Nine Years Later: More Shocked, Less Awed

By David Swanson, Remarks at the Left Forum

When I lived in New York 20 years ago, the United States was beginning a 20-year war on Iraq. We protested at the United Nations. The Miami Herald depicted Saddam Hussein as a giant fanged spider attacking the United States. Hussein was frequently compared to Adolf Hitler. On October 9, 1990, a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl told a U.S. congressional committee that she’d seen Iraqi soldiers take 15 babies out of an incubator in a Kuwaiti hospital and leave them on the cold floor to die. Some congress members, including the late Tom Lantos (D., Calif.), knew but did not tell the U.S. public that the girl was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, that she’d been coached by a major U.S. public relations company paid by the Kuwaiti government, and that there was no other evidence for the story. President George H. W. Bush used the dead babies story 10 times in the next 40 days, and seven senators used it in the Senate debate on whether to approve military action. The Kuwaiti disinformation campaign for the Gulf War would be successfully reprised by Iraqi groups favoring the overthrow of the Iraqi government twelve years later.

My Congressman in Virginia from 2008 to 2010 Tom Perriello, who was beloved by all the national progressive groups for reasons never explained and who is now president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and one of the founders of Avaaz, holds up the first Gulf War as a model of a good and humanitarian war, while Avaaz pushes for war in Syria as philanthropy and Senator John McCain pushes for it as a way to overthrow a government that is allied with Iran, the same Iran strengthened by 20 years of war and sanctions against Iraq.

Are the lies that have to be told to get these wars going a necessary part of the process of stirring up weak souls’ emotions for the truly necessary and noble work of war? Are we all, each and every one of us, wise and knowing insiders who must tolerate being lied to because others just don’t understand? This line of thinking would be more persuasive if wars did any good that could not be done without them and if they did it without all the harm. Two intense wars and many years of bombing and deprivation later, the evil ruler of Iraq, and former U.S. ally, Saddam Hussein is gone, but we’ve spent trillions of dollars; a million Iraqis are dead; four million have been displaced and left desperate and abandoned; violence is everywhere; sex trafficking is on the rise; the basic infrastructure of electricity, water, sewage, and healthcare is in ruins (in part because of the U.S. intention to privatize Iraq’s resources for profit); life expectancy has dropped; cancer rates in Fallujah have surpassed those in Hiroshima; anti-U.S. terrorist groups are using the occupation of Iraq as a recruiting tool; there is no functioning government in Iraq; and most Iraqis say they were better off with Saddam Hussein in power. We have to be lied to for this? Really?

I was back in New York on February 15th 2003 to oppose a new assault on Iraq. That effort, the single biggest day of protest in history, created international alliances, prevented the United Nations from sanctioning the war, dragged non anti-war groups into the anti-war effort at least as long as the president was a Republican, discouraged military recruitment, and kicked off a movement that — along with other factors — eventually ended a war in Iraq, is about to end a war in Afghanistan, and has thus far prevented a war on Iran — a war that the masters of war have tried very hard to start a number of times in the past 9 years. Of course, the war on Iraq has neither ended completely nor ended in the way people are often told.

I got an email last fall from the Huffington Post telling me that Obama was keeping his campaign promise to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. Not quite. Obama said, “I will promise you this: that if we have not gotten our troops out by the time I am president, it is the first thing I will do. I will get our troops home. We will bring an end to this war. You can take that to the bank.” Here’s how the Huffington Post claimed this promise was kept: “Fulfilling a long-held campaign promise, President Barack Obama announced Friday that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year, as conditioned by the Status of Forces Agreement with the country.” What exactly is a long-held campaign promise? Is it one that it takes you a long time to keep? Does that work even if the promise was specifically what your first action would be? Was this somehow Obama’s belated first action? Of course, not. This was compliance with a treaty that Bush and Maliki had made three years earlier, which the Iraqi government had refused to modify to accommodate Obama’s desire to keep troops in Iraq longer. That refusal, specifically the refusal to allow mercenaries and troops immunity from Iraqi law, was apparently motivated in part by the release of the collateral murder video allegedly given to Wikileaks by Bradley Manning, whom Obama kept in solitary confinement for a year and whom Obama’s subordinates will now provide with the pretense of a trial following Obama’s public declaration of his guilt.

