Below are our mosts marking the ten year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.
Past And Present: March 3, 2003
This month, the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, I’ve decided to re-publish some of my posts from March 2003. Call it masochism or basic journalistic accountability or the Internet’s revenge. But I was wrong. I was wrong in good faith. But I was wrong. And it’s worth, ten years’ later, to show just how wrong I was in order to understand better my massive error of judgment (let alone of tone). So here we go. From March 3, 2003:
The capture of KSM is big news. In fact, it’s surely the biggest news in the war on terror in months. The nabbing followed previous arrests and interrogations, all of which have clearly helped stymie and disorient al Qaeda. In terms of the broader debate about the war, one conclusion is obvious. It’s time to retire the frayed notion that somehow we cannot go to war against Saddam and al Qaeda at the same time. In fact, it would be hard to think of a more perfect refutation. Could the administration be more preoccupied with Iraq than it is today? It’s a little hopeful to think that this phony argument against waging war on more than one front will now be retired. But it is useful to remember that, as an argument, it was never based on any actual assessment of how the government works. It was an argument entirely designed to make the Democrats look tough on terror while they were counseling appeasement of Saddam. It was a pretty obvious ploy at the time. Now it’s transparent. I’m glad we’ve finally cleared it up.
So let’s re-clear it up. Maybe among some cynics it was a ploy. But from ten years’ later, it seems clear that it wasn’t easy to fight Saddam and al Qaeda at the same time, or at least that the Bush administration was simply far too incompetent to pull off both. I was wrong. I was onto something about KSM – but little did I know or dream that it would be a key milestone in the illegal, secret torture program in earnest.
(Photo: U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battlion, 7th Regiment listen at a pep talk at Life Support Area 7 March 8, 2003 in northern Kuwait, 20 miles south of the Iraqi border. By Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.)
[Updated - to remove some early, solipsistic blather about Lent.]
The Hawks’ Hyperbole
The Iraq war began ten years ago this month. Fallows reflects on what the war taught us:
As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed. That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world really came within moments of nuclear destruction.
Otherwise: the “missile gap.” The Gulf of Tonkin. The overall scale of the Soviet menace. Iraq. In each case, the public soberly received official warnings about the imminent threat. In cold retrospect, those warnings were wrong — or contrived, or overblown, or misperceived. Official claims about the evils of these systems were many times justified. Claims about imminent threats were most of the times hyped.
Drum nods. And remember this when you are told Iran is going to nuke Israel imminently. On almost every previous occasion, we have been wrong, or lied to. Here’s another excruciating passage from my war-mongering phase ten years ago this week:
Chatting with a senior member of the administration this weekend, I felt a sense of relief. The president is adamant that Saddam will soon be gone. It will happen. The only option short of war will be Saddam’s exile, or death. I think Saddam understands this, which is why we suddenly have his desperate attempts to show superficial disarmament. But it isn’t enough. It cannot be enough. Maybe if he’d done it three months ago, we could have come to an agreement. But now the moment has passed. The permanent and transparent disarmament we need – the reassurance that the world deserves – cannot be accomplished while that duplicitous monster is in power. We should try for a second U.N. resolution, but we shouldn’t be too disheartened if we don’t get it. When you’re dealing with the likes of Chirac, there can be no secure agreement.
The post was titled: “The Relief Of Action.” The only silver lining is my hope for a second UN resolution. But it never came.
The Iraq War’s Junior Partner
Tony Blair isn’t apologetic:
Friedersdorf gives the interviewer props:
What I like about the video above is the way contentious issues are addressed head on, so that disagreement is actually aired. It even works out nicely for Blair, because he gets to really defend himself. It’s the sort of pressing interview that teases out the actual tensions in the subject’s thoughts.
“Never Forget That They Were All Wrong”
TNC reflects on his initial response to the Iraq War:
[I]f I regret anything it is my pose of powerlessness — my lack of faith in American democracy, my belief that the war didn’t deserve my hard thinking or hard acting, my cynicism. I am not a radical. But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every “sensible” and “serious” person you knew — left or right — was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.
Since I’ve been airing some of my own delusions about the Iraq war ten years’ ago, it’s worth recalling that TNC was right. Perhaps one of the most critical pro-war opinion-leaders was Bill Clinton (even though he supported more time for diplomacy in the run-up to the war). In 1998, it was Clinton who made removal of Saddam official US policy. Here is Bill Clinton on the Letterman show ten years ago this month, predicting a cake-walk and assuming the presence of WMDs:
“[Saddam] is a threat. He’s a murderer and a thug. There’s no doubt we can do this. We’re stronger; he’s weaker. You’re looking at a couple weeks of bombing and then I’d be astonished if this campaign took more than a week. Astonished.”
One more Clinton quote from that March:
“[I]f we leave Iraq with chemical and biological weapons, after 12 years of defiance, there is a considerable risk that one day these weapons will fall into the wrong hands and put many more lives at risk than will be lost in overthrowing Saddam… In the post-cold war world, America and Britain have been in tough positions before: in 1998, when others wanted to lift sanctions on Iraq and we said no; in 1999 when we went into Kosovo to stop ethnic cleansing. In each case, there were voices of dissent. But the British-American partnership and the progress of the world were preserved. Now in another difficult spot, Blair will have to do what he believes to be right. I trust him to do that and hope the British people will too.”
