fantasy that the Iraq invasion and occupation are some kind of success, Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Iraq confirmed the truth of the mess that this military misadventure has created.
The vice president's "surprise" visit to Iraq — which, coming shortly after voting in the latest of the country's quickie elections had finished, was about as surprising as Cheney's repetition of the administration's "stay-the-course" mantra — was a public-relations disaster.
Because the vice president actually came into contact with the people his fantasies regarding Iraq — remember Cheney's pre-war promise that U.S. troops would be "greeted as liberators" — had put in harm's way.
Cheney's cheerleading during a whirlwind trip through the battle zone was challenged by men who are actually doing the fighting.
The first words Cheney heard during a roundtable discussion with several dozen troops were those of Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren, who said, "From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains. We're looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains."
Cheney responded with warmed-over rhetoric about how the media is not showing the true picture of what is going on in Iraq. "I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq. We're getting the job done," claimed the vice president, who was making his first visit to the war zone. "It's hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don't pay that much attention to the news."
The vice president did not seem to recognize the irony of complaining about media coverage presenting the war as something less than a success when he was responding to the concerns of a Marine — who is actually serving on the ground in Iraq — about the fact that he and his fellow troops "don't see much as far as gains."
Cheney's attempt to put a positive spin on the occupation does not appear to have found many takers among those who are dodging the bullets and bombs in a war that has killed more than 2,100 of their comrades and maimed tens of thousands more.
According to an Associated Press report, "When (Cheney) delivered the applause line, 'We're in this fight to win. These colors don't run,' the only sound was a lone whistle."
It is no wonder the troops were lacking in enthusiasm.
They know something that Cheney does not know, or at least does not admit.
They know that, at the close of this "watershed year," not nearly enough has changed for the better in Iraq.
They know, as well, that the administration's talk about how the U.S. will stand down as the Iraqis stand up remains an empty promise.
Consider a line buried deep in the AP report of the vice president's visit to Taji Air Base in Iraq: "U.S. forces guarded Cheney with weapons at the ready while Iraqi soldiers, who had no weapons, held their arms out as if they were carrying imaginary guns."
For all of Cheney's cheerleading about how well things are going, those carrying the real guns recognize that they will not soon be coming home from a country where their "replacements" are carrying imaginary guns.
The truth is that the president and vice president refuse to level not just with the troops and American people but with themselves. Wiser observers recognize that only when the U.S. leaves Iraq will the Iraqis begin to take responsibility for policing their own country.
As U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, wrote last week in a letter to his House colleagues, "It is time that the over 200,000 Iraqis who have received military and police training over the past three years take over the hard job of providing domestic security themselves and stop using American forces as a crutch to lean on. It is time for U. S. forces to redeploy out of the country in an orderly but rapid way..."
Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has spent far more time than Cheney ever will speaking frankly with troops in Iraq and with honest military strategists, says, "I believe that the policy of the president — total victory — is not a policy. I believe that is a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion." It should come as no surprise that the troops Cheney encountered appeared to have been as frustrated with the illusion as Jack Murtha. After all, Murtha, the old soldier who earned a chest full of medals in Vietnam, is one of them. Cheney, the guy who got five deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam, is not.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation