Two years later

Why are Americans fighting in Iraq? It goes back, of course, to the attacks of two years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001. As President Bush explained in his speech to the nation Sunday evening, we are “carrying the fight to the enemy. We are rolling back the terrorist threat to civilization, not on the fringes of its influence, but at the heart of its power.”

There is truth to that. We know that terrorist groups are among those who are setting deadly booby traps for and ambushing American soldiers in Iraq. But what the president didn’t mention is that these terrorists were not there before we took the unprecedented action of invading a sovereign nation against the will of the United Nations and a majority of the world community. They have come there since then, to join the resistance.

American presidents are in a unique position to make history, and George W. Bush certainly has done that since 9/11. But he’s also sought to create an official interpretation of that history, and he’s rewriting as he goes. Most famously, the original rationale—getting rid of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, which we can’t find—has been replaced by the actual effect of the invasion, toppling Saddam, as the official justification.

No American can fail to be glad that Saddam Hussein’s grip on power has been broken and that Iraq at least can hope for a better future, even as its people suffer food, water, power and other shortages and a breakdown of civil authority. But whether the invasion was good for America and the rest of the world remains to be seen. At this point, all the president can tell us is that building a new Iraq is going to be a long and costly effort—both financially and in terms of lost American lives.

In his speech, the president asked Congress for an additional $87 billion, on top of the $79 billion already approved, to fund the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s a huge amount of money—enough, as has been pointed out, to provide health insurance for all of America’s uninsured.

Who’s going to pay for it, and for the rest of the massive deficit the Bush administration is accumulating, thanks to its combination of tax cuts and historically high levels of spending? Not us, but our children, who will be saddled with debt far into the future at this rate. And sometime in that not-so-distant future this huge debt load is going to become a real drag on the American economy, forcing up interest rates and stifling growth. The president is asking for great sacrifices from American soldiers to “liberate” Iraq; why not from American taxpayers?

Meanwhile, we have become a nation on a permanent war footing, surrendering some of our most basic freedoms in return for greater security against a nebulous, almost invisible foe—and we still haven’t found Osama bin Laden, much less Saddam Hussein. We’ve also created the largest government bureaucracy in the history of the world, the Department of Homeland Security. Do we feel safer? A little, perhaps. Are we safer? Maybe not.

Had the energy and resources we put into Iraq gone to fighting the real terrorists, we might have seen much better results. Instead, Iraq has become a recruiting field for wannabe terrorists determined to drive the Americans from the country, and Al-Qaeda, though weakened, is still very much alive and dangerous.

And what about the rest of us? Have we told the president we’re willing to pay for this war now, rather than putting it on plastic and asking our kids to pay for it? Have we traded in our SUVs for four-cylinder econo-cars, cut back on our driving, ridden the bus more in an effort to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Hah. Instead, we squawk about high gas prices.

Why are Americans fighting in Iraq? After listening to the president’s speech, we’re still unsure. And we mourn the young Americans who are going to be killed or injured there while the rest of us just watch.