Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was published in March 2000 — and just about no one noticed. Until then, blowback had been an obscure term of CIA tradecraft, which Johnson defined as “the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.” In his prologue, the former consultant to the CIA and eminent scholar of both Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution and modern Japan labeled his Cold War self a “spear-carrier for empire.”
After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, he was surprised to discover that the essential global structure of that other Cold War colossus, the American superpower, with its vast panoply of military bases, remained obdurately in place as if nothing whatsoever had happened. Almost a decade later, when the Evil Empire was barely a memory, Johnson surveyed the planet and found “an informal American empire” of immense reach and power. He also became convinced that, in its global operations, Washington was laying the groundwork “all around the world… for future forms of blowback.”
Johnson noted “portents of a twenty-first century crisis” in the form of, among other things, “terrorist attacks on American installations and embassies.” In the first chapter of Blowback, he focused in particular on a “former protégé of the United States” by the name of Osama bin Laden and on the Afghan War against the Soviets from which he and an organization called al-Qaeda had emerged. It had been a war in which Washington backed to the hilt, and the CIA funded and armed, the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists, paving the way years later for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan.
Talk about unintended consequences! The purpose of that war had been to give the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style bloody nose, which it more than did. All of this laid the foundation for… well, in 1999 when Johnson was writing, no one knew what. But he, at least, had an inkling, which on September 12, 2001, made his book look prophetic indeed. He emphasized one other phenomenon: Americans, he believed, had “freed ourselves of… any genuine consciousness of how we might look to others on this globe.”
With Blowback, he aimed to rectify that, to paint a portrait of how that informal empire and its historically unprecedented garrisoning of the world looked to others, and so explain why animosity and blowback were building globally. After September 11, 2001, his book leaped to the center of the 9/11 display tables in bookstores nationwide and became a bestseller, while “blowback” and that phrase “unintended consequences” made their way into our everyday language.
Chalmers Johnson was, you might say, our first blowback scholar. Now, more than a decade later, we have a book from our first blowback reporter. His name is Jeremy Scahill. In 2007, he, too, produced a surprise bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It caught the mood of a moment in which the Bush administration, in service to its foreign wars, was working manically to “privatize” national security and the U.S. military by hiring rent-a-spies, rent-a-guns, and rent-a-corporations for its proliferating wars.
In the ensuing years, it was as if Scahill had taken Johnson’s observation to heart — that we Americans can’t see our world as it is. And little wonder, since so much of the American way of war has plunged into the shadows. As two administrations in Washington arrogated ever greater war-making and national security powers, they began to develop a new, off-the-books, undeclared style of war-making. In the process, they transformed an increasingly militarized CIA, a hush-hush crew called the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and a shiny new “perfect weapon” and high-tech fantasy object, the drone, into the president’s own privatized military.
In these years, war and the path to it were becoming the private business and property of the White House and the national security state — and no one else. Little of this, of course, was a secret to those on the receiving end. It was only Americans who were not supposed to know much about what was being done in their name. As a result, there was a secret history of twenty-first-century American war crying out to be written. Now, we have it in the form of Scahill’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Scahill has tracked, in particular, the rise of JSOC. In Iraq, it grew into a kind of Murder Inc., “an executive assassination wing,” as Seymour Hersh once put it, operating out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. It next turned its hunter/killer methods on Afghanistan and then on the planet, as the special operations forces themselves grew into an expansive secret military cocooned inside the U.S. military. In those years, Scahill started following the footsteps of special ops types into the field, while mainlining into sources in their community as well as other parts of the American military and intelligence world.
Back then, everybody was writing about Iraq, but it’s surprising how few Americans, including reporters, paid much attention to the suffering of Iraqis. Today, Iraq is in the news again. The words, the memorials, the retrospectives are pouring out, and again the suffering of Iraqis isn’t what’s on anyone’s mind. This was why I returned to that country before the recent 10th anniversary of the Bush administration’s invasion and why I feel compelled to write a few grim words about Iraqis today.
But let’s start with then. It’s April 8, 2004, to be exact, and I’m inside a makeshift medical center in the heart of Fallujah while that predominantly Sunni city is under siege by American forces. I’m alternating between scribbling brief observations in my notebook and taking photographs of the wounded and dying women and children being brought into the clinic.
