The uncomfortable reality
is that presidents have often deceived the American public to pull the country into wars or extensive military engagements. FDR said he was trying to keep us out of World War II, even as he courted a conflict with the Axis powers, which he
believed both necessary and unavoidable. History has judged him well. LBJ manufactured an incident to get us into Vietnam. Eventually it destroyed him. When President Clinton put American troops into Bosnia he claimed they'd only be there for a year, even though everyone knew they'd be there much longer. The verdict there has been generally positive, though more time needs to pass for a definitive verdict. There are many other examples both before and since.
Yet what the Bush administration has done and is doing is, I believe, qualitatively different from these and other examples both before and since. In each of these other cases the public had some sense of what war was being debated. Do we get into another world war based in Europe? Do we get into Vietnam the way we got into Korea? Do we sign on for a murky and perhaps unpredictable period of military oversight in the Balkans? Presidents may have lied about the costs of war or the pretexts. But there was at least some sense of what sort of war we were talking about.
That's not the case here.
This war isn't really about Iraq or deposing Saddam or even eliminating his WMD, though each of those are important benefits along the way. Nor is it something so mundane as a 'war for oil.' The leading architects of this war in and out of the administration see this war, and have pursued it, as an opening blow in a far broader war against political Islam. They see it as the first in a series of wars and near-wars which will lead eventually to the overthrow of most of the current governments in the Middle East, the establishment of western-oriented democracies throughout the Arab world, and the destruction of nothing less than the political world of Islamic fundamentalism.
That, as you might say, is a rather tall order. And it would have been very hard for the administration to sell the American people on such a struggle. So it didn't try. It pushed rather to get us into Iraq, knowing that if it went about the process in the right way it would make a further series of wars against Iran, Syria and perhaps lower-level hostilities against Saudi Arabia and Egypt all but inevitable.
As Jeffrey Bell put it last week in The Weekly Standard, this is nothing less than a "world war between the United States and a political wing of Islamic fundamentalism ... a war of such reach and magnitude [that] the invasion of Iraq, or the capture of top al Qaeda commanders, should be seen as tactical events in a series of moves and countermoves stretching well into the future."
In any case, I've tried to sketch this out and put together the various ideas and aims involved, in the cover piece of the soon-to-be-released new issue of the Washington Monthly. The piece was finished on, I think, the first day of the war. But events have been moving so quickly that we've decided to preview release it on the Monthly's website. You can read "Practice to Deceive" here.