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Commentary

Taking Stock One Year After the U.S. Invasion of Iraq


     
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One year ago the United States unleashed its armed forces in an invasion of Iraq. Prior to the invasion, the Bush administration offered a variety of justifications for launching it and defended its war plan against critics who claimed that a U.S. invasion was unnecessary and would be immoral or unwise. For everyone except those blinded by partisan loyalty to the Bush administration, the truth is now all too obvious. The administration was wrong and the critics were right.

The president, the vice president, the secretaries of defense and state, and other leading figures in the Bush administration insisted confidently and repeatedly in interviews, speeches, and public forums that the Iraqi regime harbored vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons; that it was actively developing nuclear weapons; that it either possessed already or soon would possess effective means, including long-range missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles, of delivering so-called weapons of mass destruction far beyond its borders, even to the United States; that it had established links to members of al Qaeda; and that it was directing its military and related efforts toward wreaking great harm on the United States. Along the way, many auxiliary claims came forth involving, among other things, an alleged Iraqi attempt to obtain uranium “yellow cake” from Niger; procurement of aluminum tubes allegedly for use in Iraqi nuclear-weapons production; and an alleged April 2001 meeting in Prague between al Qaeda operative Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent. Administration leaders maintained that the conquest of Iraq (officially its “liberation”) would set off a chain reaction of democratization across the Middle East.

On March 17, 2003, just two days before the beginning of the U.S. invasion, President Bush said in an evening address to the nation:

Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. . . . The [Iraqi] regime . . . has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaeda. The danger is clear: Using chemical, biological or, one day, nuclear weapons obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country or any other. . . . Before the day of horror can come, before it is too late to act, this danger will be removed. . . . The tyrant will soon be gone. [Iraqi people] [t]he day of your liberation is near. . . . [W]e cannot live under the threat of blackmail. The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed. . . . We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. . . . We choose to meet that threat now where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities. . . . [R]esponding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self-defense. It is suicide. The security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now. . . . [W]hen the dictator has departed, [the Iraqi people] can set an example to all the Middle East of a vital and peaceful and self-governing nation.

On March 19, having ordered U.S. forces to begin the invasion, the president said in an evening address:

We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people. . . . Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure. The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder. . . . We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.

Despite a lingering unwillingness to admit in plain language that none of the president's claims about Iraqi threats has held up in the face of the facts brought to light during the past year, the administration has ceased to defend them and has resorted instead to denying that the president himself ever used the phrase “imminent threat”; to blaming faulty intelligence for misleading the president; and to justifying the war on the grounds that no matter what else might have been the case, Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. Moreover, although the U.S. occupation of Iraq has made that country a magnet for Islamic holy warriors, suicide bombers, and planters of roadside IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and although terrorists have carried out horrendous retaliatory bombings in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Indonesia, Turkey, and Spain, among other places, President Bush persists in his locker-room bravado and declares that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have made the world “a safer, freer place.”

Today, many prewar predictions can be tested against the actual outcomes of the war. We now know, for example, that U.S. forces have not been welcomed – at least, not for long or by many people – in Iraq. But in view of the thousands of deaths that they caused among civilians as well as Iraqi soldiers, the countless persons of all ages and both sexes that they injured, the vast destruction of property that they wreaked, and the widespread looting that they unleashed and then stood by watching, why would they have been welcomed? Many Iraqis, especially the Shiites and Kurds, are pleased to be rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime, but few of them relish the occupation of their country by U.S. troops or their subjugation to a foreign power. In the port city of Umm Qasr, hospital director Dr. Akram Gataa gave representative testimony for the southern region when he said, “Everyone was happy when the soldiers came here to get rid of the old regime but now people are wondering what this so-called freedom has brought them.” Dr. Gataa reported that the mood of the local people was turning quickly from frustration to resentment and anger, and he added: “All of us will fight them if they stay here too long. No Iraqi will accept this turning into the occupation of their country.”

Nor do the U.S. troops themselves enjoy serving as targets in the scores of attempts made daily to kill them. As one soldier said, “U.S. officials need to get our asses out of here. We have no business being here. . . . All we are here is potential people to be killed and sitting ducks.” Nearly 600 have died so far, thousands have been injured seriously, and many have had their mental states rearranged for the worse – approximately one thousand of the U.S. troops evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany were suffering from mental problems, according to hospital commander Colonel Rhonda Cornum. Violence can accomplish certain things, but neither “nation building” nor the promotion of sound mental health is among those things.

For many of us, none of these events has come as a surprise. Before the war, we told anyone who would listen that the administration had not made a convincing case for its impending invasion of Iraq and that its rosy forecast of the aftermath of a U.S. attack was so unlikely as to border on the fantastical.

Because the prosecution of a war serves so splendidly to promote government power and to gratify a president's delusions of war-leader “greatness“ (his prime claim to fame as he seeks reelection), however, one naturally suspects that the invasion of Iraq was never intended to serve the announced purposes, that the stated rationale was pure pretext all along. A close look at the backgrounds, expressed policy preferences, and actions of the neoconservative schemers who played such a prominent role in promoting the invasion – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and company – does nothing to diminish such suspicion. Indeed, if the pure-pretext explanation is not valid, then one is hard pressed to understand how the government, with its vast multi-billion-dollar intelligence apparatus, managed to get so many things wrong while isolated individuals with no privileged access to classified or inside information, such as I, managed to get them right all along.