A woman suddenly arrives, slapping her chest and face in grief, wailing hysterically as her husband carries in the limp body of their little boy. Blood is trickling down one of his dangling arms. In a few minutes, he’ll be dead. This sort of thing happens again and again.
Over and over, I watch speeding cars hop the curb in front of this dirty clinic with next to no medical resources and screech to a halt. Grief-stricken family members pour out, carrying bloodied relatives — women and children — gunned down by American snipers.
One of them, an 18-year-old girl has been shot through the neck by what her family swears was an American sniper. All she can manage are gurgling noises as doctors work frantically to save her from bleeding to death. Her younger brother, an undersized child of 10 with a gunshot wound in his head, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually vomits as doctors race to keep him alive. He later dies while being transported to a hospital in Baghdad.
According to the Bush administration at the time, the siege of Fallujah was carried out in the name of fighting something called “terrorism” and yet, from the point of view of the Iraqis I was observing at such close quarters, the terror was strictly American. In fact, it was the Americans who first began the spiraling cycle of violence in Fallujah when U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division killed 17 unarmed demonstrators on April 28th of the previous year outside a school they had occupied and turned into a combat outpost. The protesters had simply wanted the school vacated by the Americans, so their children could use it. But then, as now, those who respond to government-sanctioned violence are regularly written off as “terrorists.” Governments are rarely referred to in the same terms.
10 Years Later
Jump to March 2013 and that looming 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion. For me, that’s meant two books and too many news articles to count since I first traveled to that country as the world’s least “embedded” reporter to blog about a U.S. occupation already spiraling out of control. Today, I work for the Human Rights Department of Al Jazeera English, based out of Doha, Qatar. And once again, so many years later, I’ve returned to the city where I saw all those bloodied and dying women and children. All these years later, I’m back in Fallujah.
Today, not to put too fine a point on it, Iraq is a failed state, teetering on the brink of another sectarian bloodbath, and beset by chronic political deadlock and economic disaster. Its social fabric has been all but shredded by nearly a decade of brutal occupation by the U.S. military and now by the rule of an Iraqi government rife with sectarian infighting.
Every Friday, for 13 weeks now, hundreds of thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, which runs just past the outskirts of this city.
Sunnis in Fallujah and the rest of Iraq’s vast Anbar Province are enraged at the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because his security forces, still heavily staffed by members of various Shia militias, have been killing or detaining their compatriots from this region, as well as across much of Baghdad. Fallujah’s residents now refer to that city as a “big prison,” just as they did when it was surrounded and strictly controlled by the Americans.
Banen Al-Sheemary ( @balsheem), a young Iraqi-American woman and activist, writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Ten years today, I remember sitting in front of the television and watching the sky turn bright yellow because of the massive blasts. Silent, I turned away from the screen to see my parents’ reaction. Absolute silence. That was the first time my parents were without an opinion on something the news was covering. There was a sullen quietness as they watched their beloved country explode into flames. My twelve-year-old self had already been indoctrinated with the simple good guy, bad guy mentality, to which many Americans unfortunately adhere. I struggled to understand the logic behind the invasion of Iraq. Was Iraq a bad country? What had they done wrong? Why is it America’s right to invade and change it? I looked over at my parents again and I could tell their hearts were reeling. “Believe it. Liberation is coming,” said a confident George W. Bush as he spread more war propaganda in his visit to Dearborn. All I knew was that the ruthless Saddam Hussein would soon to be gone. What would become of Iraq? Under the guise of Operation Iraqi “Freedom,” the complete destruction began of what had been known as Iraq.
My family had fled Iraq as refugees in the early 1990s. March 20, 2003, is a bittersweet date for me, since it marked the day I could return to the country. But it is also the day “Shock and Awe” began CNN’s Wolf Blitzer stated that in his thirty years as a journalist, he had never witnessed anything like the attack on Baghdad. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” warfare was a quick and easy solution, with no concern for civilian life.
