IT WAS A MISTAKE IN FORESIGHT
I don’t like to post on arguments that are already well made by others, in this case, Greg Sargent, John Marshall, Paul Krugman, and David Corn, among others. When it comes to attempts by the political elite, in league with their media lap dogs, to whitewash the lead-up to the Iraq War, however, I take this issue personally. First, I was actively involved in trying to keep the United States, and by proxy the rest of the world, out of this outrageous war. Secondly, I’ve watched quite a few of my students graduate from high school only to be shipped off to the sands of Iraq and placed in harms way for no reason whatsoever. Fortunately, all of my former students have come home, though I can’t speak to any damage done to their psyches and their futures as a result of their experiences. At the college level, I’ve worked with quite a few veterans returning from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who have not been able to shed themselves of the bleak burden of warfare.
Most importantly, as a history teacher and a sociologist, it galls me that the social facts of history could be lost or distorted when they contradict elite interests. Those who dedicate themselves to these disciplines often do so to help guide humanity into the future. I know that deceiving the current generation into believing lies about past wars is only a technique for making future generations more docile and obedient when it comes to the next war. Thinking people cannot let that happen. Those with an interest in history, especially those who were active participants in this history, must be sure to preserve the validity of the record. This is especially true when that validity flies in the face of elite interests to the contrary.
In this case, the sanitized version explaining our invasion of Iraq is as follows. After 9/11, Americans were wary of any threat to their security. The most obvious threat was Iraq. Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator of Iraq, was belligerent toward the United States since the Persian Gulf War. It was not unreasonable to think that he would harbor deep resentments and wish to avenge his humiliation upon the United States. The best available intelligence at the time indicated that Saddam Hussein had an active Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program and was willing to disseminate those weapons to non-state terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. Such a program was a direct threat to the United States, forcing the U.S. to take direct, military action. Based on the intelligence available at the time, the Bush Administration invaded Iraq and deposed a brutal tyranny. It turned out, however, that Iraq did not have an active WMD program and was not networked with al Qaeda.
Oops! Big mistake! Our bad!
But the administration was only acting on the best information at that time. Based on what we know now, perhaps a different course of action might have been taken. So it is heartening to hear presidential hopeful Jeb Bush backtrack on earlier comments about the Iraq War, “Knowing what we know now, I would have not engaged. I would have not gone into Iraq.” Premising a position based on “what we know now,” shapes the debate. It allows President Bush and others to brush off his treason by admitting that he was “sick” about not finding WMD in Iraq, but hey, he meant well when he invaded a sovereign country that was no threat to the United States, had in fact never attacked the United States. It also allows lawmakers who either supported the war outright or, as was admitted to by Rep. Walter Jones and, to a certain extent, Sen. Tom Daschle in the documentary Hubris: Selling the Iraq War, who were too cowardly to vote their conscience and appear soft on terror, .
And this is a false premise. The truth is–and this truth needs to be known by everyone–that what we know now is merely confirmation of what we knew then in 2002 and 2003 when the flames of war were being fanned by fearful rhetorical imagery of a mushroom cloud. That the Iraq War was an understandable mistake based on faulty evidence is just an impossible lie.
The fact is that we knew in 2002 that Iraq was no threat to the United States. We knew in 2002 that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction outside of the outdated and useless weapons that we supplied Hussein when he was slaughtering Iranians. We knew in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was in no way connected to al Qaeda or any other extremist Islamic terrorist organization. After the Persian Gulf War UN weapons inspectors spent eight years eliminating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Iraq was subject to brutalizing sanctions designed to weaken the Hussein regime (which was a failed policy) and to keep him from acquiring chemicals and materials, including pesticides, that could be used for WMD. Iraq wasn’t even a threat to its own sand fleas. Between the Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom the United States and Britain maintained two No Fly Zones in Iraq. According to Jeremy Scahill, writing for CounterPunch, “With no declaration of war, American and British warplanes bomb Iraq an average of 3-4 times a week.” Despite this, not a single U.S. or British aircraft was shot down. Iraq wasn’t even a threat to aircraft flying over its own territory, and had never retaliated in response to these attacks other than to use anti-aircraft weapons to protect themselves. All of this was public knowledge to anyone willing to look over the record.
