In a series of speeches that began on Veterans Day, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have issued their equivalent of Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman" speech, and Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook" speech. They have been firing back at their critics, who charge them with manipulating intelligence and misleading us into the Iraq war.
With opinion polls showing their lowest level of approval yet, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney are desperately denying they did anything deceptive in the run-up to the war. They combine their protestations of innocence with a vitriolic attack on Democrats for being "irresponsible, reprehensible and dishonest." Amazingly, they accuse their critics of rewriting history. That's the pot calling the kettle black.
Mr. Bush charges his critics with tearing down troop morale and emboldening the insurgents - in effect, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Mr. Bush speaks as if he believes, like Caesar, that he is the personification of the empire. He talks as if an attack on him is an attack on America.
This name calling and heated rhetoric only serve to further divide an already polarized American public. But America is a sleeping giant, and as the steadily declining poll numbers show, the public is beginning to wake up to the folly of this administration's military policies and the falsity of their claims about the Iraq war. The public watches in disbelief as the president says, "We don't do torture," while seeking to exempt the CIA from a proposed congressional ban on torture, and despite our establishment of secret prisons overseas and our practice of "rendering" prisoners for interrogation by countries that do engage in torture.
The public craves and deserves a frank admission by the president and vice president that they refuse to set a timetable for withdrawing troops because they have no intention of leaving Iraq. Mr. Bush, a Harvard Business School graduate, knows as well as anyone that if you are serious about achieving a goal, you make a plan, establish a schedule and set a final deadline for accomplishing it. Instead, he gives excuse after excuse for keeping our troops in Iraq indefinitely. Meanwhile, we are building permanent military bases in Iraq, with the apparent aim of maintaining a permanent presence there.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney owe the public an explanation of their true agenda in Iraq. Instead of constantly repeating slogans about spreading democracy and freedom, they should engage us in an open, honest debate about the real goals of the Iraq war: establishing an Iraqi government friendly to U.S. interests, protecting Israel, ensuring preferential access to Iraqi oil, substituting Iraq in place of Saudi Arabia as a base of Mideast operations, and using our military to further U.S. economic interests and influence events in the region. Americans may accept these as legitimate and worthy goals, but we'll never know as long as the administration refuses to acknowledge what they are actually trying to do.
It is time for the administration to trust the American people. We can handle the truth. If Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney honestly believe their goals, policies and methods are in America's best interest, then they should not be afraid to subject them to public scrutiny and defend them on the merits. By circling the wagons, attacking their critics as traitors and refusing to admit any mistakes, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney give us every reason to believe they have a lot to hide.
As long as they keep choosing to stay the course and stiff the public, their popularity and credibility will continue to drop. As Abraham Lincoln once said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time."
Ed Hein of Juneau is a U.S. Army veteran.