Clift: Profit and War Debate in D.C.

The American people don't like to lose. Until the Democrats find a withdrawal plan that looks like a victory, the Republicans will have the upper hand. John Kerry's amendment to bring the troops home within a year highlighted his party's confusion on the war, attracting only 13 of the Senate's 42 Democrats. Republicans reveled in their unified front, heralding the virtues of "staying the course" and with some even claiming that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. "How is it these lunatics who screw up everything have us on the defensive," grumbled an aide to a Democratic senator.

The Senate debate is yet another reminder of the skill with which Republicans can turn an election into a referendum on loser Democrats. Still, President Bush and his party remain hostages to events on the ground in Iraq, and it's a good bet that things won't be any better this November or next November. The unwelcome truth is that nobody knows how to salvage a good outcome in Iraq or, alternatively, manage the impending disaster that looms. Staying because leaving would mean more than 2,500 Americans died in vain is not a plan.

Partisan differences were evident at a Washington screening of Eugene Jarecki's documentary "Why We Fight," a depiction of the events leading up to the Iraq war that features, among others, Richard Perle, an architect of the war, and Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the president who first used the phrase "military-industrial complex" and warned of its dangers. Both were on hand to discuss the film along with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, formerly Colin Powell's chief of staff and a vocal critic of the war. "Any panel that has Wilkerson and Perle on it has to have its heart in the right place," said Eisenhower. "Why We Fight" is Michael Moore lite, intelligently done and more restrained than "Fahrenheit 9/11," but unabashedly antiwar. It draws its inspiration from Dwight D. Eisenhower, the five-star general who led America to victory in World War II, served two terms as president and sounded an alarm about the "grave implications" of an immense military establishment joined with a large and growing arms industry when he left the office in 1961.

It's worth pointing out to generations who barely know Eisenhower's name that he was in a unique position to call our attention to the unholy alliance between profits and war. He was a Republican and a military man, and he experienced firsthand the pressures pushing for a defense buildup. "God help this country when someone sits at this desk who doesn't know as much about the military as I do," he said—a remark that drew titters from the present-day Washington audience. Director Jarecki updates Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" by adding think tanks to the mix, specifically the Project for the New American Century, a group of influential neoconservatives, including Perle, who promoted America as the new Rome. They argued for elements of the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption long before Bush became president, and they brought with them a calculated and predeveloped foreign policy that had Iraq in its sights.

The story is told through the eyes of a retired New York City cop and Vietnam vet who lost his son in the World Trade Center on 9/11. "If Iraq is responsible, let's kick the hell out of them," he says. He asks the Pentagon to put his son's name on a piece of armament in the Iraq war. His request is kicked around in the bureaucracy until finally he gets an e-mail declaring, "Can do—Semper Fi." A photo follows with his son's name on a bomb with the words "In loving memory," the date the bomb was dropped and the assurance of "100 percent success." Well into the war, when Bush is forced to say that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, this burly cop feels betrayed. "My first thought, 'You're a liar'," he says. "I'm from the old school. Certain people walk on water, and the president is one of them … The government exploited my feelings … I was so insane with wanting to get even that I was willing to believe anything."

After the screening, Perle complained his side is underrepresented in the film and wondered, "Would he [the cop] have felt cheated if the bomb had been dropped in Afghanistan?" He acknowledged the cinematic effectiveness of "Why We Fight," and, reading from notes he took during the screening, took issue with the way Vice President Dick Cheney is portrayed. "Richard, you're a smart cookie and I've admired you for years," Judith Kipper, a Mideast specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations, said at the screening. "Whether Cheney is treated this way or that way, who cares? Why has the American public, which no longer supports this war, allowed our elected leaders to get away with it?" A good question, and one the public will answer in November.