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Published: Monday, 4/18/2005

Historical stretch

A moving photo-op two years ago in Baghdad does not a monumental moment in history make. Contrary to what a gung-ho commander in chief asserts, knocking down a statue of Saddam Hussein in the Iraqi capital - while extremely gratifying - does not rank up there with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At a pep rally with soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas, President Bush might be forgiven for letting his exuberance get away from him. But comparing a 40-foot statue toppled on cue to the defeat of communism in Europe is not only an absurd historical stretch but an affront to all who fought and labored arduously for each.

To put history in perspective takes nothing away from the soldiers who raced across the Iraqi desert to reach Baghdad in record time and ceremoniously pulled down the image of a hated despot. Yanking the Berlin Wall down was the culmination of so much more than a 21-day military feat by an invading superpower.

Yet by linking the two events, the President and the administration appear to be moving to reshape recent history in hopes of casting their legacy in a better light. The decision to invade Iraq was justified to the American people and the world primarily as a security issue.

Forceful regime change was necessary, the administration argued repeatedly, because Iraq harbored dangerous biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. With none of the above materializing after two years of U.S. military entrenchment in Iraq, the administration is increasingly portraying its invasion as a necessary prelude to liberty throughout the region.

"The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a crushing defeat to the forces of tyranny and terror, and a watershed event in the global democratic revolution," said the President to the energized young soldiers waving American flags.

If only it were so. But post-Saddam Hussein Iraq remains at war with itself and the power pendulum continues to swing even closer to a theocracy akin to Iran's. That country, many fear, is moving precariously close to producing nuclear weapons within striking range of Israel and U.S. military bases in the Middle East.

Israel, meanwhile, is breaking ground for new settlements in the disputed West Bank territory despite the clear protests of the Palestinians and Washington, which casts a distinct pall on the administration's "road map" peace plan.

But the President was visiting the home base of army divisions that have shouldered some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraqi insurgency and apparently opted to elevate the broader purpose of the war to lessen the pain of their sacrifice.

He can be forgiven for skewing history to rally the troops for the moment. But what can the families of the 146 soldiers from Fort Hood that have been killed in Iraq take from his changing agenda?

Even as Mr. Bush was addressing the soldiers, suicide car bombs were exploding in various Iraqi cities, killing scores of civilians while U.S. troops battled insurgents and arms smugglers elsewhere.

So the commander in chief reverted to his liberty-is-on-the-march mantra to cheer on the soldiers, some of whom are preparing to return to Iraq for second tours of duty in the fall. He told them they are "making an enormous difference for the security of our nation "

Exactly how they're doing that a world away in violent Iraq will be for history to decide, but chances are when all is said and done, toppling a statue in a Baghdad square won't carry the historical importance the President suggests.



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