The Cradle of Civilization was overtaken by incessant chaos, destruction, and death. In an instant, Iraq was forever changed. It is now home to 4.5 million orphans, two million widows, over four million refugees, while over half the population lives in slums. This was Iraq. As the Bush Administration boasted about its questionable accomplishments, all I could see was the Iraqi body count rise. The post-2003 Iraq is not the country my parents longed for. Barred from returning to Iraq until 2003, I will never know the country in which I was born as it was before sanctions and occupation warped it. I was too young to remember my family fleeing during the first invasion of Iraq. Before we fled, we got rid of all our belongings. My baby pictures were burned to ensure that when Saddam’s thugs checked, there would be no proof of my existence. It was as if my identity was erased, and until March 20th, 2003, I was locked away from this part of my life.
From Desert Storm, through the Clinton Administration, and into the 2003 occupation of Iraq, I still couldn’t trace the U.S. government’s plans for Iraq. But what I was sure of was every administration’s jingoistic attitude that shaped foreign policy and consistently disregarded human life. Iraq saw treacherous times in the nineties because of the imposition of history’s most comprehensive sanctions. Iraq was broken and denied any ability to thrive, even in the most basic of ways.
These brutal sanctions led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. My older sister recalls Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine K Albright’s infamous interview in which she was asked if the price of half a million Iraqi children was worth it. She simply said we think the price is worth it.” It was an easy decision for the Clinton Administration to make on behalf of all Iraqis, because Iraq was forced to pay. As young as I was, I understood that people of different religions and backgrounds weren’t treated as equals. This dangerous underlying notion, that certain people are more worthy of life than others, heavily shapes our foreign policy and is upheld from one administration to the next.
In retrospect, the amount of propaganda that fueled and attempted to legitimize the war was and is staggering. I recall watching the news and being angry at the distorted images of Iraq and its people. I now understand how the media engineered public opinion to justify the invasion. Maintaining the “us” versus “them” binary was crucial in validating the administration’s agenda and furthering the so called war on terror. Soon enough, I heard my classmates echo falsity and absurd CNN headlines. I’ll hold back on the silly names I’ve been called as a result of this. Hearing my parents’ stories about Iraq helped me put the pieces together. The story starts back in their young adult years.
My parents never experienced Iraq under sanctions. During the seventies and eighties, Iraq was a powerhouse of academia, with a thriving economy. In 1979, an Iraqi dinar was equal to $3.20. Nowadays, an Iraqi dinar is practically worthless. Saddam’s effort to lead in the Arab world led to many positive reforms, especially for women. My mother enjoyed free transportation to work as required by the state and a six month fully paid maternity leave. Despite his cruel methods of subjugation and obsession with monopolizing and maintaining power, his push to make Iraq the leader of the Arab world, meant economic and social reform. The build-up of the case against Saddam Hussein’s actions can be attributed to sanctions and paranoia as international pressure mounted on the regime. My family resides in southern Iraq and we are a people, amongst others, that have been brutally persecuted by Saddam’s party for decades.
Many of the conversations I have regarding Iraq revolve around “Well, Iraq is better now because Saddam is gone and America is there.” Sanctions, Saddam’s regime, and the American invasion and occupation left millions of Iraqis with broken homes, empty fridges and bleak prospects for the future. Whether under totalitarian rule or a foreign occupation, millions of Iraqis are still suffering. The choice and trite discussion of who Iraq is better under is irrelevant and ought to be put to rest.Ten years passed and in my privileged University of Michigan classes, discussions around this foolish debate and refuting the claim that oil was a decisive factor for invading, are still major topics. It was time for me to return and experience the Iraq of today.
January 2012 marked my first return to Iraq. Before my flight, I sat in the airport reading as the time passed. Hundreds of American soldiers returning from Iraq were received by family and friends, applause, and even a news crew. I shook my head because of what the soldiers represented to me. For many, they symbolize freedom, nobility, and honor. To Iraqis, they are the physical manifestation of terror, supremacism and occupation. I thought back to the times I was called un-American because of my critiques of America’s policies in Iraq and my nonexistent support for the military. I was “crazy” for not supporting the push to remove Saddam from power. People equated the administration’s bombing campaign with patriotism and justice, completely disregarding the consequences of war and foreign occupation. Iraq has become fragmented and pieced. I think of how long it will take to assemble the pieces back together; to try to bring together those shards of glass that once made a beautiful piece of work.
