Clinton: The big mistake of the Iraq war

Ex-President leads the critics
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Indy Politics

The dam has burst. Former president Bill Clinton's verdict that the war in Iraq was "a big mistake" is echoing around the world.

The unease, the misgivings, and downright opposition can be contained no longer. From Senate Republicans, to one of the most influential Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill yesterday, the message has been the same. The Iraq war has been a disaster, and the sooner American troops leave the better. The alarm was sounded on Capitol Hill on Tuesday when Senate Republicans and Democrats joined forces to demand the White House explain every three months how it intends to "complete the mission" in Iraq.

The next day, Mr Clinton weighed in from the Middle East, saying the war as it unfolded was "a big mistake". It was a good thing Saddam Hussein had gone, the former president said, "but I don't agree with what was done". The administration underestimated "how easy it would be to overthrow Saddam and how hard it would be to unite the country".

He said President George Bush had made "several errors, including the total dismantlement of the authority structure of Iraq". He added: "We never sent enough troops and didn't have enough troops to control or seal the borders." Across those porous borders, "the terrorists came in. That was the central mistake, and we're still living with that".

As passions have run higher here this week, the venerable traditions that foreign policy arguments "stopped at the water's edge", seems to have been conclusively discarded. The most recent Democratic president was in Dubai, in the heart of the Arab world, when he delivered his verdict on the war that was launched by his successor in the White House.

On Tuesday, US senators voted 79-19 to endorse a Republican amendment demanding a regular accounting for the war from the Bush administration. Not only was it a bilateral statement that things could not go on as they were, it came at the moment Mr Bush was in Asia, thanking Japan, South Korea and Mongolia for their contributions to coalition forces in Iraq.

From foreign soil, Mr Bush fired back at his Democratic critics, accusing them of "playing politics in America", with their charges that his administration had distorted pre-war WMD intelligence. In short, a foreign trip by a sitting president no longer guarantees a cessation of hostilities at home; indeed this time it has only served to stoke them.

Vice-President Dick Cheney, arguably the driving force behind the invasion, delivered a vitriolic retort to a conservative audience here on Wednesday, accusing Democrats of levelling "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city". These critics, he suggested, had lost "either their memory or their backbone". They were peddling "cynical and pernicious falsehoods" to gain political advantage while US soldiers died in Iraq, at least 51 of them so far this month, bringing the overall toll to 2,080 since the March 2003 invasion.

But Democrats scornfully dismissed the "tired rhetoric" of a discredited vice-president. John Kerry, who was defeated by Mr Bush in 2004, said "few people have less credibility" than Mr Cheney, who said before the war that Saddam was "reconstituting" nuclear weapons, and the US invaders would be greeted with garlands. But the most significant developments have come on Capitol Hill, as both parties signal that enough is enough.

Chuck Hagel, a widely respected Republican senator from Nebraska, said that the bipartisan vote was a "historic turning point", with Congress reasserting its constitutional duty to oversee foreign policy.

And in another stunning development, John Murtha, an old-school Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania of 30 years' standing, demanded an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, "because they have become the target".

A decorated marine veteran and ranking Democrat on the House defence appropriations subcommittee, Mr Murtha has been a hawk on military matters, and voted for the 2003 invasion. But close to tears at times in a press conference, he said he had changed his mind.

"It is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering, the future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interests of the US, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region." His call for an "immediate redeployment" not only flies in the face of the refusal of the White House to set any date for a draw-down of American forces. Mr Murtha went further even than liberal Democrats, who mostly go no further than seeking a timetable for a phased pull-out of the 160,000 US troops in Iraq.

The latest polls show that up to two-thirds of Americans now oppose the war.