Just give us some truth

Just scrap everything. Crumple up what you’ve got so far, throw it in the wastepaper basket and start over.

If you’re the producers of “Batman Begins” this is a strategy that works extraordinarily well. Serve up a movie packed with top-notch actors and backed up by a fantastic script and we soon forget the transgressions of George Clooney and Val Kilmer.

But some of us have been hoping to see a different movie: “Iraq Begins.” We’ve been hoping that, a year after Iraq was handed sovereignty, the country would be showing some tangible progress toward becoming a stable, safe place for civilian life. Those of us who are disappointed at this point deserve some honest answers, but it seems we’re only getting a repackaging of a story we’ve seen before.

On June 28, President Bush made a speech at Fort Bragg about the current state of affairs in Iraq. In the wake of opinion polls showing public support for the Iraq war, President Bush’s speech bears an uncanny resemblance to a dutifully revised Hollywood screenplay proposal.

The plan to build up an Iraqi security force is hyped as though it were a bold new idea, not something that’s been on the table now for more than a year and has barely progressed since. All the complex schisms of Iraqi culture are ironed out like so many cumbersome and distracting story plots. We are asked merely to believe that the insurgents are all “foreigners” who have crossed the border to cause trouble. President Bush claims that we’re fighting terrorists abroad so that we won’t have to fight them at home, as though terrorists feel obligated to pay a visit to Baghdad before moving on to Western nations. Other troubling story elements, such as the sharp decline in U.S. military recruiting and the never-found arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, are wholly written out of the scenario.

I remember when the principle behind the war was self-defense. Later it morphed into a vision of democracy blooming across the Middle East. Now the guiding principle in Iraq appears to be one of national honor. At the heart of President Bush’s speech is an appeal to an America that neither crumbles under pressure nor questions its own resolve.

Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable seeing the highest principles of American government trundled on and off like so many Hollywood backdrops? The goal may be to emphasize the nobility of the cause in Iraq, but talk of democracy and freedom is just rhetoric unless it’s backed up by a real change in policy.

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Bizarrely, President Bush now seems to be using the carnage and chaos of Iraq as an argument for our inevitable success.

“I told the American people that the road ahead would be difficult and we would prevail,” Bush said near the end of his speech. “Well, it has been difficult, and we are prevailing.”

It’s almost as though the average American is supposed to think, “Gee, if he was so right about the difficulty, there’s just no way he could be wrong about the other stuff!”

President Bush was right to emphasize the positive achievements in Iraq in his speech. A lot is being done. A tyrant has been displaced and an entire nation has been allowed the right to vote, a right most people in the world have never enjoyed. Public education and health care for Iraqi citizens are improving.

But dwindling support for Iraq’s occupation is not because the American people fail to see its benefits but rather because the more we look at the Middle East, the more we see that it’s a region where bloody conflicts keep getting bloodier, and grudges are maintained and intensified for centuries.

After the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, President Bush went on the air in Arab countries explaining that the torturers would be brought to justice because democracy relies on “transparency,” on a government dealing openly and honestly with the people it governs.

In order for the occupation of Iraq to succeed, President Bush will have to take this message to heart. The American public needs a candid look at how decisions are really made in this White House. We need to know how many Iraqi civilians have been needlessly killed in Iraq, and where the soldiers are expected to come from if this engagement doesn’t end soon. Most importantly, Americans need to know when our soldiers can expect to come home. President Bush needs to gather the best information he can and present us not with an artificial timetable for withdrawal, but an accurate one that will tell us in concrete terms what further sacrifices are being asked of us.

Telling the whole truth about what’s going on in Iraq won’t be easy. But this is the moment for President Bush to decide whether he wants to adopt a policy of absolute candor, or just another round of Hollywood makeovers.