Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Iraq War turns 16; America sleeps

“I think they had a plan from day one; they wanted to do something about Iraq. While the World Trade Center was still smoldering, while they were still digging bodies out, people in the White House were thinking: ‘Ah! This gives us the opportunity we have been looking for to go after Iraq.’”

-Richard Clarke, George W. Bush's counterterrorism adviser

Sixteen years ago today, the United States military invaded Iraq.

Many Americans are reflexively allergic to looking back, but we can't progress as a country if we fail to absorb the lessons of the past. For all the flag-waving patriotism and military fetishism injected into the media bloodstream by the right wing, there is little public discussion of how to best serve veterans once their deployments are over and close to zero examination of why we now have so many wounded and dislocated vets.

When assessing the challenges of veterans, from homelessness to PTSD to brain injuries to healthcare accessibility to suicide, the elephant in the room is the invasion of Iraq, a unilateral war of choice that eclipsed and then prolonged the more limited (and justifiable) multilateral effort against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Apologists for the Iraq invasion often claim that Bush/Cheney didn't really want to invade Iraq, that they were convinced of the necessity by flawed pre-war intelligence which inflated Saddam Hussein's WMD threat. But the evidence clearly shows that Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld had their eyes on Iraq well before 9/11, which gave them the political capital (and cover) they needed.

Even before becoming president, in 1999, candidate Bush told interviewer Mickey Herskowitz, “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief. My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it. If I have a chance to invade, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it." 

Waste it he did not. Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, said the administration began planning an invasion of Iraq within days of W’s inauguration, in January of 2001, a claim which was seconded by a Vanity Fair feature entitled "US Was Targeting Saddam 'Just Days after 9/11,'" among many other sources.

In March of 2001, Dick Cheney's secret Energy Task Force met and discussed "Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts," shown here. (Cheney's lawyers spent years afterward successfully keeping the public from seeing notes from those meetings.)

On the night of 9/11, according to Richard Clarke, “....Rumsfeld came over and the others, and the president finally got back, and we had a meeting. And Rumsfeld said, ‘You know, we’ve got to do Iraq,’ and everyone looked at him—at least I looked at him and Powell looked at him—like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ And he said—I’ll never forget this—There

just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kind of attacks...And I made the point certainly that night, and I think Powell acknowledged it, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. That didn’t seem to faze Rumsfeld in the least.”

Just nine days after 9/11, Bush asked British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his future support in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

As early as February of 2002, more than a year before the supposedly reluctant invasion, special operations personnel and Predator drones were secretly being moved from Afghanistan to Iraq.

In July of 2002, while George W. Bush and Tony Blair were publicly claiming that they wanted weapons inspections in Iraq to run their course before taking military action, British officials had the infamous meeting captured in the Downing Street memo, in which "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy [of invasion]."

That fall, the Bush Administration preyed on the American public's post-9/11 fear and vulnerability with an orchestrated media campaign to manufacture a case for war. Not coincidentally, this campaign began in the run-up to congressional elections in which the Republicans sought to regain control of the Senate by turning the media focus to national security issues. Asked why the administration had waited until September to make their case for pre-emptive war, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told the New York Times, “From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

The next day, the Bush Administration's principals fanned out to media outlets to parrot lines about the purported threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

The effort culminated on February 5, 2003, when Colin Powell made a long list of false accusations about Saddam Hussein's fictitious WMD ambitions and connections to al Qaeda in a speech to the United Nations. Though much of the intelligence cited was based on questionable sources—including single sources who hadn’t even been interviewed by U.S. intelligence—Powell told the world, "every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." Powell’s Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson, who had helped craft the speech, later referred to Powell's U.N. presentation as "the lowest moment of my life."

A study of the media offensive by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity found that key members of the administration (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Paul Wolfowitz) had

made 935 false statements to the press. In the words of Scott McLellan, the second White House press secretary, the administration's p.r. campaign was nothing but "propaganda.”

After ignoring the February 14 statement (to the U.N.) of Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Agency, that "We have found to date no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-testing activities in Iraq," and last-minute peace offerings from Iraqi officials, the Bush Administration got their war on. 

The campaign of fear and fabrication which was the Iraq invasion's original sin was compounded by dire consequences, including but not limited to:

-The transmogrification of the rare national unity and near-universal international support the U.S. had after 9/11 into raw divisiveness domestically and ill will internationally

-The destruction of some of the the world’s oldest, most precious antiquities throughout Iraq

-Astonishing human suffering (four-five million refugees and up to [and maybe over] one million dead civilians)

-The abandonment of Afghanistan at the very moment when the U.S. had a big coalition and could have built on the military victory there to help create a safe, civil society, which re-empowered the Taliban when they were on the ropes and dragged the conflict out to the present and beyond

-4,884 dead American troops and many times that injured physically and/or psychologically

-The over-extension and diminution of the American military through multiple tours and deployment of National Guard members for combat purposes (which robbed New Orleans of badly needed Guardsmen after Hurricane Katrina)

-An exacerbation of tension with Muslims worldwide and increase in terrorist recruitment (including the founding of ISIS), the very thing the Bush Administration was claiming to counteract in Iraq

-The replacement of a Sunni strongman who provided a check on the Iranians with a Shiite leader who is allied with Iran

The long-term costs of the Iraq invasion—which was initiated not long before the U.S. treasury was starting to absorb the staggering costs of Baby Boomer retirement—are up to six trillion dollars.

The opportunity costs of the invasion of Iraq are less quantifiable but still immense. Every dollar spent on this ill-conceived adventure robbed us of a dollar for the elemental priorities of a civilized society back home and now Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell (who supported the invasion) use the budget deficit as an excuse to take the ax to programs for both those who need assistance most—the poor, elderly, and disabled—and for the struggling, shrinking middle-class.

As the civil war triggered by the invasion continues, killing two more children today, back here in the States I scanned a dozen TV screens at the gym to see if the 16th anniversary of this major event in U.S. history would get any coverage.

What I saw instead was a banal sitcom, reality TV shows about ghost hunters, blonde, siliconed bimbos with double-digit IQs, and the daily struggles of a 600-lb. woman, breathless analysis of college basketball, and ads for overpriced gas guzzlers and "Truck Night" on the so-called History Channel. What political coverage there was consisted of a horse race story about Beto O'Rourke's recent fundraising haul and an interview with a talking head about the deep implications of an opinion poll showing that 87% of Americans believe the Mueller report should be released to the public.

In the America of 2019, it's as if the invasion never happened unless you're a vet or the loved one of a vet.

Such is life in the United States of Amnesia.

More political writing by Dan Benbow:

Death of a President in the United States of Amnesia
 (a review of the public life of George H.W. Bush)

Aliens, unicorns, and the narcissism 
of voting Green

10 reasons Barack Obama is clearly
the best president in my lifetime

178 reasons Hillary Clinton is infinitely better
than Donald Trump (even on her worst day)

 Follow Dan Benbow on Twitter      

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