But what would happen then? Even Clinton, who made it formal US policy to remove Saddam, hadn’t thought that much about that. Neither had I. To my eternal shame.
(Photo: US President Bill Clinton (L) is introduced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a ground-breaking ceremony for Springvale Educational Village in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on May 10, 2007. By Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty.)
“Never Forget That They Were All Wrong” Ctd
Dreher, who supported the Iraq war, recalls the run-up to war:
I covered a big antiwar march in Manhattan in the spring of 2002, and the radicals were a disgusting bunch. “Bush = Hitler” signs, and so forth. As foul as it was, the event was a pleasant thing to see, in a way, because it made me feel more secure in the rightness of the war the US was about to undertake. And it shouldn’t be forgotten in those days that some antiwar people were nasty and hysterical, and impossible to talk to.
For all that … they were right about the only question that counted — Should the US launch a war on Iraq? — and my side was wrong. I was wrong. I had allowed myself to be swayed by emotion, even as I spited the emotional hysteria of the antiwar crowd.
TNC’s earlier reflections here.
What Iraq Can Teach Us
Millman hopes we won’t repeat our mistakes:
From the end of the Gulf War through to the very eve of the Iraq War, there was almost no serious discussion about our goals for relations with Iraq. The assumption was that there could be no goals with the existing regime, and our goal, even before 1998, was for the Saddam Hussein regime to fall. What our other goals might be were not even in the frame until that was achieved. As a consequence, war looked not so much like a “choice” as an “option” – the only one certain to achieve our primary goal – and all other “options” were evaluated in terms of the trade-off between lower cost and lower-likelihood of success.
That’s why it’s so vital that the conversation about Iran be reframed. Our goal should be normal, peaceful relations with Iran – whatever its regime.
(Left photo: U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds a vial representing the small amount of Anthrax that closed the U.S. Senate last year during his address to the UN Security Council February 5, 2003 in New York City. Powell was making a presentation attempting to convince the world that Iraq is deliberately hiding weapons of mass destruction. By Mario Tama/Getty Images. Right photo: Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, while attending the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2012, points to a red line he drew on a graphic of a bomb meant to represent Iran’s nuclear program. By Mario Tama/Getty Images)
How Did Cheney Get Iraq So Wrong?
How could they have been so cocksure in the face of so much contrary opinion from seemingly well qualified people? They had good reason for their self-confidence. Over the previous quarter century, the group around George W. Bush – famously nick-named “the Vulcans” – had joined battles over the Cold War and over the Gulf War against many of the same people who would later oppose the Iraq War. The Vulcans had proved right; their opponents had proved wrong.
And those of us who followed and supported the Vulcans fully expected that history would repeat itself in Iraq: boldness would win.
I remember vividly a conversation I had in my gym’s locker room with a Republican friend just before the war started. I had begun to worry – with the Turks balking, Rumsfeld posturing and the war plan nebulous and quite possibly under-manned. His response was simple (paraphrasing from memory): our military is so great these days they can accomplish anything. That tells you the impact of the post-Cold War triumphalism that had slowly replaced strategic thinking in our late-imperial phase. For my part, I remember reassuring a non-political skeptic the following (same paraphrase) on the eve of the war: You wait. We’ll find bunkers crammed with chemical weapons and possibly nuclear weapons that could end up in al Qaeda’s hands and in our cities. I promise you they’re there.
I trusted Colin Powell. I’d never seen a military intervention fail, except in Somalia. I’d seen new democracies spring from barren soil in post-Soviet Europe. Saddam was a monster and could never be removed peacefully. I became convinced by my own conviction. Here is my late April 2003 post clinging to the idea that Saddam and al Qaeda were in contact (a shady story in the Sunday Telegraph):
We know that Saddam had elaborate designs to make chemical and biological weapons. No serious person doubts that – although whether he tried to destroy evidence before the war, how extensive it was, what exactly it amounted to, are still questions in search of good answers. (But we’re getting warmer, it seems.) So what does a free country do when confronted with an enemy state, with WMDs, that we strongly suspect is in league with terrorists like al Qaeda, but cannot prove without invading? It’s tough. My view is that, after 9/11, we have little option but to launch a pre-emptive strike and hope for retroactive justification. But I understand why people demand proof before such action. This new finding – and I bet there will be more like it – strengthens my position, I think. The threat was not the weapons as such; it was the regime, its capacity to make and use such weapons and its potential or actual alliance with al Qaeda.
Looking back, the key phrase in the following sentence is pretty clear:
My view is that, after 9/11, we have little option but to launch a pre-emptive strike and hope for retroactive justification.
I’m not excusing my confirmation bias, my broad brush against opponents of the war (although I refuse to accept that they were all skeptical of the WMDs’ existence; many were just anti-Bush and anti-war), or my violation of just war doctrine. But the truth is: 9/11 worked. It terrorized me and it terrorized a lot of people. When you are in a state of terror, the odds of future terror seem much greater and the risks of inaction graver. Yes, I was excitable and over-reacted. The only solace is that I was a pillar of calm and prudence compared with the people running the country.
