By contributor
updated 6/15/2005 11:44:50 AM ET 2005-06-15T15:44:50

I was talking to Lebanese and Palestinian families here. We had never discussed politics before, let alone the war in Iraq. When the conversation turned that way, I expected a blast at George Bush and American hubris. I was wrong.

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As they spoke, the men fingering amber worry beads, they said that they, too, yearned for the advent of democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. Democracy was possible, as the heady days of Lebanon's “Cedar Revolution” had shown. Ridding the region of Saddam Hussein was a good thing.

But here was the problem: not America's intentions, but America's competence.

“The Americans have managed things so badly, with such a lack of knowledge and preparation,” said one man, “that people in the region are starting to wonder what your intentions really were to begin with.”

So it goes. As summer heat intensifies here, so do doubts about the war. New questions are being raised about the president’s original justification – the “gathering danger” of Saddam’s WMD program – fueled by the British documents collectively known as “the Downing Street memos.” The same secret memos, written in the spring and summer of 2002, underscore what the British, our closest allies, regarded as inadequate planning for the aftermath of the war. As portrayed in the memos, Bush was bent on war and war alone.

Three years later, suicide bombers are striking at will in Iraq. The brave new government has a tenuous hold on public life. The new Iraqi Army is years from becoming a credible force. Meanwhile, in Washington, concerns mount about the cost of the conflict in blood and treasure. Officials are being forced to defend troublesome interrogation and battlefield practices, from Guantanamo to Kirkuk. And even Republicans utter the “T Word:” timetable for withdrawal. The polls are what they are: there’s no support there for a true long haul.

Of memos and motivations
The Downing Street Memos aren’t quite the smoking AK-47 some have portrayed them to be. If you read them, you see that the British, like the Americans, took it as a given that Saddam indeed had plenty of WMD. Put that together with his history of having used them on his own people, and of having fired missiles in all directions, and there was ample justification for being concerned about what he might do. As described in the memos, Saddam was a threat. The question was, and is, how immediate a threat.

If intelligence was being “fixed” to support the war, as one memo put it, it was to support the notion that Saddam was the most urgent threat in the world. In his State of the Union speech the previous winter, Bush famously had identified an “Axis of Evil.” The Brits knew that Bush (and, by extension, Tony Blair) would have to argue that Saddam was a more immediate danger than the mullahs in Iran or the regime in North Korea. In the end, Bush declared Saddam a “gathering” menace.

Well, we now know, he wasn’t “gathering” much of anything other than marble palaces and torture victims. And without the “gathering” there was less urgency in returning U.N. inspectors, and without the rebuff of U.N. inspectors (and defiance of U.N. resolutions) there was no plausible justification for the war in international law – certainly not enough to satisfy even British public opinion.

Frustration and foreign affairs
Fast forward three years. Things changed politically here when Sen. Joe Biden, respected for his bipartisanship and knowledge of foreign affairs, declares that the U.S. should set benchmarks for progress in Iraq – and says that failure to meet them should trigger a phased withdrawal of American troops.

With that cover, some Republicans have begun to emerge, in some cases taking the same position. Members of Congress are raising new questions about other aspects of American policy – such as our heavily logistical reliance on the controversial regime in Uzbekistan, or our interrogation policy at Guantanamo and the new “extra-judicial detention” strategy on the battlefield in Iraq.

Much attention has been focused on Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, the inventor of “freedom fries,” and now a man who says that the troops should come home. He is easy for some to dismiss as a maverick and a crank –- he’s never been a party-line type of guy. But he represents the district in his state with the largest military presence, so the Bush White House needs to pay attention.

As tough as this situation is, the Democrats shouldn’t crow. For one, most of them thought there were WMD in Iraq, too, and most of them supported the president, at least initially.

The Walter Jones notwithstanding, the war is not likely to divide the Republican Party the way it may well divide the Democrats. And the American people are still waiting to hear from the Democrats precisely how they would handle the war on terrorism differently than Bush has. They didn’t hear it in the last presidential election – and it wasn’t always clear that voters really wanted to listen in the first place.

That won’t be true in 2008. By then there could well be a “gathering” interest in another worldview.

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