We failed. We failed as a government, we failed as a republic, we failed as a civilization. That’s what war means. The decision to attack Iraq is the final, tragic result of so many failures on so many levels.

By the president’s own standards, we have failed diplomatically, and in Brobdingnagian proportions. Starting out with the unquestioned allegiance of our most devoted allies, overwhelming international support in the first Gulf War, and worldwide demonstrations of sympathy after 9-11, the Bush administration has somehow managed to alienate our friends (my God, even Canada), pulverize international support for our efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein, and turn the vast majority of the people of the world against us. All in 19 months.

As a nation, we let it happen. We were so shaken by those terrorist attacks that we stopped thinking critically about our government. Support for the executive branch replaced the reverence for firefighters killed in the World Trade Center. We didn’t want to know about those clothes from the Gap found inside the cab of a fire engine. We let the President and his advisors lie to us so many times about the reasons for this war–to stop al Qaeda; no, to head off an attack on the U.S.; no, because of noncompliance with UN resolutions–that we never insisted on knowing the real ones. If you’d like to find out, start with Paul Wolfowitz, whose 1992 “Defense Planning Guidance,” written for Bush 41 (and rejected by him), called for pre-emptive attacks over containment. It was the blueprint for Bush 43’s National Security Strategy.

And the mainstream media failed us. Newspapers and television adopted a jingoism after 9-11 they never relaxed, gradually substituting the administration’s point of view on Iraq for stories about terrorism and Afghanistan. Need a sign of their superficiality? Paul Wolfowitz’s name shows up 15 times in The News & Observer‘s archive. It shows up 149 times in PBS’s, which did a good job exploring the issue. Years from now this whole episode, regardless of the war’s outcome, will be seen as a low point in American journalism rivaling Hearst’s escapades leading up to the Spanish-American War. Remember the Maine? Remember the Aluminum Tubes.

It didn’t have to come to this. The threat of force was working. A united international front could have taken us much further. Instead, we chose war. We failed. Let’s hope what comes next isn’t nearly as bad.