Among the various awards to government officials, let me offer one of my own: the Oveta Culp Hobby Award for a truly dumb statement. I have twice before cited the late Mrs. Hobby, the nation's chief health official back in the Eisenhower administration, because she somehow managed to remain oblivious to the polio panic that struck each summer. When the government ran short of the new and downright miraculous Salk polio vaccine, the rich and fortunate Mrs. Hobby offered the following explanation: "No one could have foreseen the public demand for the vaccine."
For sheer inanity, the remark is almost impossible to beat. Yet three times in the past couple of weeks I reached for the Hobby Award, thinking she had at least been matched. The first came when General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked by Senator John McCain whether a year ago he anticipated that Iraq might be on the verge of civil war. "No, sir," the general said.
Next McCain posed the same question to General John P. Abizaid, who is in charge of everything in Iraq. He knew a year ago that tensions were high, he said. But "that they would be this high, no."
Finally, we have the remarks of Major General William B. Caldwell, spokesman for the American military in Iraq. He was not at the Senate hearing, but he caught its flavor and then some. When asked by The New York Times if the United States had moved too quickly to replace American troops with Iraqis, he said, "I don't think we moved too quickly. I don't think anyone could have anticipated the sectarian violence."
Oveta, move over.
Can these high-ranking military officers possibly mean what they said? Even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the term "civil war" was being bruited about. This was because even a casual viewer of the Discovery Channel or some such thing knew that the nation of Iraq was an artificial creation of Britain -- Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill, et al. The casual viewer also knew that a minority of Sunnis had governed a majority of Shiites through the application of violence and a not inconsiderable amount of torture. Why this country would hold together once the locks were clipped is a question whose answer we are now seeing: It won't.
The high-ranking officers cited above are neither stupid nor ignorant of Iraq's history. I can only conclude, therefore, that, like countless others before them, they feel compelled to say things that fit the political ideology and delusions of their civilian bosses in the Bush administration. The official line there, of course, is that Iraq is not and will not and could not descend into civil war because, well, that would aid the evildoers.
Whatever the case, we now have to understand that uttering the word "Iraq" does to Bush administration officials what a touch of tequila does to Mel Gibson. I could spend the rest of this column quoting Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others on what would happen when GI Joe got to Baghdad or why the war had to be fought in the first place. The collected quotes are funny in one context, sad and infuriating in another: the playing of taps, the folding of the flag, and the required lie about "a hero's death."
I dutifully read the news about Iraq. But I recognize most administration statements as lies or, if by accident the actual truth, a mere snapshot of a moment that will change over time. More troops one day, fewer the next. We have this town one day; we don't the next. Iraqi troops are up to snuff; oops, no they're not. This is the babble of chaos, the telltale rhetoric of defeat.
I share the concern of what would happen to Iraq if the United States pulled out precipitously. I share the concern over what will happen if the United States stays. I share the concern of those who say that no matter whether it stays or goes the outcome will be the same. I especially share the concern of those who say that the Bush administration does not have a plan to disengage and that rather than confront the immensity of its mistake -- I pity Donald Rumsfeld if he should ever lose the gift of denial -- it thinks that this or that adaptation to new conditions will somehow change the outcome. It will not. The end was set at the beginning. It is better that it come sooner rather than later.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Tim Sampson will return next week.