THE COMMANDER WILL GO, WAR WILL GO ON

The war in Iraq has been labeled many things: a mission, an occupation, a controversy, a black hole. But last week, it officially became something else.

An inheritance.

With President George W. Bush’s decision to leave troop levels where they are, he ensured that Iraq would be someone else’s problem in January. Unlike the Persian Gulf War, Kosovo or even World War I, Iraq soon will straddle two American presidencies.

That seems somehow unfair. This is Bush’s war. He started it in his first term and continued it in his second. There is no end in sight. And he seems uninterested in exploring one. Instead, he will hand it off, like a baton, while he goes home to Texas and a rich, quieter life.

Now, I am not one of those people who think we should pack our bags and flee Iraq tomorrow. Like someone stuck on a flight he didn’t want to take, I recognize the consequences of bailing out – regardless of how little I wanted to be there in the first place.

But if last week was Bush’s final door slam on an ending, then it warrants a look back on where this thing began. One misstep after another

We went into Iraq to get the weapons of mass destruction. Except there were no weapons of mass destruction.

We went in to stop Al Qaeda’s terror operations in Iraq. Except there were no Al Qaeda terror operations in Iraq – until we got there.

We went in to take out Saddam Hussein, a tyrant in the region. Except we took him out, and now we fret over Iran, the new tyrant in the region.

We went in to protect and control a major oil supply. Except oil is now well over $100 a barrel and we are as enslaved to it as ever.

We went in to be greeted as liberators. But we are seen by most as occupiers.

We went in with the world’s sympathy. We stay there with the world’s scorn.

If you took this list of mistakes and changed objectives and squeezed it into a three-month time frame, Americans would be screaming over the failure. Screaming. Howling mad.

But the biggest danger of a long, prolonged war is how used to the morass you can get. How accustomed you grow to setbacks, negative reports, minimal progress or, worst of all, 140,000 of our sons and daughters stationed over there.

And now a new president will have to finish what Bush started.

Where would you begin? The words of war

Remember, this president stood before a banner that read “mission accomplished.” Later he said, “Stay the course.” Last week he told reporters that Americans had been worried about “failure in Iraq” but today things were better. The fact that the president even acknowledged the word “failure” showed you how far across the table this plate had skidded.

Here is what hasn’t changed since the day we arrived: You can’t make people love democracy. You can’t make them implement it. You can’t get feuding sects that have battled each other for hundreds of years to suddenly forget it in a matter of months. And you can’t tip the whole of the Arab and Muslim world by clamping down on one tiny part of it. Bush, always tone-deaf to the region, said of Iraq, “If we fail there, Al Qaeda would claim a propaganda victory.” and “Iran would work to fill the vacuum.”

Which made the cynical listener wonder whether these problems wouldn’t go away with an Iraqi dictator who could frighten Iran and want nothing to do with Al Qaeda.

Which brings us back to where we started.

They say we can’t leave or the place will fall. But they don’t say it won’t fall no matter when we leave. They call it war, but it doesn’t play like war. There are no moving tanks, no land to capture – just hidden bombs in fruit stands and on highways, plucking a soldier here and a soldier there.

Last week, Bush said, “While this war is difficult, it is not endless.” Four years ago, an Al Qaeda newsletter told its readers: “This war has been going on since there first were the faithful and the unfaithful.”

As we enter the sixth year, which best describes it?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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