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SCOT LEHIGH

Medals without merit

HISTORY has hardly finished cleaning its spectacles, let alone affixed its gaze on the current administration, and already George W. Bush is busy anointing his own Iraq war-era heroes. On Tuesday, the president bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on George Tenet, the former CIA director, General Tommy Franks, the commander of the Iraq invasion, and L. Paul Bremer, who served as chief civilian administrator there for 14 months.

"Today, this honor goes to three men who have played pivotal roles in great events," Bush said.

But let's interrupt the apotheosization to consider the context of those medals. In praising Tenet, Bush practiced a form of political revisionist history, completely ignoring the matter of the flawed intelligence the administration cited to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Although there was no single person to blame for the quality of US intelligence, the official most responsible was Tenet, who until his June resignation served as the CIA director. Tenet is, by most accounts, a likable, loyal fellow. But neither likability nor loyalty should excuse his role in painting an erroneous picture of Iraq as a nation that had biological and chemical weapons and was reconstituting its nuclear program.

In its unanimous and scathing July report, the Senate Intelligence Committee said that most major judgments in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's illicit weapons were "either overstated, or were not supported by, the underlying intelligence reporting."

Tenet had fiercely defended the CIA in a February speech at Georgetown University. But the most telling vignette about his performance remains this one from Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack." According to Woodward, Bush, unimpressed by a December 2002 CIA briefing on Iraq's alleged WMD, pressed Tenet on the issue, asking: "George, how confident are you?" Tenet, Woodward writes, threw up his arms and responded: "Don't worry. It's a slam dunk."

Tenet was smart enough to leave before the Senate Intelligence Committee issued its report, which otherwise surely would have occasioned his ouster. But how in the world does that sorry record rate the nation's highest civilian honor?

As a career military man, Franks is understood to be an executor of the president's orders and not the initiator of the Bush administration's Iraq policy. And certainly he deserves the nation's appreciation for his long service to country, just as Bremer deserves credit for leaving a lucrative consulting practice to take on the daunting and dangerous job of civilian administrator in Iraq.

Still, important questions surround the judgment of each. In Bremer's case, the strong consensus is that in disbanding the Iraqi army, he made an ill-fated decision that has rendered the task of stabilizing Iraq infinitely more difficult. Franks, for his part, clearly underestimated the post-invasion challenge of bringing stability to Iraq. One example of that: According to The New York Times, just days after the fall of Baghdad, Franks told top commanders that combat forces should be ready to start leaving Iraq within two months, and that by fall, only about 30,000 troops would be required.

There is, moreover, a troubling aspect of mutually beneficial encomia to the general's honor. Franks, it's important to recall, took the podium at the Republican National Convention to aid Bush's reelection effort, paying a handsome tribute to a president locked in a close race.

"I have looked into this man's eyes and I have seen his character," he declared. "I've seen courage and I've seen consistency, the courage to stand up to terrorists and the consistency necessary to beat them."

By then, Franks had retired, and plunging into politics was certainly his prerogative. But once he stepped into the political arena, Franks forfeited his right to be considered a professional soldier above the political fray.

Put another way, it is not just a long-time military man that Bush decorated this week, but an important campaign ally.

Now, Bush is hardly the only president to have given administration figures or close associates the medal of freedom. Still, the honors would seem far more legitimate if they had come after a fuller historical judgment.

And that way the president would have avoided the entirely legitimate suspicion that what he's really doing in declaring new American heroes is rewarding his own loyalists -- even as he uses their laurels to put a shine on his controversial Iraq policy.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com. 

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