Look, we didn’t invade Iraq only to discover that the WMD that we thought were there really weren’t. We knew before the war that there was no evidence to support the WMD claim. As a response to Bush Administration saber rattling, the United Nations, under UN Resolution 1441, sent weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei with their teams into Iraq to look for the alleged WMD and nuclear programs respectively and to make sure that Saddam Hussein was adhering to UN requirements to disarm. The press hung all over reports from these men, pouncing on any insinuation that Hussein was not cooperating or not forthcoming when it came to WMD. Each leaked report emphasized Hussein’s recalcitrance, but was never able to corroborate Bush’s WMD allegations.Well before the invasion, Blix and ElBaradei gave their final reports that concluded, “exactly the opposite of what the Bush administration had hoped.” Indeed, there were some holes in the information in the Blix report, but holes are not evidence and hardly warrant the invasion of a sovereign nation. Blix suggested in his report that these holes could be filled in a matter of months, months that he and the world would not get. ElBaradei’s report on Iraq’s nuclear capability was unequivocal. “We have inspected all of those buildings and facilities that were identified, through satellite imagery, as having been modified or constructed over the past four years. IAEA inspectors have been able to gain ready access and to clarify the nature of the activities currently being conducted in these facilities. No prohibited nuclear activities have been identified during these inspections.”
Bottom line, there was no evidence of WMD in Iraq and everyone knew it or should have known it based on the public record. Many Americans may not have wanted to know, or may have come up with any number of reasons to believe the Bush Administration’s lies. It was a scary time, and U.S. military action to prevent another 9/11 was popular. If there was the possibility that a brutal dictator like Hussein had such weapons…well…
We knew the same about Saddam Hussein’s ludicrously alleged alliance with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. The proposition that a secularist like Hussein could be pals with a fundamentalist whacko like bin Laden was absurd on its face. This was not something that we realized in hindsight. Experts on the Middle East were aware of this mismatch and spoke out on the topic. As early as September of 2002 Daniel Bejamin, a former member of the National Security Council, wrote in the New York Times, “To contemporary jihadists, Saddam Hussein is another in a line of dangerous secularists, an enemy of the faith who refuses to rule by Shariah and has habitually murdered Sunni and Shiite religious leaders in Iraq.” Despite the fact that the media was complicit in spreading false rumors about a meeting between an Iraqi intelligence officer and al Qaeda leader Mohammed Atta, there was enough information in the mainstream press to shed doubt on the allegations.
Of course, the pièce de résistance of propaganda justifying this unnecessary war was Colin Powell’s heartbreaking betrayal of his oath to the Constitution, to the American people and to humanity during his famous testimony before the United Nations. Secretary of State Powell was, and to a certain extent remains, liberals’ favorite conservative. His selection for Bush’s otherwise extremist cabinet came as a bit of a relief to many on the left. Perhaps our foreign policy would be sane with Powell at the helm. Alas, no. Powell became one of the chief architects of this devastating war and thus has blood on his hands along with the rest of the neocons. That he might feel bad about it is irrelevant. It does not matter if Powell’s role was instrumental in shaping policy or simple military obedience to his commander in chief. The bottom line is that he got up in front of the world and sold the Bush/Cheney war product. The press, for the most part, ate it up. Referred to his speech as a “slam dunk” via Cal Thomas and as an “Adlai Stevenson moment” by William Safire. Powell’s commercial advertisement for an illegal war was hardly “irrefutable and undeniable.” Within short order, Dr. Glen Rangwala presented refutation to the UN. To this day, liberals still want to apologize for Colin Powell, but his speech was a lie, and we, the public, had all of the information that we needed to know that he was a lying.
Now because of the complicit mainstream press and the concerted propaganda campaign conducted by the administration, maybe the American public could be forgiven for believing their public officials, especially a man with a reputation like Colin Powell’s. After all, yes the information was there, but there was also counter-information. How could we, the public, know the difference? Are we wrong to trust our elected officials?
