How long will it take to get over Iraq?

The 2004 presidential campaign, now mercifully drawing to a close, has been the most bitterly divisive in living memory. It reflects how closely and bitterly we ourselves are divided over who we are and what our role in the world ought to be.

One of the prominent themes of the campaign has been John Kerry's role in the Vietnam War - his Navy service as a swift boat commander and his opposition to the war after he returned to the US. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which was organized by Bush supporters to denigrate Mr. Kerry's war record, has been more concerned over what he did as a civilian opposing the war than what he did as a naval officer fighting it. They equate opposing the war with not supporting the American troops in the field. In fact, the best way to support those troops was to bring them home.

That this is still an issue after 30 years shows how long it takes to get over an unpopular war, especially for those on the losing side. It took a hundred years to get over the Civil War, a milestone marked by passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Some Southerners aren't over it yet, after 140 years. How long will it take to get over Iraq?

President Bush is fighting the Iraq war on the cheap. The Army is stretched thin and is under strength. Mr. Bush brags about how he is supporting the American troops in Iraq with everything they need, but he is not supporting them with what they need most, which is reinforcements. So tours of duty are continually extended in uncomfortable and dangerous conditions.

Bush and the civilian leadership of the Pentagon have not faced the dilemma that in order to provide adequate troops, the Army needs to be enlarged and that may mean revival of the draft. This would surely be politically unpopular, an indicator of the limits to which the American people will go in their support of the war on terror. Bush has not called on people to sacrifice for the war effort; on the contrary, he has urged them to spend more as a way to stimulate the economy.

The real war on terror is not in Iraq; it is in Afghanistan, where we overthrew the Taliban government with relative ease. But we did not find Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan remains in turmoil. There is no political infrastructure for a democratic government, partly because the Bush administration transferred its attention to Iraq, which is not significantly involved in international terror. The US invaded Iraq under false pretenses. Regardless of what he said, Bush was not fighting the war on terror in Iraq; he was fighting Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. Without question, Saddam was a brutal dictator, but hardly worse than Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or several others that we have lived with. He was certainly no threat to the US. Contrary to Bush's alarms, Saddam was not found to have nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

Bush has enlarged the war on terror. It is no longer a legitimate response to an attack (and a threat of other attacks) on the US. It has become a global campaign to spread democracy to all nations. This is unattainable and a ruinous misuse of US resources. Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq worsens daily - more than the White House is willing to admit. Instead, the president follows a policy of deception by dismissing realistic analyses as "pessimism" and by suppressing the views of the intelligence community.

Compare this to the 2000 campaign, when Bush expressed skepticism about a foreign policy that included nation-building. The distance he has strayed from this sensible approach indicates a lack of knowledge about, or interest in, foreign policy.

In this respect, if in no other, he is similar to Woodrow Wilson. Critics have said that it was Mr. Wilson's stubborn pursuit of impossible ideals that made a sensible peace unattainable after World War I. This stubborn pursuit is what Bush is doing after 9/11. Unlike Bush, Wilson knew that he did not know much about foreign affairs. Shortly before his inauguration in 1913, Wilson remarked privately that, "It would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign affairs."

Bush's dealing with them is likely to turn out even worse than Wilson's.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He wrote the book, 'Secret Intelligence and Public Policy: A Dilemma of Democracy.'

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