For this reason, Southern revisionists had to downplay the significance of slavery as the principal precipitating factor in causing the conflict. The causes of the war are more complex, they say; in fact, they accuse those who rightly insist on slavery’s centrality in triggering the Civil War to be naive and unsophisticated at best (and intellectually dishonest purveyors of liberal, Northern propaganda at worst). Southern apologists must think this way in order to preserve a sense of themselves and the correctness of their ideological framework. The alternative is to admit that not only have they been wrong, but have either been an active participant or a silent enabler of a great social and moral injustice. Similar examples of this phenomenon have occurred throughout history.
This is precisely what is taking place on the GOP right with respect to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Starting with all-but-announced GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s bumbling answer to the proverbial “What if” question (“Knowing what we know now, did President George W. Bush make the right decision in invading Iraq?”), conservative stalwarts have predictably parroted the party line: Bush made the best decision at the time based on the available intelligence. It was the nation’s spy agencies who supplied the president what turned out to be grossly inaccurate intelligence about Sadaam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs who are to blame. In other words, Bush and Cheney made an honest mistake: they were the victims of bad intelligence. Having exonerated the Bush-Cheney administration of purposeful deception, conservatives quickly pivot to blaming all of the current problems on Barack Obama’s “failed Middle East policies.” If only Obama had maintained a residual force in Iraq, conservatives opine, the hard-won “victories” in Iraq (paid for dearly by American blood and treasure in the last decade) would not be unraveling before our very eyes. With the noteworthy exception of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, conservatives, virtually to a man, must believe this carefully spun fairy tale. Otherwise, they face the judgment of history: an administration that deliberately misled the nation into a war that was not only unnecessary, but one of the greatest strategic blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy, is one that is truly deserving of contempt. Such an administration should be regarded as one of the worst – if not the absolute worst – in American history. Moreover, anyone seen as an apologist for an administration guilty of such a grotesque deception risks having their credibility on foreign policy (and other matters as well) permanently called into question. For a movement which, at its core, is premised on its belief in its moral superiority over its opponents, this is a possibility that most conservatives simply cannot allow themselves to believe.
In truth, there was a great deal of bad intelligence that was widely believed in the run-up to the Iraq War. Liberals who fail to acknowledge this fact (a sin that a recent Paul Krugman piece in The New York Times commits) actually do the right wing’s bidding. However, it is also true that the Bush administration presented a purposely misleading case for war to the American public. Not only did they lie us into the war, but they, along with their allies and surrogates, are lying about it now. Therefore, it is important that those of us who know better to not allow them to get away with it.
The widespread belief after 1998 (when Saddam Hussein kicked out the United Nations’ weapons inspectors) that Iraq maintained an active WMD program represents one of the greatest intelligence blunders in modern times. Democrats as well as Republicans believed that Iraq possessed dangerous stockpiles of chemical, biological, and maybe even nuclear weapons. The Clinton administration believed that Sadaam Hussein still had WMDs. So did the British, French, German, and Russian intelligence services. Saddam Hussein did not help his cause: by kicking out the weapons inspectors, he acted very much like someone who had something to hide. Given the First Gulf War in 1991, neither the American political class or the public at large needed much priming to be convinced that Saddam was a bad guy who needed to be taken out. This sentiment only intensified after the attacks of September 11, 2001; indeed, the administration skillfully exploited the sense of vulnerability created by the attacks in the minds of the public to their advantage. Liberals who do not acknowledge that this was the state of affairs prior to the invasion of Iraq unwittingly do the Bush administration a favor. Because there truly was a bipartisan consensus about Iraq that turned out to be wrong, liberals who only concentrate on the administration’s willful deceptions are easily dismissed by their conservative critics. By emphasizing only that Bush and Co. lied rather than admitting that there truly was a major intelligence breakdown lets the administration off the hook.