But that’s not the point. Above I focus on information that was available to the public to emphasize how ludicrous it was to define the Iraq War as a mistake in retrospect. In 2002 and 2003, before the outbreak of the misnamed Operation Iraqi Freedom, I knew that Iraq did not have WMD, that it was not a threat to the United States directly or through fictional links to al Qaeda. I even attempted to publish a column on the topic in my local newspaper. It was turned down, as were all of my anti-war writings at the time. I drew my conclusion based on information that I received from the mainstream media as well as the left press like The Nation and Mother Jones. And there’s nothing special about me. If I and my contemporaries knew that the claims against Iraq were false, it is impossible to believe that the administration did not know. It’s impossible to sustain the notion that the war was the result of flawed intelligence when the information was there for everyone to see.
Even referring to the Iraq War as a “mistake” is a distortion of history (so I will apologize for the inaccurate subtitle above). Overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a top priority of the Bush Administration. It was intentional. According to Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, “from the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go.” As pointed out by Mother Jones’ invaluable timetable, the “Saddam’s removal [was] the first item of Bush’s inaugural national security meeting.” In fact, one of the very first actions taken by the Bush Administration was an aerial attack on Iraq. The United States and Britain bombed Iraqi targets outside of the specified “no-fly zones” in order “to send a clear signal to Saddam.” This event is often lost down the memory hole.
The difference between what we know now and what we knew in 2002 is that we have clear evidence of the depth of the lies and distortions committed by the Bush Administration to justify an unnecessary war of his choosing. With the Bush Administration using the term “mushroom cloud” in virtually every statement about Iraq punctuated with a pregnant pause for effect, the President alleged in his 2003 State of the Union Address that Hussein sought to purchase uranium from Niger. This was a lie. It is impossible that Bush did not know the results from former Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s investigation into the matter. There was no evidence that Iraq tried to purchase yellow-cake uranium and the memoranda from which this suspicion was based were clearly forged. When Wilson blew the whistle on Administration malfeasance the Administration retaliated, blowing his wife’s CIA cover. It’s impossible that the President did not know this.
It’s impossible that he did not know that the aluminum tubes were not suitable to nuclear weapons production.
It’s impossible that he did not know that most of the unaccounted for WMD mentioned in his SOTU speech and presented by Powell as evidence against Iraq were, according to weapons experts, old and no longer weapons grade.
Even the vaunted Colin Powell was well aware of the dubious role he was playing. According to Powell’s former chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, “[Powell] had walked into my office musing and he said words to the effect of, ‘I wonder how we’ll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing.'” At the very least there was doubt in his mind as to whether or not Iraq had WMD, but there could have been no doubt that he was helping to fabricate a certainty that did not exist. Mother Jones does a fantastic job of breaking down Powell’s treason, “Powell took evidence of the Iraqis doing what they were supposed to do—i.e., searching their gigantic ammunition dumps to make sure they weren’t accidentally holding onto banned chemical weapons—and doctored it to make it look as if Iraq were hiding banned weapons.” This is not something that is done accidentally based on flawed intelligence.
In May of 2005, The Times of London published the infamous Downing Street Memo. According to the meeting minutes between senior ministers, “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record.” Facts cannot be fixed around a policy unless the facts are actually known by the fixing party.
A war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the intent from the very beginning. 9/11 provided the pretext for this war. According to counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, President Bush was looking for a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 within twenty-four hours of the attack. CIA director George Tenet was also instructed to find links between Hussein and 9/11. These links did not exist. It is impossible to think that all the presidents men, so to speak, simply told him what he wanted to hear. He and his administration must have known that the story that they were fabricating was, in fact, a fabrication. According to Mother Jones, a letter from the Project for the New American Century to President Bush states, “Even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
The lies surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq are now so well documented that further elaboration in this post would only be redundant. However, for the sake of our future and the lessons that should be gleaned from this despicable moment, we cannot allow our history to be erased. For the sake of the current generation, which will be handed a much less stable world as well as trillions of dollars in debt and countless associated social ills as a result of this war, we cannot allow the lies to continue. For the sake of the men and women who were willing, without question, to put themselves in harm’s way when their government called, we must be dedicated to preserving the truth. Finally, for the sake of those who refused accept the distortions, who stood stalwart against popular opinion and organized against the perpetuation of war in the face of fear, we must dedicate ourselves to the fulfillment of the promise for a peaceful world.