The vast bulk of the U.S. occupation of Iraq is gone, much to the credit of the Iraqis and of the peace movement that existed in the United States three, four, and five years ago when peace groups were joined by Democratic groups that saw an advantage in opposing a particular war. But the United States had already built the world’s largest so-called embassy, until it completes a bigger one in Afghanistan, and the treaty that Bush and Maliki rammed through without the Congress, as Obama consequently believes he can do for Afghanistan, only required the removal of troops employed by the U.S. Department of so-called Defense. Mercenaries employed by the State Department, as well as the CIA, can stay. In February, the State Department said it would be cutting its staff from 16,000 to 8,000. Thousands of those staff will be nothing other than armed mercenaries. The U.S. Army has also hired mercenaries to escort shipments of supplies from Kuwait into Iraq, although it also has use of an airport in Iraq. The United States has a military presence in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Eritrea, Djibouti, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, and the Mediterranean, plus a closely aligned and U.S. funded military in Israel, and there are those in the U.S. government who want to bring back a larger occupation of Iraq, while President Obama does not hesitate to send drones anywhere.

As U.S. troops have been withdrawn from Iraq a number of things have not happened:

· Iraq has not descended into the worst hell imaginable, many times worse then the hell we’ve helped to create there.

· The reputation of the U.S. military has not collapsed to the point where every little nation with a grudge to settle has attacked Washington.

· The people of Iraq have not risen up to demand a longer occupation.

· The U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq have not come back from their graves to insist that their memories require additional years of pointless killing and dying by others, and

· The rule of law has not suffered a fatal blow (partly because it was already dead).

All of this suggests a few of things. One, it is possible that sometimes Fox News is wrong. Two, it is possible that the two-thirds of us who favor withdrawing from Afghanistan are right about that one as well. Three, maybe keeping the peace movement going would have been a good idea, and maybe we should revive it.

Not gone from Iraq are Exxon Mobil, BP, and Shell. They didn’t get everything they’d hoped for, and Chinese, Russian, and Singaporean companies are in there too. But they got hugely valuable contracts that give them far more profit and the Iraqi people far less than is the norm. They also raked in huge profits from the increased price of oil during the war, as during the current threat of war with Iran. Also profiting, of course, have been the direct war profiteers, the weapons makers and other military contractors and mercenary firms. But outside of that group, which tends to profit enormously from military spending whether or not there’s a war, the U.S. economy as a whole has been badly hurt — from the 99% to the 1%. Even Donald Trump wants out of Afghanistan. This kind of madness doesn’t benefit the conquering nation — even if the threat of war facilitates the exploitation of other countries. I recently read an article about Iraq choosing to buy crops from nations other than the United States that quoted U.S. farmers who were absolutely furious that Iraq would choose not to buy their products after the United States had gone to so much trouble bombing and occupying Iraq. Michael Froomkin recently wrote: “The population of Iraq is about 32,000,000. So that means the war cost us about $25,000 per Iraqi. I think my suggestion back in 2003 that instead of staying in Iraq we just give every Iraqi $3000 per year for the next year or two is looking awfully good in retrospect.” Of course, that model could be enlarged. Far more Afghan children starve and freeze to death than any soldiers massacre, and it would cost a lot less to feed and clothe them than it does to massacre them. And doing so would create a lot more peace and stability. A trillion-dollar army cannot win an occupation. There’s no such thing as winning. That’s what Iraq ought to have shown them. There will be no nuclear weapons moved into Afghanistan and no U.S. controlled pipelines. Apart from the weapons makers and mercenary profiteers, nobody gains.