The Nation-Building Money Pit
Ackerman reports on reconstruction funds ill-spent in Iraq:
It turns out there wasn’t just one way to waste all that money. Some projects got started and never finished, like a prison in Diyala province … that languishes unbuilt nearly nine years after the government spent $40 million to build it. Other contracts went to cronies: the top contracting officer in Hilla awarded $8.6 million to a contractor, Philip Bloom, in exchange for “bribes and kickbacks, expensive vehicles, business-class airline tickets, computers, jewelry, and other items.” Still others got needless cash infusions: one unspecified school requested $10,000 for refurbishments and got $70,000. Government contracting databases didn’t even have “an information management system that keeps track of everything built,” [Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction,] recounts.
Funny how Republicans are not appalled by this waste of public money. If the waste is on weaponry, they’re indifferent. If it’s in healthcare for the poor, vigilance is the watchword. Until they manage to show that they are fiscal conservatives with no obvious exceptions for their favored constituencies – the financial sector, the Pentagon, the health insurance industry – they will rightly be viewed with skepticism.
Rumsfeld’s War Crimes Mount
The Guardian, in a 15-month investigation, has unearthed the fact that Donald Rumsfeld brought veterans from the dirty wars in Latin America, Colonel James Steele and Colonel James H Coffman, to empower sectarian warfare against the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. He set up detention centers for Sunni insurgents that were run by Iraqis but monitored and checked on by two men, one of whom reported to Rumsfeld, the other to Petraeus. So we have the first solid evidence that Petraeus, the golden mediocrity of Washington, was also an abetter of the worst forms of torture imaginable:
“Every single detention centre would have its own interrogation committee,” claimed [Iraqi General Muntadher] al-Samari, who worked with Petraeus’ and Rumsfeld’s designated men on the ground] … “Each one was made up of an intelligence officer and eight interrogators. This committee will use all means of torture to make the detainee confess like using electricity or hanging him upside down, pulling out their nails, and beating them on sensitive parts.” There is no evidence that Steele or Coffman tortured prisoners themselves, only that they were sometimes present in the detention centres where torture took place, and were involved in the processing of thousands of detainees.
But reporters witnessed horrifying war crimes in US-occupied Iraq, under the authority of those reporting directly to Rumsfeld and Petraeus:
Samari claimed that torture was routine in the commando-controlled detention centres. “I remember a 14-year-old who was tied to one of the library’s columns. And he was tied up, with his legs above his head. Tied up. His whole body was blue because of the impact of the cables with which he had been beaten.”
Gilles Peress, a photographer, came across Steele when he was on assignment for the New York Times, visiting one of the commando centres in the same library, in Samarra. “We were in a room in the library interviewing Steele and I’m looking around I see blood everywhere.”
The reporter Peter Maass was also there, working on the story with Peress. “And while this interview was going on with a Saudi jihadi with Jim Steele also in the room, there were these terrible screams, somebody shouting ‘Allah, Allah, Allah!’. But it wasn’t kind of religious ecstasy or something like that, these were screams of pain and terror.”
How did we find all this out? Bradley Manning’s leaks. Sometimes a whistleblower is not only a traitor. He can also be a patriot, uncovering war crimes. The full documentary can be seen here. A five-minute version is here.
“Never Forget That They Were All Wrong” Ctd
A reader writes:
Thanks for posting Ta-Nehisi’s statement “they were all wrong”. That post and the subsequent one from Dreher revealed something to me. I was at the protests they talk about in NY and another in DC. Such reductionism makes me sad, that reasonable voices remember those protests only for its wacky elements when the anti-war movement was both larger and more reasonable than either of these two recall. It’s the equivalent of saying that all the Tea Partiers are racist because of the handful that shout and wave ridiculous signs. Sure, loud radicals exist, but the media didn’t tune out the whole Tea Party just because of a few wacky looking chanters.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the anti-war protesters. I attended the protest in DC in March 2003. I remember being told there were 100,000 people, and while that’s likely an over-estimate, it was still the largest anti-war protest since the Vietnam War. It was on the weekend but wasn’t covered in the WaPo until the following Wednesday, and it wasn’t covered in the NYT at all. It wasn’t just that “every ‘sensible’ and ‘serious’ person,” as TNC put it, were wrong, but there was no public airing of the reasonable sentiment that the anti-war people were trying to express. We were all radicals, dismissed for the 0.01% carrying “Free Mumia” signs.
A participant at another rally that year:
In January of 2003 I marched on Washington along with several hundred thousand others, all of us already convinced that initiating a war of choice against Iraq was the wrong thing to do. What struck me most about that crowd was how normal, how middle-America most of the people looked. There we some drum-circlers, to be sure, but the vast majority of the people there looked like anyone’s cousins, siblings, grandparents. So when TNC reminds us that “the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right”, I would remind him that many, many “sensible” and “serious” Americans were right, too. We just weren’t listened to.
Contrary to what Dreher says about those of us against the invasion of Iraq, I never carried a sign equating Bush with Hitler, I was never hysterical, and I was never impossible to talk with UNTIL I was called a treasonous bitch who hated, or at the very least, failed to support, our troops.
No, I was sick to my stomach because I knew what the result would be. And, all I could say was that because I did support our troops, I did not support an invasion of Iraq. I simply could not accept our men and women getting blown up on a pretext of WMD.
Several more excellent emails below:
What always amazed me about the run-up to the Iraq War was the context in which it was discussed. The question was always, “What if they have WMDs?” in which case the inevitable answer would be, “We have to go in.” At no point did I hear any pundit or advisor or government official or anyone anywhere say, “The question isnt’ whether or not they have them. They do. The question is, Does that mean attacking is the best option?”