But, separate and apart from the conventional wisdom masquerading as intelligence on Iraq’s weapons programs, the Bush administration purposely made false and misleading arguments, embellished others, and in some cases, outright made things up in order to make the case for war more compelling. These purposeful deceptions are distinguishable from the intelligence blunders of the American spy agencies and their foreign counterparts. And they certainly are not comparable to the statements of leading Democrats who supported the Iraq War at the time – notably Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Rather, they were guilty of uncritically accepting the conventional wisdom about Iraq and in believing the administration’s false and misleading case for war.
Space will not allow for a full accounting; but a few examples of the administration’s pattern of deception will suffice. It was the Bush administration who alleged, on several occasions, that Iraqi officials had met with Al Qeida operatives in Prague; Vice President Dick Cheney spoke of this supposed meeting on multiple occasions on national television. He continued to do so for months after the CIA had concluded that the alleged meeting between Iraqi officials and Al Qeida never happened. However, having the American public connect Saddam Hussein with 9/11 was a central strategy in the campaign by the Bush administration to make the case for war. Both Bush and Cheney told the American people that Saddam Hussein had either reconstituted (or was seeking to reconstitute) a nuclear weapons program, even though there was no intelligence to back up those assertions. The administration told the American people, for example, that the “aluminum tubes” that Iraq possessed had the capacity to carry nuclear warheads capable of striking Israel even though their own nuclear scientists were telling Bush administration officials the exact opposite. Admitting this small detail would have undermined the case the administration was trying to make; consequently, the administration hid the doubts of the government’s nuclear scientists about Iraq’s aluminum tubes from the American people.
A second component of the campaign to sell the Iraq War was a calculated effort to downplay and trivialize the costs of going to war. Cheney infamously stated on NBC’s Meet the Press that American troops “would be welcomed as liberators” (Instead, we had an insurgency.) Paul Wolfowitz made the spectacularly stupid claim before a congressional committee that Iraq (unlike the Balkans) does not have a history of sectarian conflict (The 1400 year conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam began in modern-day Iraq – the holiest sites in Shia Islam are located in Iraq!). Wolfowitz also told members of Congress that the cost of reconstructing Iraq would be minimal to American taxpayers because Iraq had its own oil revenues (Instead, the war has cost taxpayers trillions of dollars.). When one of their top generals advised the administration that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would require a minimum of 300,000 troops, they forced this general into involuntary retirement. Rumsfeld insisted that 120,000 troops were all that was required. The administration feared that a larger commitment of troops in Iraq would lead to greater scrutiny of the case for war and potentially undermine it all together.
Also, central to the administration’s strategy was the deliberate effort to create a false sense of urgency with respect to the decision to go to war in order to both minimize and demonize all legitimate opposition. They scheduled the debate on the war resolution purposely before the midterm elections. This choice was based on sheer politics: no objective “facts on the ground” necessitated that the vote should take place when it did. They manufactured a phony controversy surrounding the creation of the Department of Homeland Security by inserting a last-minute provision into the bill denying the employees of the new department the right to collective bargaining. Republicans then dishonestly portrayed Democrats who objected to this needless politicization of union rights as “coddlers” to terrorists during the midterm elections. It was the administration who made the decision to use military force before the UN inspectors had the opportunity to finish their work: after years of criticizing Saddam for expelling the inspectors, the Bush administration now was not willing to wait for UN officials to determine if Iraq had complied with its resolutions to dismantle its weapons programs. Bush’s speechwriters inserted the reference to Iraq seeking uranium “yellow cake” from Niger in his 2003 State of the Union address even though they knew that U.S. intelligence officials doubted the accuracy of this assertion. And we now know that not only that much of the “intelligence” in Colin Powell’s now infamous presentation to the United Nations false, but that key officials responsible for helping the Secretary put it together knew that some of the key fact assertions were false at the time.
