WASHINGTON — The country has concluded that the Iraq war is a profound misadventure from which the United States must somehow extract itself. Details have been left to the foreign policy experts and political fixers of the Iraq Study Group, a sort of government-outside-the-government that is supposed to offer a path of wisdom to those inside the government who’ve not found one on their own.

The American people cannot untangle this dangerous web. But we can take stock of lessons learned.

What, at this bloody juncture, can we say about the role the people played in the blunder of Iraq?

The first is that we allowed the crudest sort of politics to form the basis of support for war. The Iraq invasion was a political choice, not a necessity of national security. If we were befuddled, or scared out of our wits by the Bush administration’s rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction and its false linkage of Iraq with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, our suspicions should have been aroused by White House hucksterism: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August,” White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said in explaining why the president waited until the fall of 2002 — on the eve of the midterm congressional elections — to begin selling us the faulty Iraq product.

All wars require a dose of propaganda to rally the public, to boost the troops, to bind a nation together as it endures hardship. The trouble with the Iraq war is that it was all propaganda, all the time, all along. The president and much of the Republican Party kept up the advertising right up to this month’s election, when at last the people stopped buying.

The moment of rejection might have come sooner had we not made another crucial mistake, from which we must learn the most important lesson. Many Americans were all too willing to allow this war to fester so long as only those relatively few families with sons and daughters in the volunteer military were at risk — and so long as we were not asked to pay even a dollar in taxes to support it.

Much has been made these past few days about the passing of a cruel anniversary. We’ve now been at war in Iraq as long as we were fighting World War II. There is a reason we have come to call the World War II generation “the greatest.” The citizens of that era earned the accolade, through sacrifice on the battlefield and at home.

If such broad sacrifice had been required to go to war in Iraq, would Congress have been so compliant in approving the conflict? Would the country in 2004 have reelected President Bush?

Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry at the time offered a plan for a negotiated settlement that is strikingly similar to the initial word leaking out of the Iraq Study Group. Kerry called, in part, for negotiations involving key regional players such as Iran and Syria. If the entire nation was giving up its flesh and blood — or even forced to open its wallet — would we have groped for an exit strategy two years ago?

Never again should the people be so disengaged, deliberately or not, from the consequences of a war that they allow the government to pursue in their names.

And never again should we avert our eyes from the dark seed our own actions cultivated. Even if most Americans have all but forgotten the images of Abu Ghraib, it is safe to say most Arabs and Muslims have not.

“I mean, those pictures, a hundred years from now, when the history of the Middle East is written, those things will be part and parcel of whatever textbook that Iraqis and Syrians and others are writing about the West,” Col. William Darley of Military Review told the Columbia Journalism Review for an oral history of the war.

Much the same could be said about the indefinite detention of hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — a blight our closest allies have urged us, time and again, to rectify.

The 2008 presidential election looms. We may or may not be out of Iraq by then, but we will be forced to choose. Another lesson of this grim experience is that we must finally shun candidates who are long on charisma and good at catchphrases, but short on life experience that brings a level head.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is [email protected].


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