Frankly, I, like everyone else, assumed Saddam had them, but at no point did that ever make me assume that he was likely to use them. And I don’t think myself particularly astute. Nor was I emotionally detached. I lived in New York during 9-11 and I remember that day vividly. But none of that ever made me conclude that it was likely that he would use those weapons. Thus, I thought the way Bush was allowed to frame the debate around does he/does he not have them enabled him to rush to war with fewer detractors. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have gone to war. I’m just saying the way he framed the debate made it easier.
The Iraq War still confounds me. In the run-up to the war, I was 17. We invaded one month before my 18th birthday. And yet I knew, 100%, that it was the wrong thing to do to invade Iraq. How could I be right and so many adults be wrong?
It wasn’t a question of knowledge. I had access to much less information than those who were in power. It was a question of values. As much as I was castigated at this time for this view, I believe strongly that military force should only be used when absolutely necessary to defend oneself. I also believed strongly in deference to international authority, not American unilateralism. I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, because the U.N. inspectors said there were none, and it was the height of arrogance to denounce their conclusions and insist there were WMD anyway.
At the time, I was a pretty lone voice against the war, except for my dad and my 11th grade history teacher. It’s strange to me that public opinion came around to my view, but only after the war took longer than anticipated. No one seemed to consider that invading a country that hadn’t done anything was inherently wrong AND ALSO anti-Christian. I’m a devout Orthodox Christian, and what I hated most about the Bush years was how the Christian message of love and forgiveness was co-opted into something ugly.
I live in Philadelphia. During the period leading up to the Iraq War, our local paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, was owned by The McClatchy Company. We had a whole separate narrative of the war build-up. Thanks to McClatchy, we knew that the Judith Miller et al. line from the New York Times was wrong, that there was no threat from WMDs, that the war was a huge mistake. Reading both papers each day, the Inquirer and the Times, was an out-of -body experience because the reporting was 180 degrees different. From Wikipedia:
In 2008, McClatchy’s bureau chief in Washington, D.C., John Walcott, was the first recipient of the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, awarded by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. In accepting the award, Walcott commented on McClatchy’s reporting during the period preceding the Iraq War:
Why, in a nutshell, was our reporting different from so much other reporting? One important reason was that we sought out the dissidents, and we listened to them, instead of serving as stenographers to high-ranking [Bush administration] officials and Iraqi exiles.
At the time, there were many incredibly well-reasoned voices that were simply drowned out by the drumbeats of war. For example, a group of 33 of the country’s leading international relation scholars all paid for a full page op-ed out of their own pocket to make the simple case that the war was a mistake. And perhaps we should all take time to remember how prophetic Barack Obama’s words on the topic were at the time. And by now, I think it’s pretty clear that President Obama is hardly a radical.
The decision to invade Iraq shouldn’t be remembered as a debate between the experts and the radicals. It was just the case that many of those in favor of war wanted to characterize the opposition as radicals, regardless of the truth.
Thank you for your recent series on the build up to the Iraq War, 10 years on. I lived in NYC from 1995 to 2006. Those of us who lived and worked in the city remember the horrors of 9/11, the way it profoundly affected every aspect of life in the city. Like a lot of young people in NYC, I moved the from middle America, and also remember the strange solemnity with which outsiders would ask me about 9/11. I didn’t work in the WTC, and wasn’t a first responder. I just dealt with the aftermath – a few scary things I actually saw that day, but more importantly, the real fear in the city then. Anthrax, the plane crash in the Rockaways, armed soldiers in the subways and streets, the terror scares and the terror drills.
We in NYC felt that we were a target, and we were because of the real and symbolic importance of the city. But in 2002 and early 2003, in the buildup to the Iraq War, I was furious that we were a target illuminated and made bigger by a cynical push for war – that the invasion was inevitable, that the US participation in international diplomacy was a ruse because we were steamrolling all opposition. Middle America was told in part that this was a revenge war for 9/11, and why should the GOP care about blowback attacks on New York – we didn’t vote for Bush anyhow.
The justification for war seemed transparently ridiculous, WMD and 9/11 were deliberately conflated, and the GOP and media sycophants were calling for some sort of patriotic national unity, hardening back to Kate Smith and WW2. I was furious at this unjustifiable war, based on unproven assertions and obvious propaganda, which was somehow tied to what we went through in NYC? No thank you.
So I protested, like many hundreds of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers. We were derided as fellow travelers, anti-Semites. ANSWER, a group I knew nothing about nor cared nothing for, were held up as proof that we were fools and suckers. The rage I felt at the Bush administration – and their Democratic Party enablers – was inextinguishable.
My anger now still burns. The war was evil and stupid, yet there are plenty of powerful people who somehow seen to want to justify it still. My own post 9/11 fears, shared by many of us, were probably unwarranted. Nothing significant happened in NYC, partly through good intelligence and international cooperation, partly through luck, and partly, tragically, through softer targets elsewhere in the world. The things I didn’t foresee were so much worse: the devastation of Iraq from the insurgency, the loss of life and limb of so many American troops. Protesting that war was the morally right thing for me to do, even if it was just to show the rest of America that here were some New Yorkers who didn’t want the US to fight that war for their sakes.
