Americans frustrated with the Democratic congressional leaders for dithering over Iraq should never forget who actually drove us into the Iraqi quagmire. Even those Democrats who voted for the president’s war resolution in 2002 did so only after the president repeatedly promised — with the deepest insincerity — that he would invade Iraq only as a “last resort.”

Responsibility for that lie and many others rests squarely with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who have spent nearly four years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars to create catastrophe. Today every policy alternative, including a phased withdrawal, is likely to impose costly consequences on us, on the Iraqis and on the world.

So perhaps the Democrats deserve more than a month or two to determine how best to extricate our troops from that complex and perilous trap.

Besides, Bush and Cheney have declared that they’ll ignore any congressional action that would cut short their bloody misadventure. Rather than engage in honest debate over a saner course in Iraq, the vice president has resorted to the same discredited rhetoric used by him and his allies from the beginning.

Seeking to intimidate the congressional leaders last week, he recited the misleading old formula conflating war in Iraq with the struggle against al-Qaida. That theory has been blown up with the same force and frequency as the daily explosions on Baghdad’s streets. Only days ago, the Pentagon inspector general issued a devastating report describing how Cheney’s agents in the Defense Department distorted intelligence to “prove” the mythical linkage between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Moreover, every credible analysis of the Iraq insurgency estimates that only a tiny fraction of the fighters are linked to al-Qaida in any significant way. While the jihadist movement is growing, bin Laden and his lieutenants can profit from our mistakes without leaving their strongholds thousands of miles away.

During Cheney’s latest foreign trip, he warned Speaker Nancy Pelosi that redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq would “validate the al-Qaida strategy” — as if bin Laden had somehow lured the United States into invading Mesopotamia. “Al-Qaida functions on the basis that they think they can break our will,” he added later. “That’s their fundamental underlying strategy: that if they can kill enough Americans or cause enough havoc, create enough chaos in Iraq, then we’ll quit and go home.”

Actually, we now know that the occupation of Iraq has strengthened al-Qaida by recruiting thousands of young Muslims to its cause. We know that because the National Intelligence Estimate prepared for the Bush administration a year ago said so. According to the Washington Post, the classified NIE concluded that “rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position.”

As if to underline his cluelessness, the vice president visited South Asia soon after his remarks about Pelosi “validating al-Qaida.” In Pakistan, he demanded that President Pervez Musharraf strike the border strongholds of the Taliban, which poses a real threat to the weak Western-backed regime in Kabul. If the Pakistanis failed to deal harshly with their old friends in the Taliban and al-Qaida, Cheney said he couldn’t promise to protect Pakistan from reprisals by the congressional Democrats.

Oblivious to the contradiction in his own remarks, he then flew on to Bagram Airbase outside Kabul, where he came dangerously close to obliteration by a Taliban suicide bomber. Having neglected Afghanistan to pursue pre-emptive war in Iraq, the Bush-Cheney administration has ensured safe havens and recruiting grounds for terrorists in both countries.

Those twin failures reflect the broader collapse of Middle East policy under Cheney’s intellectual stewardship. Thanks to his belligerent outlook, we have abandoned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, encouraged both Shiite and Sunni extremism, diminished our own military strength, and made democracy synonymous with irreparable destruction.

No wonder the vice president thinks things are going so well.

In their oblivious arrogance, Cheney and Bush seem confident that they will prevail over any Democratic initiative, and they may be right. They can repeat their canned denunciations of their critics and their fanciful formulations about the war. They can pretend that their confused, incompetent policies demonstrate resolve. They can mock the “nonbinding” resolutions that do nothing to deter their reckless escalation.

They should understand, however, what even an act of symbolic legislation against the war represents: the complete and irreparable forfeiture of the people’s confidence in the Bush White House.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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