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Down the drain in Iraq

H. ROSS PEROT, the Texas maverick who ran for president back in 1992, used to talk about the "giant sucking sound." He was talking about jobs being drawn out of the country by foreign competition. Bill Clinton won that election with the slogan: "It's the economy, stupid." This time around I suspect that the slogan will be: "It's Iraq, stupid," and the economy will play a role.

The giant sucking sound today is America being drawn deeper and deeper into the Baal-like maw of what used to be Babylon. President Bush is going back to Congress for another $25 billion of taxpayers' money for Iraq, and there can be no doubt that the tab will continue to mount into the hundreds and hundreds of billions. A Financial Times headline on a stock exchange story read: "Iraq proving the biggest drag of all."

The sucking sound is the US military emptying out more and more of its men and equipment into Iraq; a military stretched so dangerously thin that troops from the Korean Peninsula will now be drawn away from confronting a far more dangerous country than Iraq ever was -- a country that actually has weapons of mass destruction. The interrupted lives and finances of reservists, whose tours keep getting extended, will also take their toll.

The sucking sound is of allies who are becoming less and less willing to be in the coalition of the willing. Spain has gone, Poland has its doubts, Italians are getting restless, and even the faithful British may find it hard to stay the course with an American administration that has failed so badly in its conduct of the war. That goes for our Iraqi allies, too.

The drain is beginning to gurgle as America's prestige and popularity throughout the world runs out. The recent torture scandals have tapped into America's moral authority, and show trials of sergeants and corporals are not going to plug the leak. As Senator John McCain said about the blame: "Everything that I see indicates it goes further up the line."

The glass of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's honor is fast emptying, too, as he refuses to take responsibility and step down for what happened on his watch. Even the Army Times has called for his resignation. The president seems not to understand what needs to be done to expunge this shame. The butcher bill for American casualties, the airlift home of flag-draped coffins that the Bush administration would rather we didn't see, the occupation's mistakes, miscalculations, and blunders are beginning to siphon off support for the war in the United States.

"The Bush administration seems not to recognize how widespread and how bipartisan is the view that Iraq is already lost or on the verge of being lost," write the conservative and prowar columnists William Kristol and Robert Kagan. "The administration therefore may not appreciate how close the whole nation is to tipping decisively against the war." Kristol and Kagan hear the slosh of the neoconservatives' dream of changing the Middle East into America's image also going down the drain.

Democrats and Republicans alike, even those who support "staying the course" in Iraq, are mystified by the denial the administration seems to be in about Iraq. The course Bush says he's keeping seems rudderless, and nobody in the world can tell you what Iraqi sovereignty is supposed to look like after the end of next month.

Back in January 2002, Kagan and Kristol, rebutting arguments that we ought to finish the job in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda first before going into Iraq, wrote that "the United States can, after all, walk and chew gum at the same time." But Washington famously cannot. The entire administration is now totally absorbed with the bubble gum of Iraq, which is bursting in its face, and the Bush team has a great deal of trouble walking any other walk.

But the most disturbing sucking sound of all is the security of the United States draining away as Iraq takes its toll. The world may be better off without Saddam Hussein, but it is hard to say that the world is now a safer place or that the threat of terror has been reduced by the Bush administration's occupation of Iraq. Quite the opposite.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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