We in the United States didn’t just lose money in Iraq. We lost our civil liberties at home, our representative government, our vestigial restrictions on presidential war powers. Obama went into Libya without even bothering to lie to Congress, and Panetta just told Senator Sessions that Obama can go into Syria without Congress or the United Nations. We lost our prohibitions on torture, murder, and lawless imprisonment. We lost religious tolerance. And we lost the idea that there is anything a president can do, other than sex, that can get him impeached. We created temporary despots.

The authorizations to use military force from 2001 and the one for Iraq from 2003 are still on the books. Obama or another president or Congress could send drones or troops into Iraq. The Iraq AUMF is broader than the Afghanistan one. Bush and Obama have used it to justify worldwide war on people they label terrorists who do not have any plausible connection to September 11th, and to wiretap the rest of us.

We also lost in Iraq all credibility as supporters of the rule of law. Those who had seen immunity effectively given to the killers of Haditha knew what to expect when the Afghan government demanded an open trial in Afghanistan for the killer of Kandahar.

We lost all sense of gratitude and requirement of protection for whistleblowers, as Obama has expanded on Bush’s approach of treating them as traitors.

We lost the good will of much of the world. We became hated, loathed, despised, and detested. Some of those in power in the United States recovered a reluctance to launch huge wars and lose lots of U.S. military lives. But they found an alternative in bombs and drones. And if relatively few drone pilots lose their minds or kill themselves, that doesn’t mean there won’t be blowback or that there is not a direct cost to our culture in becoming an empire that uses robots to kill.

The damage to U.S. veterans, their families, and those around them will go on for decades. The brain damage, PTSD, and suicide epidemics just begin to tell the story of human and financial cost. The divorce, child neglect, and child abuse will be very long lasting, not to mention the desire of many of those children to please their parents by going to war themselves.

Unbeknownst to the U.S. media of course the bulk of the cost of a war is born by the nation where the war is fought. On the question of what has been done to Iraq I recommend Michael Otterman’s book “Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage.”

Last year we watched the people of Egypt overthrow a U.S.-backed dictator in three weeks at a cost of 300 deaths. They only overthrew that one individual, not the corrupt military government. They have a long ways to go. But compare Iraq. Over 20 years the United States has replaced a dictator with a corrupt military government at a cost of millions of lives, trillions of dollars spent, trillions of dollars in infrastructure destroyed, a regional refugee crisis, ethnic and religious strife, segregated towns and neighborhoods, empowered religious fanatics. We’ve set back women’s rights horribly, effectively eliminated gay and lesbian rights, nearly killed off some minority groups, decimated the nation’s cultural heritage, and created a generation of people without the experience of peace, without education, without proper nutrition, without tolerance, without proper healthcare, without a functioning government, and without affection for or even indifference to the United States. What a bargain. Surely nonviolence could never have done so much. Or as Obama put it, when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, just after rejecting the model of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

In place of reason, the war on Iraq gave us this, as recounted by U.S. soldier Ethan McCord: “We had a pretty gung-ho commander, who decided that because we were getting hit by IEDs a lot, there would be a new battalion SOP [standard operating procedure]. He goes, ‘If someone in your line gets hit with an IED, 360 rotational fire. You kill every motherfucker on the street.'”

Another way to kill “every motherfucker on the street” is to destroy water supplies, sewage plants, hospitals, and bridges. This we have done most extensively in 1991 and 2003. On the first occasion, a U.S. Air force planning officer justified these criminal acts as no worse and having no other purpose than economic sanctions: “People say, ‘You didn’t recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage.’ Well, what were we trying to do with sanctions — help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of the sanctions.”

Sanctions on Iran are for the same purpose. Either they will provoke Iran, just as they did Japan so many years ago. Or they will create a logic that explains war on the grounds that the sanctions haven’t succeeded in overthrowing a sovereign government that we haven’t overthrown since 1953.

The Madeleine Albrights of the world who thought that killing a half-million Iraqi children was a price worth paying for some strategic purpose need to be asked now, now that the strategic purpose has presumably been achieved or been abandoned, why in the hell are we not making reparations to the Iraqi people?