Nowadays, the occupation dictates every aspect of Iraqi life. The remnants of a brutal and careless invasion show on the faces of the people that live everyday as a struggle. Suicide and car bombings, fighting between armed militias, kidnappings, and snipers result in a feeling of despair and no sense of security. Simple everyday tasks like walking to a local market or sending children off to school become impossible. On my first day back in Iraq, massive explosions rocked Baghdad. I was awakened to the realities of this so called newly democratic country. Both the Iraqi and American governments promised many things for the people, like building a sewage system. The could not even fulfill this basic necessity. Inadequate water resources have caused massive death and disease in several cities. The two-hour electricity limit halts any work that needs to be done for the day. Birth defects will continue for decades because of the depleted uranium weaponry used by American soldiers. This was Iraq.
“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history” stated Barack Obama in an address marking the supposed end of the occupation of Iraq. America will remember it as history, but Iraqis live through it. I shy away from reading articles on the commemoration of the invasion of Iraq, written by journalists who don’t understand. I become frustrated and always stop after reading just the headline. I laugh at every mention of the lessons to be learned and how America can move forward. Iraq is stuck in a phase of despair, but we as Americans must learn from the occupation? I watch as oil companies, “defense contractors,” and corrupt government leaders profiteer off of an occupation that cut Iraq from any lifeline it had. The fortress called the U.S. embassy, staffed by thousands of foreign soldiers stands as a permanent reminder of the occupation.”
America is able to move forward, rebuilding its economy, but Iraq and its people, must endure the harsh and unwelcoming decades to come.A lesson to learn from Iraqis is one of human dignity and perseverance through trying times. Have we learned? In a new documentary covering Dick Cheney’s legacy, he mentions, “If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” And today, mainstream media outlets and the government aggressively continue to build a case against Iran, eerily reminiscent of what we saw ten years ago. We will never learn until we stop seeing people and countries as strategic plans, a means to an end, as valueless and unknown.
My first visit to Iraq was in 2012, because the occupation made it too dangerous to travel there. One afternoon, my uncle and I drove through Hilla. I forced him to speak about the occupation. After an hour of hearing horrendous stories of crimes committed by American soldiers, he tiredly says “We are nothing to them. To America, we are simply strategic. Through their eyes, our lives aren’t worth anything.” That was the end of the conversation. I noticed that Iraqis never speak of the occupation. It was as if it was a past memory. I sense that Iraqis have perseverance built within them because of the decades of unrest that they have lived through; they keep on living every day as they can. These are the Iraqis that are reconstructing what is rightfully theirs.
Everyday Iraqis have been partaking in reconstructing Iraq after a destructive occupation in which they were robbed of their agency, future and country. Iraqis create and expand projects as the current government continues to neglect the citizen’s needs. Upper class citizens and Iraqi expatriates living in the US or Britain play a role in funding these projects. Many social service facilities are being rebuilt, with a focus on widows, orphans, the elderly, and disabled. Whether it is building bridges or starting up a water filter company, these projects are opening doorways for job opportunities and steadily decreasing unemployment rates. Despite the lack of security and political and economic turmoil, the hardships that Iraqis face are slowly easing and will be solved by the resilient Iraqis who continue to resist and struggle for a better life. Iraqis are forging a path of their own to recreate their Iraq, one away from the government’s corrupted plans and free of the American occupation’s stifling grasp.
Ten long and painful years have passed.The orphan Mustafa from Baghdad says “I feel like a bird in a cage here. I wish there was someone to listen to us.” Indeed Iraqis are listening. I see the same resilience and perseverance in Iraqis, that I see in my parents. Years will pass before Iraq will prosper, but I see a future for Iraq because of the millions that are working for it. When I visit Iraq I smile and blink the tears away. The anger from my heart dissipates when I see shops open for business, human rights organizations assisting widows and orphans, and college students organizing for an event they’re sponsoring. It will come together. Justice and progress will flourish because the people demand it and they will succeed. This is Iraq.
