As American combat troops left Iraq in December 2011, at that point, the war was largely forgotten by the American public. What remains in public memory are retrospectives of the war, especially on its ten-year anniversary. The dominant narrative is that the Iraq war was a mistake because of the lies or “faulty intelligence” that were used to justify it, costs to the United States, and the strategic folly of invading the country in the first place. However, the war was more than a mistake — it was a crime. Portraying the war as a mistake does three pernicious things: downplay the gravity of the crime, does not question the premises of militarism and permanent war, and perpetuates the myth of American benevolence. Cumulatively, these retrospectives amount to a gross revision of history.
Before the war
Many commentators argue that the Iraq war was based on “faulty intelligence” and attribute it to an honest lapse in judgment. Joseph S. Nye, a prominent liberal intellectual and former U.S. assistant Secretary of Defense, did so in a piece for Project Syndicate. In it, he said Bush was “not alone” in believing Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. He said that other countries believed Saddam had them. However, this is misleading and whitewashes the historical record.
Long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States, particularly neoconservatives inside and outside the government, had its eyes set on Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz, an infamous neoconservative, former Deputy Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush, and current scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in 1992, authored the initial version of the Defense Planning Guidance for fiscal years 1994-99, which called for maintaining U.S. military dominance and preventing the rise of “a new rival” in the world. This document laid out U.S. ambitions in the Middle East clearly:
“In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil….As demonstrated by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, it remains fundamentally important to prevent a hegemony or alignment of powers from dominating the region.”
After it was leaked to the New York Times, the document sparked public controversy for its imperialistic tones. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney rewrote the document but kept the same goals intact.
Maintaining global hegemony has been a U.S. goal since the end of World War II. Since countries rely on natural resources, such as oil, for energy, production, and stability for the international economy, controlling those resources is crucial to maintaining for a country that desires global hegemony. Doing so gives that country political and economic power over others. The collapse of the Soviet Union shifted America’s focus from containing the Soviets to preventing a similar rival from challenging U.S. power. This is what the document meant when it emphasized preventing the rise of “a new rival”. The invasion of Iraq was a strategic move to expand U.S. hegemony and control oil in the Middle East, after the Gulf War of 1990-91 and collapse of the Soviet Union. Washington took Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait as evidence that their long-time ally was no longer trustworthy to play its game.
Largely for strategic rather than moral reasons, the Clinton administration was weary of invading Iraq. However, it imposed brutal sanctions, which killed over 500,000 children, as punishment for Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Clinton’s weariness of regime change in Iraq changed. On February 19, 1998, many neoconservatives, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, and John Bolton, sent an open letter to President Clinton urging him to remove Saddam from power. This led to Clinton signing, and Congress passing (with support from many Democrats), the Iraq Liberation Act on October 31, 1998, which called for regime change in Iraq. Clinton supported opposition groups and launched airstrikes to oust Hussein. This paved the way for the 2003 invasion.
When Bush came into power in 2001, it gave neoconservatives, such as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, a real chance to pursue their goals. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 gave them a powerful pretext to sell the war.
Lies selling the war
To sell the war to a public traumatized by terrorism, the Bush administration claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to 9/11 and al-Qaeda, making it an imminent to U.S. national security. None of these claims were true. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They were eliminated through years of UN weapons inspections, as former inspector Scott Ritter pointed out before the invasion (though few would listen to him). Nor did Saddam Hussein’s regime have ties to 9/11 or al-Qaeda.
In January 2008, the Center for Public Integrity tallied the number of false statements made by President George W. Bush and “seven of his administration’s top officials”, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. According their report, the Bush administration “made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.” The report concluded that “the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion” leading the nation into a war based on “decidedly false pretenses.”
Notes from a July 23, 2002 meeting of senior British government officials, known as the “Downing Street memo”, said “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conduction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A 2008 Senate Intelligence Committee report revealed that the Bush administration deliberately used unsubstantiated and false intelligence to justify the war.
Despite their present opposition, many liberal politicians and intellectuals supported the war. Former Democratic Senator and current Secretary of State John Kerry, the liberal magazine The New Republic, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman joined the war-hungry parade. Vice President Joseph Biden, who was then a Senator, used his position as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to sell the war and refuse testimony to dissenting voices, such as Scott Ritter.