Truth be known, this discrepancy testifies to the comic-opera quality of the whole undertaking. It illuminates the many ways in which the administration, the so-called intelligence community, the make-believe checks and balances in Congress and the courts, and the propaganda organs that masquerade as major independent news media have been engaged, and even now continue to engage, in something akin to one of those huge ballroom dances at the Palace of Versailles, each dancer moving in perfect harmony with all the rest, almost as if the entire performance had been – dare I say? – choreographed. Gazing though the unshuttered windows of power at this grandiose performance, the awed peasants perceive the elegantly costumed and magnificently coiffured dancers as they join and turn and separate, only to join and turn again in harmonious synchronization.

Thus, the Democratic challenger for the presidency is represented by his party and by the press as a stern critic of the war, but one has to wonder: where was his steely resolve in October 2002, when he voted in the Senate to hand over to the president the authority that the Constitution gives to Congress alone to declare war? Now, weaseling like a typical politician, he maintains that he was tricked – Bush “misled every one of us,” he declares – and that he voted as he did because he trusted George Bush to go to war only as a “last resort.” Can John Kerry have been so obtuse that he had no idea who held the reins at the Bush administration? Did he not know what Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, and the rest of that gang had been cooking up for decades in public as well as in private? Clarifying his stance, Kerry maintains not that Bush should not have gone to war but only that Bush should have formed a bigger coalition before doing so. Evidently an immoral and unwise war is hunky-dory if enough aggressors join forces to wage it.

To suppose that Kerry is antiwar and Bush prowar would be to mischaracterize a case of Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber. As a phrase used on another, similar occasion back in the 1960s reminds us, there's not a dime’s worth of difference between these two barons of the ruling oligarchy. The effusion of campaign blather and the election that will mercifully end it in November are all part of the ritual dance. In no event will the election's outcome materially affect the realities of death and destruction that U.S. and puppet forces are dishing out worldwide or the spasms of terrorist retaliation and assorted other “blowback” that are certain to follow. To imagine anything else is tantamount to forgetting the entire political history of this country during the past century.

Meanwhile, the dance continues. A congressionally approved blue-ribbon commission, though repeatedly obstructed by the president’s refusal to cooperate fully, strenuously probes the 9/11 disaster in preparation for its eventual preordained whitewash of presidential or administration responsibility. Another bipartisan, presidentially appointed panel, whose report has been conveniently scheduled to arrive well after the November election, digs into the “faulty intelligence” on which the administration relied prior to its invasion of Iraq. Weapons searcher David Kay has already admitted that “we were almost all wrong,” and the commission's goal of course is to “get to the bottom” of this matter – as if, at this late date, the whole world doesn't know exactly how the neocons spun the whole shebang in order to tell a plausible tale on behalf of their beloved war. On Capitol Hill, Congressional committees hold mock-serious hearings, going through the motions of searching for the facts about intelligence failures, military snafus, and cozy deals in the military-industrial complex. These dedicated public servants are always shocked – shocked! – when they happen to stumble onto the truth, but as well-rehearsed dancers they can be counted on not to stumble that way frequently. If John Q. Public thinks that any of this official investigatory activity will provide him with reliable information about how the government actually works, or even about how it intends to work, he is sacrificing a good opportunity to go fishing. It's all for show.

If you think I’m off base, then take the following test. Check the cast of characters a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now. See who’s prospered and who hasn’t. See whose head has rolled (don’t expect many) for misfeasance or malfeasance in public office. Check whether many politicians who came into office without great wealth somehow left office filthy rich. Check on their friends and relatives, too. Notice whose kids have been killed or wounded by roadside IEDs in whatever Third World hellhole the United States has invaded and occupied most recently (don't expect to find the scions of any government bigwigs among those blown to smithereens or driven mad by combat stress). Check whether the United States has managed to bring into being a glorious worldwide regime of democracy, peace, and prosperity and whether the world‘s peoples are hailing Uncle Sam with hosannas and strewing his global pathways with flowers in gratitude for his beneficent intervention (just don’t hold your breath waiting for this oft-promised outcome). I'm prepared to be wrong. If I am, I'll deliver a dollar for each of your donuts.

What we see in Iraq one year after the invasion might have been foreseen, and in fact was foreseen, by anybody who cared to take the trouble to look into the matter without ideological or religious blinders and with a modicum of historical background on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy during the past century. This war, like all the others, has been not so much a case of who knew what when, of well-intentioned mistakes and tragic miscalculations. It has been more a case of who told what lies to whom, to serve what personal, political, and ideological ends; of who paid the price in blood and treasure and who came out smelling like a rose; of mendacity and irresponsibility in high places and of colossal public gullibility in the face of relentless political opportunism. As the saying goes, the more things change . . .


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

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