Banen Al-Sheemary has been active at the University of Michigan with Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, Iraqi Student Association, and Muslim Student Association’s Social Justice and Activism Committee
“Christiane Amanpour said in an interview on CNBC that the US media had been intimidated into self-censorship in its coverage of the Iraq war. “I think the press was muzzled and I think the press self-muzzled.” I think she is being too kind. The US press were virtually cheerleaders for the war, and interviewers were mean to anyone not wholeheartedly for it. Aaron Brown of CNN made a big deal of marginalizing former UN Weapons Inspector Scott Ritter, who said that 95% of Iraqi WMD had been destroyed, over a minor criminal charge that had been dropped. He actually told Ritter he was “poison” until Ritter should publicly clear up the matter. Ritter had been wrong, of course; Iraq had destroyed more than 95% of its WMD. But conveniently, he wasn’t around to participate in the debate after Sept. of 2002. And, a lot of us suspect that Phil Donohue was cancelled by MSNBC because General Electric and Microsoft did not want a peacenik to be their public face during the war. Amanpour had her wrist slapped by CNN for admitting even part of the truth.”
Sunni radicals hit Baghdad Tuesday morning on the anniversary of the beginning of the US war on Iraq, killing over 50 people in attacks on soft targets (shopkeepers, pedestrians) in Shiite areas of the capital. They were signaling their continued die-hard opposition to the new Iraq, which is dominated by Shiite political parties, in which Sunnis have been deeply disadvantaged. In recent months, massive crowds in Falluja, Ramadi, Mosul and other largely Sunni cities have staged an Iraqi spring protest, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of neglecting their interests and continuing to make large numbers of arbitrary arrests of their sons.
The US public was always carefully protected by its media from full knowledge of what the US government did to Iraq. The networks had a rule, of never showing blood. They almost never showed wounded Iraqis with bloody bandages. Of course, they never showed dismemberment (bodies blown up, unlike in Hollywood movies, don’t just pile up whole). Since Arabic satellite t.v. showed such images every day, the Arab world and the US saw two different wars on their screens. US media almost never interviewed Iraqi politicians (magazine shows like 60 Minutes very occasionally took up that task). Frequently, Pentagon talking points were swallowed whole. Propaganda about ‘al-Qaeda’ and Zarqawi being responsible for “80%” of the violence was used to hide from Americans that there were both Sunni and Shiite resistance movements against American occupation, and that they were Iraqis and widespread.
Many excellent reporters risked their lives to get compelling stories from American-occupied Iraq, but often appear to have faced resistance from editors back in the US. It was to the point that when I wrote one of my all-time most read pieces, “If America were like Iraq, what would it be like?” readers told me that it came as a revelation because it gave them a sense of proportion.
The US created a power vacuum and exercised a pro-Shiite favoritism in Iraq that fostered a Sunni-Shiite civil war. At its height in 2006-2007, as many as 3,000 Iraqis were being killed a month by militias. Many showed signs of acid or drilling or electrical torture. The Baghdad police had to establish a corpse patrol in the morning to collect the cadavers. How many Iraqis died as a result of the US invasion and occupation will never be known with any precision, but I think 200,000 would be the lower minimum. Since three to four times as many people are typically wounded as killed in conflict situations, that would suggest that as many as one million Iraqis were killed or wounded, some 4% of the population.
The US rounded up some 25,000 Iraqis at the height of the conflict, and their Shiite Iraqi government allies held another 25,000. The vast majority were Sunni Arabs. This 50,000 were in a vast gulag at any one time, but tens of thousands circulated through this system. Many were arbitrarily arrested, for simply being young men in the general vicinity of a bombing or other guerrilla activity. Very large numbers were tortured. US troops sometimes committed excesses. One national guard unit was known for laying down suppressive fire whenever a bomb went off in their vicinity. This tactic ensured that they killed Iraqi pedestrians after a market bombing. US troops sometimes shot drivers who did not know English and could not understand commands to slow down at checkpoints. How widespread actual atrocities were is always difficult to gauge in the fog of war. There were atrocities committed by US troops.