The mainstream media dutifully repeated government lies as fact without doing their job of scrutinizing the Bush administration’s assertions. Dissenting voices, such as Janeane Garofalo and Phil Donahue. MSNBC cancelled Donahue’s show, even though it attracted the most viewers, because it took an antiwar stance on the run-up to the invasion. As a result, the public was manipulated by a war-hungry government, obsequious commentariat, and cowardly media that failed to report the truth.
The war itself
On March 19, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq without authorization from the United Nations Security Council. Over the next nine years, the Iraq was trapped under a very bloody military occupation. The war resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 American soldiers and around 600,000 Iraqi deaths, according to surveys by The Lancet medical journal, to possibly over 1 million, based on extrapolations from those studies. In addition, over 4 million Iraqis were externally and internally displaced due to the disastrous effects of the U.S. military occupation. A recent report by independent journalist Dahr Jamail revealed that depleted uranium and other munitions used by U.S. armed forces contributed to “sharp rises in congenital birth defects, cancer cases, and other illnesses” in Iraq.
A glimpse of the war’s carnage was displayed in the “Collateral Murder” video provided to Wikileaks, which showed it to the world in April 2010, by Private Bradley Manning, who’s facing criminal charges for his whistle-blowing activities. The video, shot from a U.S. Apache helicopter gun-sight in 2007, shows the pilots firing upon and killing a group of Iraqi civilians, including children. Among the dead was two Reuters journalists. The video was rare in that it revealed war’s true carnage in raw form to the public. Almost no mainstream media outlet did this. However, what it showed happened quite often in Iraq.
In 2008, journalists Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian published a book called Collateral Damage. It contains the testimonies of former U.S. soldiers explaining how the war’s operations — raids, convoys, patrols, detentions, and military checkpoints — led to the regular abuse and killing of Iraqi civilians. One sergeant remembered an incident in December 2003 when her squad leader shot an Iraqi civilian in the back. She said, “It was just, like the mentality of my squad leader was like, Oh, we have to kill them over here so I don’t have to kill them back in Colorado. He just seemed to view every Iraqi as a potential terrorist.” Other stories include soldiers killing civilians on routine convoys, during home raids, and at checkpoints.
While Barack Obama campaigned on bringing troops home from Iraq, his diplomats and generals pressured the Iraqi government to extend the deadline for troop withdrawal. The U.S. desired a longer military presence in the country. However, Iraqis demanded a faster withdrawal and that U.S. troops not be granted immunity in Iraqi courts. Therefore, the U.S. left when it did largely because of Iraqi resistance.
Despite the departure of combat troops, the U.S. maintains a massive militarized embassy in Baghdad, staffed by around 17,000 civilians and over 5,000 private military contractors. The Washington Post reported that the CIA is keeping a “large clandestine presence” in Iraq and Afghanistan to protect U.S. interests in the region, such as “countering the influence of Iran” and combating al-Qaeda and the Taliban. These will likely be the CIA’s “largest overseas outposts for years”, according to the Post. Many Western multinational oil companies, such as British Petroleum (BP), Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell grabbed Iraqi and Kurdish oil.
Meanwhile, the Iraq war is remembered as a “mistake” in many retrospective commentaries. Liberal journalist James Fallows recently wrote in The Atlantic that the Iraq war was “the biggest strategic error by the United States since at least the end of World War II”. While he opposed the war from the beginning, he regrets not being strong enough in his opposition. He is not alone in his characterization. Loren Thompson, a Forbes contributor, called the Iraq war a “mistake” in a piece written in December 2011. A recent poll shows that most Americans consider the Iraq war a mistake, as well. Reasons for calling the war a mistake typically amount to citing the economic, political, and human costs to the United States and doubting its strategic wisdom. While the war did cost a large number of American lives and treasure, the Iraqi people suffered greatly, yet, their suffering is downplayed.
Problems with calling Iraq war a “mistake”
Calling the war a “mistake” is problematic for three reasons. First, it minimizes the severity. The United States committed the crime of aggression in Iraq. Because the war was not waged in self-defense against an imminent threat nor was approved by the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was an illegal use of force, as laid out in Articles 1, 39, and 51 of the U.N. Charter. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court — which has jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity — defines the crime of aggression as “the planning, preparation, initiation or execution, by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State, of an act of aggression”, which is “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations”. The definition was decided on by a Review Conference of the International Criminal Court on June 12, 2010 in Kampala, Uganda.