(Top left photo: Thousands of demonstrators gather near the Washington Monument before marching to the White House on March 15, 2003 in Washington, DC. A large anti-war demonstration organized by International ANSWER was held in protest of the possible war with Iraq. By Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images. Top right photo: A protester holds aloft a placard picturing a shirtless British Prime Minister Tony Blair (R) wrapped in a US flag in the arms of US President George Bush, 21 January 2003, during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London to lobby MP against a possible US and British-led war in Iraq. By Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)
“Never Forget That They Were All Wrong” Ctd
Cheney was actually spot on about Iraq – in the early ’90s:
Sam Roggeveen offers his retrospective on the second war in Iraq:
My support was more hesitant than Sullivan’s, and I recall having many doubts. But having served as a mid-level official in the Defence Department through the ‘major combat operations’ phase of the war (that is, before the real Iraq war kicked off), I also recall giving a farewell speech to colleagues before moving to DFAT and saying that we had done the right thing.
I was wrong for a lot of reasons — strategic, political, humanitarian — but the most important is that the Iraq War did not meet the basic test of a just war, which allows for pre-emptive military action against an imminent threat, but not preventive war designed to stop such imminent threats from even emerging. The Iraq War, to my mind, was clearly a preventive war and thus constituted a crime of aggression.
I don’t suppose my support for the war mattered very much at the time, and although I now have a public forum to air my revised views, I doubt my change of heart matters much more now. I mention all of this only to encourage others to talk about their views of the Iraq War ten years after the invasion, and to tell readers what they continue to believe and what they have changed their minds about.
“Never Forget That They Were All Wrong” Ctd
A reader quotes me:
“I’m not excusing my confirmation bias, my broad brush against opponents of the war (although I refuse to accept that they were all skeptical of the WMDs’ existence; many were just anti-Bush and anti-war), or my violation of just war doctrine.”
I find your casual dismissal of the many who voiced concerns over the Iraq war rather small-minded. Many in the intelligence communities around the world were skeptical about the WMD claim, including in the US. The real reason was that many concluded that it lacked a factual basis, not because individuals were “anti-Bush” or “anti-war.” The key source of the WMD claim came from Iraqi refuge/informant Curveball, who was interviewed by German intelligence, not the US. Leading up to the Iraq war, German foreign minister Joschka Fischer publicly addressed the WMD claim, stating: “Excuse me, I am not convinced.” Germany was far from the only US ally who refrained from participating in the invasion of Iraq on similar grounds. Their position was also consistent with the findings of the UN weapons inspectors at that time, led by Hans Blix. Instead of speculating as to why some were skeptical of the WMD claim, why don’t you ask yourself why you were not?
How do you go from my criticism of my own “broad brush” in describing the Iraq War opposition to an inference that I am casually dismissing the serious critics and skeptics of the WMD argument? I was doing the exact opposite. I was distinguishing between those I should have listened to and those who were blindly against the war, fueled by the simmering resentments of the 2000 election. As to why my skepticism was completely AWOL, I’ve said I was terrorized by 9/11 and fear overwhelmed doubt. I was also marinated in a DC culture that saw Saddam’s WMDs as a bipartisan matter, backed by the Clintons and Bush. And I genuinely believed that Saddam was such a monster and so convinced of US military skill that the moral question seemed clear. I was wrong on every count. But I was wrong in good, if nearly-blind, faith. And the opposition shouldn’t be painted with a virtuous broad brush either. I went to the anti-war marches. You think ANSWER was animated by the WMD question? Another writes:
I remain fascinated not so much by why commentators I otherwise respect got the Iraq war wrong, but by why even they – in their mea culpas - so rarely mention those who got the war right (except, perhaps Barack Obama) and it ties into one of most tiresome excuses people in the Bush Administration give for not finding WMD “Everyone got it wrong.” Except, that’s not true.
Look at how you dismissed Chirac. Was he less a man of honor than, say, Dick Cheney? One thing that I noticed during the Bush administration about the Republicans’ (and news media’s) attitude towards France was how rarely we were reminded that the French not only had better sense than to join us in Iraq, but they also foiled a jet-into-tower attack before 9/11. Bush really didn’t want people to think too much about how some leaders managed to hear and follow up on their nation’s intelligence services while he opted to go fishing. Chirac did see the kinds of intelligence of our leaders saw. He and his government must surely have subjected it to some analysis. There’s no reason to believe that a nation with that many not-fully-acculturated Muslim citizens and immigrants would have been indifferent to any probable detonation of dirty bombs or nuclear bombs by Islamists.
I was 21 when we invaded, and a few years later I was in Iraq. I watched Colin Powell give his presentation on television. I was an early skeptic of this war – why are we moving on when we haven’t found bin Laden and Afghanistan is still a mess? And why does Saddam need to go, now, when this evidence is so sketchy?. But I had tremendous respect for Powell. I also knew that he wouldn’t go before the UN without real evidence. He had too much integrity. I was ready to be persuaded.
And then he stood there before the world, and tap-danced. This was the moment for the US to show its hand, and we had nothing. And Powell knew it. He wasn’t convinced. You could see it in his face. I felt embarrassed for him and terrified for the country and ashamed that someone with such integrity would peddle something he almost certainly knew was a lie with such disastrous consequences.