At the height of the conflict probably some 2.5 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes, fleeing elsewhere in the country. I’d now revise down the estimates of those displaced abroad, but likely there were at least half a million of them, and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimated them as more like 1.5 million. Many of these 3-4 milliion people, some 1/6 of the population, are still displaced and permanently lost their property, suffering a decline into poverty. Proportionally, it would be like 50 million Americans being forced out of their homes to take refuge in tents and slums elsewhere in the country or in Mexico or Canada.
The US destroyed the Iraqi state. It dissolved the army. It is not true as Bush apologists say, that the army was anyway gone. If they had offered soldiers money to show up at their barracks and report to their sergeants, they would have, for the most part. It still is unclear who exactly got rid of the Iraqi army and why. Jay Garner, the first proposed US viceroy in Iraq, suggested that the Bush administration was afraid that a Baathist army devoted to socialism and a strong state would get in the way of their plans for an Eastern European style “shock therapy” in the country. (One of the many motivations for the invasion of Iraq was to further destroy the socialist model for global south economies). Of course, some elite units were heavily Sunni Arab, but they could have been integrated. Instead, they were fired and sent home (it was even threatened that they would not even get pensions). Some of them joined the guerrilla resistance.
The US also destroyed the public sector, dissolving state-owned companies and creating massive unemployment, especially in Sunni provinces such as al-Anbar, which naturally emerged as among the most violent centers of resistance.
Most damaging of all, the US backed the ‘debaathification’ program championed by Shiite politicians like Ahmad Chalabi, which actually involved firing some 100,000 Sunnis from government jobs (even, often, fairly low-level ones) and then giving those jobs to members of the Shiite parties that were coming to power. As late as 2010, the debaathification commission was trying to interfere in the parliamentary elections. This massive piece of social engineering did more than anything to fan the still-burning flames of sectarianism, since it awarded material benefits on the basis of ethnic and sectarian identity. You can’t do much about your ethnic and sectarian identity. If you were punished for belonging to a party, you could change parties. But the Sunnis in particular weren’t allowed to escape their former political history (many Shiites who had been Baath Party members escaped punishment). If you’re punished for being who you are, and it is signaled that that will go on forever, then you might be tempted to turn to violence.
The vaunted ‘sons of Iraq’ or ‘awakening councils’ program that the US adopted from late 2006 involved organizing what were essentially pro-American Sunni militias to fight radical Sunnis. The Shiite government did not want these some 100,000 armed Sunnis left behind as a problem. It declined to give most of them employment as the Americans withdrew. It actually prosecuted some of them for their former guerrilla activities (before they switched teams and joined the awakening councils). Not only were they often left unemployed, but they no longer had the command of military force to protect themselves from reprisals by the radicals.
The political system the US imposed on Iraq is a one-chamber parliamentary system. It has been demonstrated by political scientists in societies with a structural minority, this system virtually guarantees frustration and violence (Sunni Arabs are probably like 18% of the population, Shiites 60%, with the rest Kurds, Turkmen and a dwindling number of Christians). Assuming Shiites can get their act together (not a foregone conclusion), they can always dominate the government. The prime minister in Iraq faces few de facto checks on power, assuming he or she can avoid a vote of no confidence. PM Nouri al-Maliki stands accused by his rivals of making the military and security forces his personal fiefdom and using them for his own purposes.
Iraq’s broken political system has what is more or less a permanent hung parliament, since the Sunnis, Kurds and two major Shiite factions can never for very long unite behind a particular prime minister. There is no relief from this political gridlock on the horizon.
The US actually stole billions from Iraqi petroleum receipts, which is illegal in international law, using it to badly administer the country and possibly just embezzling large amounts of it. More billions of US taxpayer funds also went missing. Most reconstruction efforts were poorly suited to the local conditions and most of that effort and money were wasted. Iraq needs 14 gigawatts of electricity generation but has only 9 gigs (the government keeps promising that new plants will open this year). Much of the country lacks potable water and people are forced to drink sewage. Half of the country’s physicians were forced abroad in the last decade, and many Iraqis still have to seek medical care outside the country.
