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Issue Date:  November 10, 2006

More than the Iraq war is going wrong

If the polls are anywhere near correct, Americans are finally fed up with the war in Iraq and are looking for change.

Whether the midterm election will significantly alter the political landscape in Washington is unknown at the time of this writing, but that kind of change would merely confirm what seems palpable nearly everywhere going into the election -- voters are dissatisfied with lots of things, and Iraq heads the list.

The more important question for the country is, Why the voter dissatisfaction? Is it simply because the fight has become a futile one? Or is it because in our failure in Iraq we can begin to see the deeper truth of what we’ve become during the past six years?

Whatever the election results, it is unlikely that the public will quickly or substantially change opinions that, across a variety of polls, show an overwhelming majority disapprove of the way President Bush is conducting the war, believe he has no plan to end the war and that a Republican-controlled Congress will stay the course and draw more U.S. troops into the battle.

The steady and increasing flow of bad news from the war zone certainly has something to do with the pendulum shift of public opinion about the president and the war during its three-year course.

Iraq, however, has come to represent more than failed military policies. It has become the neon sign advertising the growing gap between what the Bush administration proclaims to be reality and what actually is occurring on the ground.

In the run-up to the election, President Bush, confining his campaigning to select audiences of enthusiasts in places such as Statesboro, Ga., and Billings, Mont., resorted repeatedly to familiar and ridiculous dualisms: Republicans will fight terrorism; Democrats will concede; and repeating that he likes “the progress we’re making.”

At the same time, the U.S. Central Command in Iraq was depicting a country sliding steadily toward chaos. According to materials obtained by The New York Times, commanders in Iraq devised an index showing a sharp increase in sectarian violence with “violence at an all-time high, spreading geographically.”

The calculus devised by the commanders, of course, backs up what anyone would conclude from the range of reporting coming out of Iraq. It is impossible to disguise the incessant killing -- the growing number of U.S. casualties and the increasing numbers of Iraqi dead -- as anything but chaos tipping toward all-out civil war. Impossible, that is, anywhere but the political stump.

It takes a fair dose of denial to see progress in the current context.

Iraq is not alone among the significant disconnects between what we are told and what is actually happening. It is only, perhaps, the most dramatic and public, the easiest to grab hold of.

Perhaps we’re all beginning to get the sense that more than the war is going wrong. Perhaps a realization is surfacing that there is a wide gap between our self-identification as freedom-loving democrats (with a small d) and hidden prisons or rendition flights, or the attorney general’s memos justifying torture or the suspension of habeas corpus or detention without end and without legal representation.

Just maybe the electorate is becoming increasingly uneasy with laws such as the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which essentially confers on the president the powers of a monarch, allowing him to determine who might be an enemy combatant, to order harsh interrogation methods or to order a suspect confined indefinitely.

We must keep reminding ourselves what is occurring in our midst in these times. We need to connect the dots between the discrete news items of a given week or over a period of months. Our civil liberties, as well as our identity as people who embrace both the promise and the difficulties of democracy, seem not to be in danger of disappearing all at once in an avalanche. Instead, they seem to be wearing away slowly under a steady erosion and at the service of an amorphous, open-ended war on terror.

Whatever the new Congress looks like, its members will have to deal with the growing discontent reflected in the polls. That is a matter of political survival. More important, they will have to deal with the growing unease that voters feel when ideals and reality become dangerously out of sync.

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2006

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