We haven’t built them a nation. We haven’t built anyone a nation, unless you count Germany and Japan which we first burned to the ground and have since never left. Supposedly we built a nation in Grenada and another, over a mere 23 years in Panama, although I’m not convinced that both wouldn’t have been better off left alone. Nobody claims we built a nation in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, or Iraq. Well, maybe some do, but they don’t live there. Half the world’s refugees are from Afghanistan and Iraq. Possibly half the world’s torture victims are from Afghanistan and Iraq. We owe reparations.

Instead, with the crime ending in Iraq, its architects are on book tours instead of on trial, and their successor in the White House has embraced the lies, the lie that invading Iraq was about so-called weapons of mass destruction, and the lie that escalating the war on Iraq helped to win it. These lies are carried over as lessons for Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is critical that we continue to counter them. U.S. polling on belief that the Iraq War was based on lies paralleled and led polling on opposition to that war. But memories are short. We have a great deal to be gained from continually reminding our country of the lies.

George Galloway, the great former British Member of Parliament recently wrote, “I told Tony Blair – outside the men’s lavatory in the library corridor of the House of Commons, to be precise – that the fall of Baghdad would be not the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning. And that the Iraqis would fight them, with their teeth if necessary, until they had driven them from their land. I told Blair that there was no al-Qaida in Iraq, but that if he and Bush were to invade there would be thousands of them. But two things, as George Bush would put it, I ‘mis-underestimated’. First, that when the tower of lies on which the case for the Iraq war had been constructed was exposed, the credibility of the political systems of the two main liars would collapse under the weight. And second, that the example of the Iraqi resistance would trigger seismic changes in the Arabian landscape from Marrakesh to Bahrain. Almost nobody in Britain or America any longer believes a word their politicians say. This profound change is not wholly the result of the Iraq war, but it moved into top gear following the war and the militarised mendacity that paved the way to it. In America this malaise has fuelled both the Tea Party phenomenon and the Occupy movement alike, even if the word Iraq seldom crosses their lips. And from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf the plates are moving still.”

Yes, but here in the Land of Free people have a tendency to believe their government lies about everything except war. That it lies about war too we need constantly to remind each other. In that spirit, I have drafted what I take to be the top 10 lying scheming reasons to treat Iran as we treated Iraq:

1. Iran has threatened to fight back if attacked, and that’s a war crime. War crimes must be punished.

2. My television says Iran has nukes. I’m sure it’s true this time. Just like with North Korea. I’m sure they’re next. We only bomb places that really truly have nukes and are in the Axis of Evil. Except Iraq, which was different.

3. Iraq didn’t go so badly. Considering how lousy its government is, the place is better off with so many people having left or died. Really, that one couldn’t have worked out better if we’d planned it.

4. When we threaten to cut off Iran’s oil, Iran threatens to cut off Iran’s oil, which is absolutely intolerable. What would we do without that oil? And what good is buying it if they want to sell it?

5. Iran was secretly behind 9-11. I read it online. And if it wasn’t, that’s worse. Iran hasn’t attacked another nation in centuries, which means its next attack is guaranteed to be coming very soon.

6. Iranians are religious nuts, unlike Israelis and Americans. Most Israelis don’t want to attack Iran, but the Holy Israeli government does. To oppose that decision would be to sin against God.

7. Iranians are so stupid that when we murder their scientists they try to hire a car dealer in Texas to hire a drug gang in Mexico to murder a Saudi ambassador in Washington, and then they don’t do it — just to make us look bad for catching them.

7. b. Oh, and stupid people should be bombed. They’re not civilized.

8. War is good for the U.S. economy, and the Iranian economy too. Troops stationed in Iran would buy stuff. And women who survived the war would have more rights. Like in Virginia. We owe Iranians this after that little mishap in 1953.

9. This is the only way to unite the region. Either we bomb Iran and it swears its eternal love to us. Or, if necessary, we occupy Iran to liberate it like its neighbors. Which shouldn’t take long. Look how well Afghanistan is going already.

10. They won’t give our drone back. Enough said.

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