The war was illegal in international law. Since the US had no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, likely there would have been an Iraqi spring in 2011 and the regime would have been prevented, as in Libya, by US air power from putting it down with military force. The regime would have been gone, but by the Iraqi people acting unitedly, instead of by a foreign imposition that championed one ethnic group over others. The outcome would surely have been more stable. The worst thing was, the whole nightmare was unnecessary.
As the tenth anniversary of the launching of the Iraq War approaches, I’ll be making some comments about the episode at this blog, which for the years 2003-2010 intensively covered events in Iraq. A decade is long enough for some things to become clear.
The first set of issues I want to discuss has to do with the harm the war did to the United States. Coming into 2003, the US enjoyed a great deal of sympathy and solidarity from the rest of the world (including Iran) over the al-Qaeda strikes of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the US was widely seen as an international bully. The hard-nosed realists of Washington, of course, don’t care how the country is perceived. But the poor opinion translated into an unwillingness to help out with the Iraq project, a project far too large for the United States to handle on its own. And no, El Salvador wasn’t able to help that much. Moreover, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, public discourse in the US moved toward greater decency. Some of that achievement was lost because of war propaganda against Arabs and Muslims.
1. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq harmed the US in bringing into question its basic competency as a world leader. Almost everything the US did in Iraq was a disaster. It could not even get the stated reason for the invasion right, as it turned out there was no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons program. It looked dishonest, bumbling. It went into the war having no plans, and the plans the Bush administration made on the fly were mostly poorly thought-out and doomed to fail. It fell into search and destroy as a tactic for counter-insurgency, with the same results as it had had in Vietnam– it caused resistance to swell. Billions were wasted on reconstruction projects that assumed Iraqi know-how and equipment that they did not have, and which could not therefore be maintained even if they were completed. The US tried to run in English an Arabic-speaking country that had been deliberately isolated and cut off from the world by sanctions, without any basic understanding of Iraqi culture, customs, beliefs or ways of life. The pro-Israel Neoconservatives high in the administration blackballed (as insufficiently pro-Israel) Arabists who volunteered to go help and left the Coalition Provisional Authority blind.
Basically, the world is always looking around for a team leader and a consulting group that is known for competence and for getting good results. After World War II, the US was for the most part that country. Being the world’s team leader turns into respect, cooperation and, ultimately, confidence and investment. If the US came to most of the world today with a group project, it likely couldn’t get the time of day from them. The United States is deeply diminished in world counsels.
2. The post-World War II generation wanted to erect an international order that would forever forestall Nazi-like aggression against neighbors on the part of world powers. The Greatest Generation therefore forged a UN charter that forbade aggressive war, allowing hostilities only if a country had been attacked or if the UN Security Council designated a country a danger to world order. Iraq did not attack the US in 2002 or early 2003. The UN Security Council declined to pass a resolution calling for war on Iraq, especially after the ridiculous circus act of then Secretary of State Colin Powell before the UN laying out a self-evidently false and propagandistic case (which provoked gales of laughter in the room). The United States has irrevocably undermined that structure of international law, and any aggressor can now appeal to Bush of 2003 as a precedent. Indian politicians of the right wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party instanced the Bush doctrine when they wanted to go to war with Pakistan. (Wiser heads prevailed, given that Pakistan has nuclear warheads). The US has loosed a demon into the world, of the war of choice.
3. The Iraq War revived al-Qaeda’s fortunes and prolonged its life as an important actor. With the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the scattering of al-Qaeda after Tora Bora, the movement was on the ropes. Internal critics lambasted Usama Bin Laden for destroying the movement by foolishly attacking the United States. But the brutal Bush occupation of Iraq and the US favoritism toward Shiites and Kurds created a Sunni Iraqi backlash. While most Sunni Iraqis were and are fairly secular-minded, a small minority gravitated to al-Qaeda as a model of resistance against the US, leading to the creation of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ and similar groups. The fringe of Libyans who attacked the US consulate in Benghazi last September included activists who had fought US troops in Iraq, and who otherwise would have lacked the training and motivation to hit the consulate. Iraqi al-Qaeda affiliates in turn have now fostered Jabhat al-Nusrah in northern Syria. Without the American occupation of Iraq, al-Qaeda would likely have dwindled into insignificance.
