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The Colossal Blunder

Five years later, Iraq is still our national nightmare.

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On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, about 10 hours after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, President Bush addressed the nation and vowed to "find those responsible and bring them to justice." But that didn't work out. Six and a half years later, the person responsible for the attacks, Osama bin Laden, is still at large, and Bush has mired America in a disastrous war in Iraq — a country that had nothing whatever to do with 9/11 — with no end in sight. Bush's mind-boggling blunder was launched five years ago this week. The war, and the way it has been conducted, has done more to jeopardize our country's security, economy and international stature than could have been caused by any other imaginable response to the terrorist attacks.

How did it happen? A complicated web of reasons lay behind America's most disastrous foreign policy mistake, but in the end, it comes down to one man: George W. Bush. The new president, with a family chip on his shoulder and little interest in foreign policy, was easily convinced to buy into the archaic Cold War thinking and predetermined policy notions of his vice president and Defense Secretary. Well before 9/11, both Cheney and Rumsfeld had forcefully pushed the idea that overthrowing Saddam Hussein should be a top U.S. priority. When the planes crashed into those buildings on Sept. 11, Bush drank Dick and Rummy's Kool-Aid, and off to war we went.

On March 20, 2003, around 120,000 U.S. troops, 45,000 from the U.K., and a handful from three other allies invaded Iraq. Within weeks, they overthrew Saddam Hussein's government, which freed President Bush to dress up like a fighter pilot and give his exultant speech of triumph, standing in front of his really neat "Mission Accomplished" banner. Afterward, however, reality set in when a multi-faceted insurgency went on the attack, turning Iraq into a violent nightmare. By now, hundreds of thousands of "free Iraqis" have died and more than 4 million more have left their homes as refugees (the comparative U.S. equivalent would be if the entire populations of New York state, New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina were displaced and looking for a new place to live).

And oh yeah, nearly 4,000 U.S. troops have died, too, in case anyone in Washington is still counting, or cares.

Today, we're in the middle of another great Bush project -- the surge. A year ago, we sent in another 20,000 or so troops, mostly to Baghdad, we isolated several of that city's neighborhoods behind huge concrete walls, and we offered massive bribes to some Sunni leaders to quit shooting at us. Depending on whom you talk to, the surge has been a roaring success, or a pitiful endnote. Surge supporters correctly point out that until a few weeks ago, the level of overall violence in Iraq was down 60 percent. Critics note that the 60 percent reduction is in comparison to June 2007, when a sectarian war was raging throughout the country with multiple daily bombings killing scores of victims; the surge, in other words, has essentially reduced the level of violence from catastrophic to merely unacceptable. That's a far, far cry from "liberating the Middle East and spreading democracy," huh?

Critics of Bush's troop escalation also note that the ceasefire declared by Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is at least as decisive a factor in the reduction in violence as the troop surge. Yet others call attention to the fact that the supposedly new, peaceful Iraq has been wracked for several weeks by the kind of horrific violence and bombings we were used to hearing about in the pre-surge days. In any case, whatever gains were initially made in reducing violence seem to be fading.

If you want a picture of the real situation inside Iraq, you couldn't ask for a clearer one than what happened three weeks ago when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept into Baghdad for a little visit. Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki rolled out the red carpet for the Iranian ruler, and a ceremonial motorcade wound through the city to a great fanfare. Now, if you remember, whenever President Bush has gone to Iraq, he has had to fly in unannounced and could only stay for a few hours due to "security considerations." So, the Iraqi government throws Ahmadinejad a party while violence levels inch upward again. And the cost to American taxpayers for all this "progress"? Just $12 billion per month, a mere $16 million per day.

What follows is a look at how we got into our present mess, the results of the war for the United States, thoughts on what's next, and hopes for specific changes in our national policies and priorities.

How we got into this mess

1. Ignoring intelligence about bin Laden

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