war in iraq


'Trust Me' Isn't Good Enough

January 27, 2003

By Jonathon Alter

Imagine you're a soldier headed into harm's way in Iraq. If the system is working right, you've been issued a reliable chemical-biological protective garment, plus a backup. But if you're fighting in a contaminated area -- a real possibility given that Saddam Hussein has nothing to lose -- the suits only last a day or so. That means after a few days of combat you're probably going to need a third suit, then a fourth. Unfortunately, those replacement protective suits might be defective.

Not likely, you say. Our military's the best trained and prepared in world history. Maybe so, but were you paying attention last October when the Pentagon was finally forced to admit that 250,000 faulty battle-dress overgarment (BDO) suits manufactured by Isratex Inc., whose executives are now in jail for fraud, have been lost amid 800,000 other BDO suits that work just fine? Even now, nobody can track down which are which.

Talk about a snafu. "Someone might still get BDO suits from existing inventory or prepositioned stock [in the Mideast]," Ray Decker of the General Accounting Office told me last week, trying to sound cautious about something that clearly worries him. "There are nine different databases [handling protective-suit inventory], and they don't talk to each other." Decker found some military units had only erasable chalk blackboards to monitor the state of their protective gear; others kept no records at all.

The Pentagon's response: trust us, we're fixing it.

Trust. I see the chem-bio-suit flap as a microcosm of President Bush's larger problem. After September 11, we trusted Bush not to let us down, and he didn't. But Iraq is not Afghanistan. The main reason Bush is depleting his trust fund is that he is himself distrustful. Lately he sounds like President Peeve, as if it's someone else's fault that he can't find harder evidence of Iraqi violations. When a speechwriter offers a sentence he doesn't like, he sophomorically scribbles "Duh" in the margin (this, according to a new Bush-friendly book by David Frum). When allies object to his cowboy rhetoric and his retreat from more than 80 years of collective security, he treats them as annoyances (or appeasers) rather than partners who happen to take a different view. "Consulting" our friends has become a euphemism for browbeating them. So they return the favor. Distrust breeds distrust.

At home, the pattern takes a similar form. Bush will probably get a bounce in the polls after the State of the Union and again after the war starts; Americans can be trusted to rally around their leader. But his margin for error is shrinking. During the war in Afghanistan, the public was willing to accept significant casualties, a factor Bush didn't make use of when it came time to seal Tora Bora and catch Osama bin Laden. (He relied on warlords rather than U.S. troops). Now, ironically, he'll risk more when the tolerance for body bags is less. Should something go wrong -- say, street fighting in Baghdad, or soldiers killed because of defective chemical-biological suits -- the issue of why we didn't wait longer will no longer be abstract.

The essence of the problem is that Bush isn't squaring with people. This is a hazard of wartime. (During the gulf war, the Pentagon said the Patriot missile worked magnificently; in fact it scored no direct hits). But it carries a price. As Britain was losing Singapore in World War II, Winston Churchill said: "There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away." The same might be said of false fears. First, Bush asserted that Iraq was connected to Al Qaeda in Prague or Kurdistan or somewhere, but offered no evidence and dropped it. Then he talked about a "nuclear mujahedin" with ominous aluminum tubes, but the

Inter-national Atomic Energy Agency has said the tubes were not for nuclear use and that the United States has offered no intelligence that Iraq is even in the market for uranium. We're told implausibly that Iraq's failure to disarm as quickly as South Africa is reason to go to war immediately. And just last week, the administration insisted it couldn't specify the Iraqi danger because it was classified. Churchill (a Bush hero) would never have tried such sophistry.

The danger of all of this is that Bush becomes the little boy who cried wolf. During World War I, atrocity stories about Germans bayoneting Belgian babies turned out to be false. So during World War II, few people believed the stories trickling out about the Holocaust. The hawks argue, rightly, that Saddam is evil, too. But even if you agree, as I do, that he will eventually have to be removed by force, bold assertions of a direct threat to world peace aren't the same as real evidence of that threat. Condi Rice has a point when she says that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." OK, the gun doesn't have to be smoking. But there does have to be proof that a gun exists. And we have to know -- not trust -- that it is pointed at us.

Jonathon Alter Newsweek


war in iraq