4. The US permanently lost its chance to achieve a two-state solution. The Clinton administration had come very close in 2000 to achieving a permanent solution to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Like the Clinton economy and budget surpluses, however, the Bush administration completely undermined its predecessor’s achievement. Distracted in Iraq, Washington dropped the ball on Palestine. Permanently. It allowed the Israelis vastly to increase the number of settlers on Palestinian land grabbed illegally in 1967. It undermined the elected Palestinian government of 2006 and subsequently collaborated in an evil and creepy blockade of the civilian population of Gaza. The slogan of the Neoconservatives, that the road to peace in Jerusalem lay through Baghdad, was either profoundly dishonest or profoundly stupid on their parts. It was in any case profoundly untrue. A deep gulf has opened between the US and all the other members of the UN Security Council on Israeli policy, as well as with the European Union. The US is widely hated by the rest of the world for daily getting up in the morning and screwing over millions of Palestinians. That its bizarre malice toward the displaced and oppressed Palestinians comes on top of the catastrophe it wrought on Iraq makes it look all the more monstrous to much of the globe. It is highly unlikely that Israel can survive for more than a few decades as an Apartheid state, which is what it became while the Bush team was obsessed with Baghdad.
5. The US, which once prosecuted Japanese generals for water-boarding, and which had laws against torture and against assassination, became an international symbol of torture pornography when some of the Abu Ghraib photographs of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners were released. I talked to a US embassy official charged in the middle of the last decade with upbraiding Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov for his use of torture; the diplomat knew that Abu Ghraib had pulled the rug out from under him.
6. The motives of the US in attacking Iraq were presumed by the rest of the world to be getting that country’s petroleum on the world market. That the most powerful country in the world might just fall upon any victim it chose alarmed other nations and provoked their suspicions. China all of a sudden wanted an aircraft carrier group. Those already inclined to see the US as imperialist, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, were were given proof they were right. Iran’s insistence on maintaining a nuclear enrichment program, even a non-military one, certainly has to do with the deterrent effect of nuclear latency (knowing how to quickly throw together a warhead). The Brazilian nuclear submarine program is aimed in part at protecting its natural resources from being summarily looted by Washington.
7. The long Iraq War did much more than the 9/11 attacks to promote Islamophobia and to make promoting hatred and fear of Muslims a common political tactic by American politicians, especially on the Right. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had for decades succeeded in stigmatizing openly racist speech in public. TV and radio personalities have even had to resign for speaking in a prejudiced way. But after all those years fighting Muslims in Iraq, the US establishment has decided that it is all right to bring back the language of bias when speaking of Arabs and Muslims, thus debasing our American values, which proclaim that all men are created equal and all are endowed by their Creators with certain inalienable rights.
8. The Iraq War allowed Iran to rise as a regional power, so that a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut political axis was created. This alignment is visible in the Syria conflict, with Iran and its allies attempting to prop up Syria’s ruling elite (which adheres to the Alawi sect of Shiite Islam). This Iranian geopolitical dominance exacerbated sectarian conflict throughout the region, with militant Sunnis striking back at ascendant Shiites, contributing to a destabilization of the region.
9. The financial cost of the Iraq War to the US will rise over time into the trillions. This cost derives in large part from the need to treat the thousands of Iraq War veterans who were injured by roadside bombs, and who have damaged limbs, spines and/or brains. Some 33,000 vets were injured seriously enough to go to hospital, a number seldom mentioned when the over 4,000 soldiers killed are eulogized. (Dead and wounded contractors are also seldom mentioned).
10. If the Iraqi government does ever manage to get its act together enough to produce substantially more petroleum, that will hurt green energy by lowering the cost of hydrocarbons, and so will contribute to ever more global warming. The US would have been much better off with high oil prices, encouraging consumers to move to electric vehicles powered by solar panels and wind. The oil men who plotted out the invasion of Iraq were attempting to put the price of oil back down to $14 a barrel, according to Rupert Murdoch. They failed, but whatever success they had is bad for the world.