To this day, more than anything else, it is Powell’s presentation I think back to when I try (and fail) to understand why so many people supported the war with such smug confidence, and such disdain for those who raised truly reasonable objections. And to read things like this now, 10 years later, after so much blood, and after the violent deaths of so many – of some I knew – makes me nauseous.
For my mea culpa, one name is burned into my brain: Judith Miller. I trusted her. I expect the government to lie to me. But I did not expect a NY Times reporter to lie like the most corrupt politician, an absolute snake in the grass. The Times carries a heavy burden of responsibility for that war.
I think you (and many others) miss a huge detail of how we got into the mess in Iraq. One of your posts highlighted how Clinton made it US policy to force regime change in Iraq … but this misses a big back story. I wrote my masters thesis on the phenomenon of foreign lobbying as a kind of covert action, both by states and non-state actors. One of my case studies was Chalabi and his efforts to push for the passage of the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998 (which is the act that made it US policy to promote regime change in Iraq). In short, I think in many ways the United States government and media were the targets of a very shrewd effort by a foreign entity, i.e. Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, to change US policy to its needs. It was able to do so in large part because of the lack of enforcement of US laws regulating foreign lobbying.
So beat yourself up all you want, but remember that there was a definite propaganda effort being pushed there, with a lot of help from trained intelligence professionals and professional lobbyists in Washington. The sad thing is that much of this was revealed after the WMD commission was completed, so Chalabi’s role is largely forgotten in the official history of the lead up to Iraq War.
Read the whole recent Iraq thread here.
Another Iraq War Fallacy
This one – part of Jim Fallows’ series of posts – is one I really should never have held. But I did. I prided myself on a conservatism that understood that democratic norms are only built from within cultures through centuries of conflict and compromise. You cannot remake that overnight. Partly, I was overly influenced by the new democracies of Central Europe – but I should never have listened to the apolitical utopianism of the neocon right or the liberal hawks, even though many of them may have meant well. I sure did. But moral certainty combined with historical ignorance is not a prudential position. Here’s Fred Kaplan telling it like it is:
Ten years later, it’s clear that the Iraq war cast “a very large shadow” indeed, but it was a much darker shadow than the fantasists who ran American foreign policy back then foresaw. Bush believed that freedom was humanity’s natural state: Blow away the manhole-cover that a tyrant pressed down on his people, and freedom would gush forth like a geyser. Yet when Saddam Hussein was toppled, the main thing liberated was the blood hatred that decades of dictatorship had suppressed beneath the surface.
As we see in Syria and Iraq, the imperial borders of the region make a mockery of thinking of it as post-Soviet Europe, and the intervention was bound to unsettle things further. Back to Kaplan:
The question is how far this unraveling goes. Will civil wars erupt in one artificial state after another? That is, will the path of Syria be followed by Lebanon, then Jordan, then (hard as it may be to imagine) Saudi Arabia? Will Sunnis or Shiites, or both, take their sectarian fights across the borders to the point where the borders themselves collapse? If so, will new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically “natural” sectarian divisions? There have been many such alternative-maps proposed over the years, none of them quite alike, which raises the possibility that the definition of “natural” borders may itself be a contentious matter, likely to set off its own disputes or wars. Will these new borders conform to the results of these new battles? (Borders, like histories, are usually drafted by the winners.)
Or will it simply unleash a new round of warfare and ethnic conflict? The Iraq war, in retrospect, may be seen as breaking more than a country, but an entire region. As someone once put it:
Those who in the Elysian fields would dwell.
Do but extend the boundaries of hell.
(Photo: An Iraqi searches for body parts in a pool of blood and sewage at the site of a powerful car bomb which exploded in a Baghdad market, 06 May 2007. The blast sent shrapnel scything through a crowd in the Bayaa neighbourhood, a mainly Shiite district lying on one of the city’s many dangerous sectarian faultlines, killing at least 20 people and wounding 45 more. By Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty.)
What’s The Best Way To Protest A War?
That’s certainly not a fair description of all anti-Iraq War protesters. It’s not even a fair description of most anti-Vietnam War protesters. But in mass politics perception counts. Vietnam protesters had a bad reputation with much of the public, and Iraq protesters who aped their activism naturally came in for the same rep. And even beyond those associations, what was a normal person meant to think about protesters with puppets? …
When I make this argument to left-wingers, I’m typically met with one of the following responses. 1.) “We have to do something!”—as if doing something that’s ineffective or counterproductive earns brownie points. 2.) “That’s a smear!”—you bet it’s a smear, but what are you doing to establish a more sympathetic image in the public’s mind instead? 3.) “Well, what do you suggest?”—what I suggest is not something any “activist” wants to hear: don’t take any action until you understand public opinion in some detail and can relate every individual tactic you propose to a specific, demonstrated mechanism that gives it a chance to be effective.
At the time, even anti-war Salon was somewhat taken aback by the extremism of the anti-war left:
Considerable creative energy went into some attacks on the president. One large one read “Stop the Fourth Reich — Visualize Nuremberg/ Iraq.” On the other side were rows of doctored photos of all the top-ranking Bush administration officials wearing Nazi uniforms and officers’ caps, each with an identifying caption. Bush was identified as “The Angry Puppet” and Mind-controlled Slave/ ‘Pro-life’ Executioner.” Cheney: “The Fuhrer, Already in His Bunker.” Powell: “House Negro — Fakes Left, Moves Right.” Rice: “Will Kill Africans for Oil.” Ashcroft: “Faith-based fascist, sexless sadist.” “Field Marshall Rummy,” “Chickenhawk Wolfowitz — Jews for Genocide,” and “Minister of Dis-info — Ari Goebbels” rounded out the field.