These examples cannot be explained away by the excuse that President Bush simply got bad intelligence. In each of these examples, the administration went well beyond simply passing on bad information unwittingly to the public. Rather, they engaged in misinformation. Bush officials made assertions in public that they knew (and should have known) that the intelligence community had either discounted or had deemed to be unreliable. They presented as credible individuals whom the CIA had said should not be believed (most notably, Ahmed Chalabi, the charlatan who headed the Iraqi National Congress). And they purposely hid from the public information that called into question the wisdom of the rush to war. And when Ambassador Joe Wilson pointed out one specific detail that the administration should have known better than to rely on (the claim about Saddam seeking uranium yellow cake from Africa), the administration retaliated by revealing the undercover identity of his wife in an effort to smear him.
Moreover, it is no defense to argue (as Bush apologists do) that the administration should get a pass because Democrats and other foreign governments also believed that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Bush was president: he had the responsibility over the national security apparatus. The French, German, and Russian governments similarly believed that Saddam possessed WMDs, but they did not use false intelligence to presumptively act in the name of the international community and start a war with Iraq. But the Bush-Cheney administration did.
The current conservative talking points about the Iraq War are both diabolically dishonest and extremely self-serving. Their purpose is not only to salvage the legacy of the Bush II administration; additionally, they seek to shift the blame for the current carnage taking place in the Middle East from their disastrous decision to invade Iraq to President Obama’s supposed “weakness” and “lack of resolve.” Amazingly, the same individuals who were so spectacularly wrong about Iraq more than a decade ago have resurfaced to critique the “failure” of Obama’s Middle East policy. If only Obama had not withdrawn American forces from Iraq, they whine, ISIS would not be on the march. They further maintain that had the United States armed the Syrian rebels against Assad, that situation would be in a much better place. And rather than negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, these neocons appear to want a war with them instead.
These analyses artfully dodge the obvious point: ISIS would not be running roughshod in both Iraq and Syria had the United States not foolishly invaded Iraq in the first place. The very people who were wrong about Iraq and seem to want a war with Iran fail to acknowledge that it is their colossal blunder to invade Iraq that has in fact strengthened Iran. Eliminating Saddam Hussein removed the most significant power standing in the way of Iran’s desire to dominate the Gulf region. Furthermore, they have given the Iranians the perfect incentive to seek a nuclear weapon: the desire to inoculate themselves from a military invasion from the United States.
In actuality, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq shattered a phony country: the boundaries of Iraq are the legacy of the arbitrary lines drawn by the British colonizers in 1919 that created a state out of three culturally distinct and hostile groups (Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds). However, their sectarian identities are much stronger than their supposed “national” identity as Iraqis (By the way, this is the fundamental political problem in much of the developing world where the political boundaries reflect the legacies of colonialism rather than the organic result of national development.). This fragile union was held together by the brute force of a ruthless dictator and his ruling party. When the United States broke the Iraqi state by invading in 2003, we should have not have been surprised that all hell broke loose. We should not be surprised that the ancient grievances between these warring ethnic groups have exploded into violent conflict. Nor should we reasonably expect that the bloodshed will come to an end anytime soon. We should not be surprised that ISIS has established a caliphate of sorts that spans both Syrian and Iraqi territory because the border between Iraq and Syria is a phony, arbitrary demarcation line on the world map anyway. And, moreover, our colossally unwise decision to invade Iraq has undermined U.S. credibility in the region, a fact which significantly limits America’s options as far as influencing the direction of current events in that part of the world are concerned.
These are the facts about the Iraq War and its repercussions for the current turmoil that is taking place in the Middle East. Any political party who will not honestly come to terms with these facts not only does not deserve to control the White House or the Congress; they do not deserve to be taken seriously, period. It is vitally important that we get the story right about how we got into this mess in the first place. Otherwise, if we do not learn the lessons of the Iraq War of 2003, these mistakes are likely to be repeated again, with even more disastrous consequences for our nation and the world in the future.
I am not surprised to see every major Republican presidential candidate (except Rand Paul) along with the conservative pundit class are still, at this late date, lying about the Iraq War. For the sake of truth and for the health of our democracy, it is our sacred obligation to set the record straight.
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