My Turn: U.S. role in Iraq should be humanitarian
It has been 11 years since President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq. Rarely have words been so wrong. We can now look back and see that Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their crew of neoconservatives cluelessly opened Pandora’s box in Iraq.
The costs have been incalculable. The economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated the price tag of Bush’s war at more than 3 trillion dollars. More than 4,000 American soldiers have died along with an estimated 500,000 Iraqis. For the wounded American troops, the injuries have been grievous. Improvised explosive devices have ripped off limbs and genitals, catastrophically affecting many lives. And that does not even touch the many thousands of traumatic brain injuries and PTSD cases.
In watching the further unravelling of Iraq, I have been struck by the shallowness of most political commentary about the war. Typically the narrative is a blame game. Democrats blame George W. Bush’s administration and Republicans blame Obama.
I want to suggest a different viewpoint. Both parties bear some degree of responsibility for the Iraq War. While the George W. Bush administration bears primary responsibility as the architect of war, it must be pointed out that many, many Democrats went along with Bush and supported the invasion. Both the neoconservatives and the liberal hawks were on board.
It needs to be flat-out said: The Iraq war was a colossal fraud perpetrated against the American people. The Bush administration submitted false information to Congress and the public. It manufactured a case for invasion based on complete falsehoods. The two major falsehoods were existence of weapons of mass destruction and the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. While Obama took a pass on it, a strong legal case can be made that Bush and Cheney committed war crimes. There is an immense amount of blood on their hands.
United Nations charter law did not permit the president to launch the Iraq War unless there had been an armed attack by Iraq against the U.S. or unless the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of force. Neither condition was met. And I am not even getting to the matter of torture.
While many would, no doubt, dismiss this, I submit that the United States lacked legal authority to intervene in the affairs of the Iraqi people. This is quite different than our legal position relative to al-Qaida after the attacks of Sept. 11. A far stronger argument can be made to justify a military response to the perpetrators of 9/11. Al-Qaida did attack the U.S. and killed more than 3,000 people.
As politicians ponder next steps in Iraq, the history of the past 11 years suggests caution. It also suggests critical re-evaluation of American interests. Really going back all the way to the Vietnam War, such a critical re-evaluation is long overdue.
Politicians focus on questions such as: Should we use drones or air strikes? Or should we reintroduce combat soldiers? These are not the most important questions. We need to look harder at whether our national interest is actually threatened by a regional conflict. Too often we immediately answer “yes.”
Nations have a right to self-determination, and it is not the job of the United States to be world policeman. I think it is a safe bet Sunnis will be fighting Shiites and Shiites will be fighting Sunnis for the foreseeable future. Why does the United States belong in the middle of this mix? Is it simply because of fear of a loss of face or fear of being criticized for presiding over another disaster where Americans are considered losers? If there is a role, why should it not be diplomatic or humanitarian?
Before the war started, I remember the worldwide demonstrations against it. Along with millions of others all over the world, I demonstrated in Concord in front of the State House. The demonstrators all knew the war was wrong before it started, but nobody listened to the demonstrators. Many of us had the insight that the war made little sense, was unrelated to 9/11, and was probably about oil. Whatever politicians say about terrorist threats, access to oil remains a central concern of American policy.
One profound irony of the Iraq War of the past 11 years is the reality that the American invasion set into motion a terrorist advance. There would be no ISIL without the Americans. ISIL is blowback. Whatever the awfulness of Saddam Hussein’s rule as a military strongman, he had held the country together and squelched Sunni-Shiite rivalry. The American invasion and aftermath created the context for the demolition of the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish power blocs. The amount of bloodshed unleashed by our invasion has been staggering.
When I think of those who acted honorably around the Iraq war, one political name comes to mind: Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. Facing an avalanche of criticism including death threats, Lee was the only member of either House of Congress to vote against President Bush’s broadstroke authorization for the use of force after the 9/11 attacks. In explaining her vote, she said: “It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events – anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”
Now Lee is emphasizing that Obama needs to come to Congress for any war authorization. She is also advocating no more money for combat troops. I think she has been a lonely voice of wisdom and remains so.
It is predictable that military hawks will fulminate about ISIL and push for deeper military involvement in Iraq. Witness Cheney reappearing last week on TV and in the Wall Street Journal. Discredited is too kind a word for that individual. Before the war in Iraq in 2003, Kurt Vonnegut described people like Cheney as PPs – psychopathic personalities. To quote Vonnegut: “PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose”.
We need to resist the siren song of the neocons. Given their track record, why anyone would listen to them now is beyond imagination.
At least as far as the role of the United States, I am reminded of a saying from A.J. Muste, a peace activist from an earlier generation: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Considering the results from 11 years of war, I do not think that is bad advice.
(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is an administrative law judge. His column reflects his own view and not that of his employer, the Social Security Administration.)