There are lots of reasons to think that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq will merely be a historical footnote to the war. Polls this spring have shown little public concern about the government's inability to validate the principal reason that it offered the world for military action. There hasn't even been much of a stir about news reports indicating that before the war the administration manipulated and misrepresented intelligence to exaggerate the dangers posed by Iraq.
The institutional weakness of the Democratic Party is partly responsible for the absence of a strong domestic political reaction. Republican control of both houses of Congress has deprived Democratic critics of the use of public hearings as a means of focusing the nation's attention on the administration's deceptions. And amid the Democrats' cacophonous presidential race, no voice stands out strongly enough to put the administration on the defensive.
But the problem goes deeper. As long as the war itself seems a success purchased at a relatively low cost in American lives, the public is unlikely to question how we got into Iraq. The sentiment seems to be that even if the president lied about weapons of mass destruction, they were only one of several reasons for war. In this view, it wasn't as if George W. Bush was personally deceiving us for an immoral reason, like covering up an affair with an intern. He did it for a good cause, getting rid of a tyrant, and the Middle East is already safer and more disposed toward peace as a result.
Most likely the way we got into Iraq will become an issue only if the public calculus about the war changes -- particularly if the costs of occupying Iraq become unacceptable and there appears no easy way to get out with any semblance of success. In fact, the costs are already going up.
Week by week since Bush declared the war over, American soldiers have continued to die in Iraq. And instead of the troops returning home for triumphant parades, a large-scale military deployment there seems likely for a long time.
Iraq also threatens to become a long-term burden financially. Contrary to what most people believe, the income generated by the Iraqi oil industry, if and when it is fully reconstructed, will not cover the costs of rebuilding the country and paying its debts.
Getting out of Iraq will be harder than getting in for other reasons as well. One of the motivations for the war was to give the United States a more reliable platform than Saudi Arabia for influence and operations in the Middle East. The United States is not about to end the occupation of Iraq without solidifying its position there. The American invasion may well be stabilizing the Middle East, but by the same token withdrawing American troops at some future time may destabilize the region.
In short, we could be looking at deployments in Iraq for decades, but unlike our forces in Europe and Asia, these soldiers will likely be targets of Islamist and nationalist violence and suffer continuing casualties.
Never having leveled with the public about the potential for this kind of long-term, bloody entanglement, the Bush administration faces a potential backlash as the realities set in: Will Americans patiently accept the costs of occupying Iraq through next year's election? Through 2006? Will Americans simply get used to a costly occupation or begin to ask whether it was necessary and wise in the first place? That is where the issue of original deception will come in.
There were good reasons to favor the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. That's why I wrote in support of going all the way to Baghdad during the original Gulf War. But Gulf War II was different from the start -- different because Bush Junior's unilateralism undermined international institutions, different because the administration lacked the evidence to show that war was necessary, different because the enterprise lacked legitimacy. Now we know Gulf War II was also different because it was based on twisted intelligence and outright deception.
Many people who five years ago professed to be outraged by presidential lies about a sexual affair are now indifferent about presidential lies used to secure the consent of Congress and the public to go to war. To me it seems an odd moral ranking, but I expect public indignation about Bush's deceptions will vary directly with impatience about ending the occupation. What America needs now even more than a reckoning with the truth is a prompt and just course out of Iraq -- or at least out of our unilateral occupation of Iraq -- before we get so accustomed to our new imperial role that our leaders are tempted to extend it.