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“Vietnam started out with everyone thinking we were doing the right thing. But at some point, things didn’t work right.” — U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder (Oct. 9, 2002).

Snyder uttered those words the day before he became the only member of the Arkansas congressional delegation to vote against the resolution authorizing the war in Iraq.

In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising that Snyder is also the only person in the delegation who served in Vietnam — or any armed conflict.

In other words, he knew what he was talking about. But no one listened or cared. It took a great deal of courage for Snyder to stand alone in opposition to the war, but now we know he was absolutely correct.

If we’re finally at the point where we can indisputably honor Snyder’s judgment, it’s worth asking: What took us so long?

Evidently, at some point before the November elections this year, a majority of Americans decided the Iraq adventure is a failure. Yet there is no magical moment to account for that epiphany. No particular numerical threshold was crossed; no dramatic image conveyed a previously hidden truth; no single event signaled defeat or hopelessness.

Sometime amid the daily count of dead and wounded, long after the revelation of torture at Abu Ghraib, as the chaos and destruction became routine — at some unknown instant, the national consciousness turned.

It was all very predictable from the beginning, however, and Snyder wasn’t the only person to point out the obvious. Starting with the shifting justifications for the war (first, it was because Iraq was developing nuclear weapons; then it was because Iraq was in league with Al Qaeda; then it was because Saddam Hussein was an oppressive dictator; then it was to create a beachhead for democracy in the Middle East), it was clear that the Bush administration was looking for any excuse to fight.

And even before the war started, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki said it would take several hundred thousand soldiers to secure Iraq after a successful invasion. But Shinseki’s prediction — now understood to be correct — led to his dismissal, because it conflicted with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s theoretical vision of a small, agile force that could quickly and easily take control of a whole country.

Like Snyder and Shinseki, there were people with expertise and experience who considered facts and history to arrive at the right conclusions, and now those people deserve credit for their good sense.

But they were overpowered by people with ideological agendas who ignored reality, manufactured information and willfully deceived the public to achieve their ends. Those people are responsible for the Iraq war, and they deserve blame and punishment for their damaging actions.

Yes, I said blame and punishment. Of course, Bush administration partisans say we should focus only on solving the problem in Iraq and forget about how we got there in the first place. There is nothing to be gained from examining the past, they argue, and anyone who wants to do so must be a vindictive Democrat. Why not let bygones be bygones, they ask?

The reason should be clear to any parent, child, employer, employee, law enforcement official, criminal, teacher, student, service provider and client. Simply put, trust and authority in a civilized society require negative consequences for bad behavior.

Instead, President Bush fires competent people like Shinseki and hands out medals to the biggest bunglers. This has not gone unnoticed, and a guy who normally votes Republican told me over lunch last week that he couldn’t believe President Bush was suffering no repercussions from his failed policies in Iraq. He thinks Bush now is just trying to delay the inevitable humiliating outcome until after he leaves office.

“I’m in business,” my friend said. “If I screwed up like that, I’d be gone in a second.”

He’s almost right. In recent years, at the highest levels of business, the inner circle is increasingly insulated from accountability. Stock prices can plummet, mergers can sour, companies can go bankrupt, but the CEOs responsible usually collect hefty severance packages and win the next job based on their famous names and “experience.”

That is infuriating to people like the guy I had lunch with, who work hard, play by the rules, and believe in objective measures of performance. They aren’t even that political, but they are finally beginning to recognize that Bush exemplifies the concept of “failing upward” and embodies the arrogance of impunity.

Republicans ought to be very concerned that these earnest adherents to the meritocracy see Bush as the GOP poster boy.

In fact, it’s the Republicans — not revenge-seeking Democrats — who ought to be calling for investigations that could lead to Bush’s resignation or impeachment. Their credibility and their future as a party may depend on finally getting rid of the man who’s never had to answer for his failures.

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