I went to the major DC march: plenty of sane, good people. But mixed in with those who openly told me they thought Saddam was preferable as a human being and legitimately-elected political leader to Bush. My post at the time:
Notice the personal attacks – “Draft the Bush Twins,” “Sorry, Dubya, Have a Pretzel Instead.” Notice the idiotic moral equivalence: “Who’s The Unelected Tyrant With The Bomb?” It’s hard not to feel demoralized by a culture that can throw up such things as genuine pieces of protest. It’s as if an entire generation or more has forgotten what an argument is.
Dreher asks, “What would an effective antiwar movement look like?” My own view: make the core argument that there is not a serious threat to US national security, if that’s the case (as it was with Iraq and is with Iran); that the last two wars were disasters; and that we can’t afford any more. And then march without equating the president with Hitler or Stalin. Here’s British foreign minister Robin Cook, who resigned rather than follow Tony Blair into the vortex:
Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term‚ namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. It probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories. Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create? Why is it necessary to resort to war this week, while Saddam’s ambition to complete his weapons program is blocked by the presence of UN inspectors? …
He was right, wasn’t he? But he didn’t stop a war, did he? And he was our key ally’s foreign secretary.
(Photo: About 50 people, including a man dressed in a mask portraying President George W. Bush and devil horns, demonstrate against Bush’s veto of the war appropriations bill along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House on May 2, 2007. The protest was organized by MoveOn.org, Code Pink and other groups calling for an end to the war in Iraq. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Iraq Now: A Catastrophe Foretold
John B. Judis, one of the most intellectually principled writers and thinkers I have ever worked with, was right before the war, and now tries to understand how almost all of Washington, including myself, fell for it. He names names at TNR (the dissenters) and recalls the silenced dissent of many in the CIA and military. Money quote:
My own experience after Powell’s speech bears out the tremendous power that an administration, bent on deception, can have over public opinion, especially when it comes to foreign policy. And when the dissenters in the CIA, military, and State Department are silenced, the public—not to mention, journalists—has little recourse in deciding whether to support what the administration wants to do. Those months before the Iraq war testify to the importance of letting the public have full access to information before making decisions about war and peace. And that lesson should be heeded before we rush into still another war in the Middle East.
It’s a good sign TNR ran this piece. It’s glasnost over there. David Corn follows up with another damning recollection: on this day, ten years ago, an article appeared in the Washington Post, titled “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” It was by Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank. Over to David:
That last article … is particularly noteworthy. It began:
As the Bush administration prepares to attack Iraq this week, it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged—and in some cases disproved— by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports.
This story appeared on page A13 of the newspaper.
I was an integral part of the problem. I drank deeply of the neocon Kool-Aid. I was also, clearly countering the trauma of 9/11 by embracing a policy that somewhere in my psyche seemed the only appropriate response to the magnitude of the offense. Prudence, skepticism left me. I’d backed Bush in 2000. I knew Rummy as a friend. And my critical faculties were swamped by fear. These are not excuses. These are simply part of my attempt to understand how wrong I was – and why.
(Photo: Smoke covers the presidential palace compound in Baghdad 21 March 2003 during a massive US-led air raid on the Iraqi capital. Smoke billowed from a number of targeted sites, including one of President Saddam Hussein’s palaces, an AFP correspondent said. By Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images.)
Quote For The Day
“[Saddam] is a threat. He’s a murderer and a thug. There’s no doubt we can do this. We’re stronger; he’s weaker. You’re looking at a couple weeks of bombing and then I’d be astonished if this campaign took more than a week. Astonished,” – Bill Clinton, September 11, 2002.
Why Did We Invade Iraq?
Beinart blames “hubris born of success”:
From Panama to the Gulf War to Bosnia to Kosovo, America spent the decade preceding 9/11 intervening successfully overseas. As a result, elites in both parties lost the fear of war they felt after Vietnam. In 1988 Reagan had been so afraid of another Vietnam that he refused to send ground troops to Panama. In 1990 John McCain had responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by declaring, “If you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think [public] support will erode significantly … We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood.” In his emotional 1991 speech opposing the Gulf War, John Kerry had mentioned Vietnam 10 times. In his 2002 speech supporting the invasion of Iraq, by contrast, he mentioned Vietnam only once.
Hubris combined with real fear. I plead guilty to both.
From Warzone To Warzone
Elizabeth Ferris checks in on Iraqi refugees:
Today Iraqi refugees throughout the region face dwindling donor support, particularly as the needs of Syrian refugees increase. For the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who remain in Syria, the situation is particularly dire. Some have been displaced within Syria. Some Iraqis have moved to other countries in the region (though they have faced an uncertain welcome by governments facing new inflows of Syrians.) Many — perhaps 100,000 — Iraqis have chosen to return to Iraq in the past year (though given the violence in Syria, it is hard to see this as a voluntary decision). Those that have returned to Iraq have either congregated in a hastily-constructed camp along the Iraq-Syrian border (which has often been closed) or have simply become [internally displaced persons (IDPs)].