What makes the crime of aggression so egregious is the suffering it brings. Robert H. Jackson, chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunals, in condemning the Nazis for invading Poland, famously said, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” The killing of civilians, internal violence, torture, displacement of populations, demolished infrastructure, and overall destruction of Iraq as a country are results of the U.S. invasion. Iraq’s suffering is a consequence of America’s act of aggression.
Secondly, framing the war as a “mistake” does not question the fundamental premises of militarism and permanent war. One war is considered “bad”, while others are presumed fine. This is what Barack Obama did when he called the Iraq war “dumb”, while claiming the war in Afghanistan was the right one. The result is that some wars end, while new ones pop up.
This is how liberals justify drone strikes and targeted killing. Touré, a liberal music journalist and co-host of MSNBC’s “The Cycle”, cynically compared civilian casualty statistics from the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to civilian casualties caused by drone strikes to show that drone warfare is more humane than massive military occupations. For liberals like Touré, drones and targeted killing are smarter and cleaner ways of waging acts of violence.
Yet, the human suffering persists. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s estimates, out of nearly 4,000 reported killed, around 500 to 1,000 civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes and other lethal operations (such as raids by special operators, cruise missiles, cluster bombs, and airstrikes) in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2002. Moreover, a study done by Stanford and New York University law schools revealed that drone strikes in Pakistan, in addition to physical harm, terrorize and inflict “anxiety and psychological trauma” on the civilian population. Therefore, the suffering caused by drone strikes is more severe than commentators, such as Touré, argue. Moreover, the United States is essentially committing murder, thereby violating international law and human rights, by killing so many civilians in its global targeted killing campaign.
Finally, portraying the Iraq war as a mistake perpetuates the myth of American benevolence. Perhaps the most powerful myth in American politics is the notion of American exceptionalism. This myth is about as old as the nation itself and forms the ideological foundation of American imperialism. According to this myth, the United States is a unique country because of how free it is (except if you’re Native American, African-American, or member of a marginalized group). Unlike other powerful countries, the U.S. is portrayed as one using its power, especially military power, for good rather than selfish purposes. The U.S. may make mistakes or strategic errors, from time to time, such as invading countries like Iraq and Vietnam under false pretenses but, says this myth, American power is fundamentally good.
When applied the Iraq war, this myth basically says: “Our intentions were good. We made a mistake with intelligence. There was negligence in the system. When we were in Iraq, we tried our best to bring stability to the country. The mistakes we made were part of our efforts to do good. In the end, the war was a strategic error but we tried our best.” This is essentially what most dominant retrospectives on the Iraq war are saying.
Calling American wars “crimes” punctures this myth because “good guys” are seen as incapable of committing crimes. That is why it’s not heard in American political discourse. Every empire sells its power as benevolent. The Soviet Union justified its invasion of Afghanistan by claiming it was defending the country from Islamic extremists supported by the CIA. While it is true that the Mujahideen were supported by the CIA (in the U.S.’s proxy war against the USSR), the Soviets committed atrocities against the Afghan people, yet, that’s ignored in Soviet apologia. So the United States is not the only empire to have such self-aggrandizing myths of its own power. However, challenging this myth, along with similar ideologies such as racism, is crucial in order to prevent future wars.
The ten-year anniversary of the Iraq war presents an opportunity for establishment intellectuals and commentators to revise history and resurrect the good name of American empire. In the light of Obama’s expanding assassination program and entrenchment of permanent war, it would make sense for lapdog intellectuals and pundits to historically revise the Iraq war in a way that doesn’t make American militarism look bad. To honestly grapple with the Iraq war’s legacy, and work toward building true peace, its myths must be challenged.
The Iraq war was a massive crime — a criminal and immoral war of aggression. Those who executed the war, such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice, must be prosecuted for their crimes. This will deter future militaristic leaders from prosecuting similar acts of aggression. The ones who blew the whistle on those crimes, such as Bradley Manning, should be freed from criminal prosecution and commended for the courageous activities. In addition, the Iraqi people should be given reparations for the suffering caused by the invasion. Finally, America’s system of permanent war must end to replaced by real international peace. Repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which gives the Executive Branch the authority to use limitless violence around world against suspected terrorist threats, is a vital step in this direction. But none of this will occur until the Iraq war is recognized for the horrible crime it was.
[As a final note, for the record, I opposed the Iraq war from the beginning.]