Quote For The Day II
“10 yrs ago began the long, difficult work of liberating 25 mil Iraqis. All who played a role in history deserve our respect & appreciation,” – Donald Rumsfeld, war criminal.
Is Iraq The GOP’s Vietnam?
Daniel McCarthy makes the case:
While Republicans wage a war on the past, Barack Obama has staked claim to the future—in the same way that Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan once did. The reputation for competence in wielding power that Nixon (before Watergate) and Reagan accumulated now accrues to Obama’s advantage. He brought the troops home from Iraq—however reluctantly—and is on course to end the war in Afghanistan next year. His foreign policy, like Nixon’s and Reagan’s, involves plenty of military force. But like those Republicans, the incumbent Democrat has avoided debacles of the sort that characterized the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.
Millman pushes back:
I’m unconvinced that Vietnam is the key reason why the Democrats lost their status as the majority party. Rather, I believe it was overwhelmingly domestic policy considerations – and particularly the nexus of race and crime – that overwhelmingly drove the “Silent Majority” into the arms of Richard Nixon, and, subsequently, motivated the Democrats of Macomb County, Michigan, to pull the lever for Ronald Reagan.
That doesn’t mean Vietnam was irrelevant, but in the absence of the currents of domestic social change, I suspect the Vietnam debacle would have looked more like, say, the Korean War, the memory of which did contribute to the Democrats’ losses in 1952 and 1956, but did not lead to a long-term realignment.
The war was instrumental in driving younger voters away from the GOP and into the Democratic coalition in 2006 and 2008, and most of them have remained there since then. Of course, Iraq was not the only thing about the Republican Party and mainstream conservatism that alienated Millennials, but it is correct to say that the Iraq war increased and hastened Millennial alienation from both. The important point is that the GOP was already going to be struggling to appeal to a more diverse, more liberal younger generation, and a foreign policy defined by the Iraq debacle has made that task even more difficult. So the sobering thing for Republicans to consider is that the Iraq war is a liability for them with Americans of all ages, and it has already proven to be a disaster for them with younger voters.
I wonder how that may affect the GOP’s clear desire for a new Middle East war against Iran. For the first time, I suspect, the party will be deeply split between the Paul and Rubio camps. Which is when it gets really interesting – and when America’s decision to remain the global hegemon for the indefinite future will come under the deepest strain.
Frum, Greenwald And Iraq
Frum reflects, at length, on the Iraq War. This is where it gets really interesting:
The last time I saw Chalabi was in his London apartment, on the very eve of war. My little group arrived past midnight. Chalabi was listening to the evocative strains of Sufi music. He showed me a black-and-white photograph of seven men, wearing the clothes of the 1940s. They were the board of directors of a company his father had founded: a mixed group of Sunni, Shiite, and Christian, and even a Jew. Chalabi remarked that this picture was taken while Europe was tearing itself apart in genocidal violence. He didn’t add that it was taken shortly after British forces defeated a pro-Axis coup in Baghdad—but failed to prevent a murderous pogrom against Baghdad’s Jewish population.
I was less impressed by Chalabi than were some others in the Bush administration. However, since one of those “others” was Vice President Cheney, it didn’t matter what I thought. In 2002, Chalabi joined the annual summer retreat of the American Enterprise Institute near Vail, Colorado. He and Cheney spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to U.S. dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia.
Greenwald claims this is proof the war was for oil, not against WMDs. But the two are not mutually exclusive. As for good faith, I’ve long since stopped believing that Dick Cheney believed there really were WMDs in Iraq – but I remain unsure about Bush. (As the archives show, I was seriously convinced by the WMD argument, because I wanted to be convinced, i.e. a useful idiot). But Glenn is not done with David, though:
Frum claims that he “was less impressed by Chalabi than were some others in the Bush administration”. But, as Ruben Bolling just reminded me, Frum wrote a long and angry defense of Chalabi in 2004 at National Review, hailing him as “one of the very few genuine liberal democrats to be found at the head of any substantial political organization anywhere in the Arab world”, and ended with this proclamation: “Compared to anybody [sic] other possible leader of Iraq – compared to just about every other political leader in the Arab world – the imperfect Ahmed Chalabi is nonetheless a James bleeping Madison.” James bleeping Madison. Whatever attributes characterized David Frum back in 2003 and 2004, a skeptic of Ahmed Chalabi was not one of them, his present-day suggestions notwithstanding.
(Photo: US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (C) speaks to the media with Ahmed Chalabi (R), leader of the Iraqi National Congress, and Paul Bremer (L), top US civilian administrator in Iraq, prior to a meeting of the new Governing Council in Baghdad on September 6, 2003. By Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images)
The Iraq War Still Has Supporters
How is it, ten years after the fact and with the benefit of hindsight, that 42 percent of the country still believes that invading Iraq wasn’t a mistake? What would it take to convince these people?
A HuffPost/YouGov poll asked a slightly different question: “All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war with Iraq was worth fighting, or not?” The response:
Only 24 percent of respondents to the new poll said they thought the war had been worth fighting, while 54 percent said it had not been. Another 22 percent said they were not sure. Three-quarters of Democrats and 55 percent of independents said the Iraq War was not worth fighting. But Republicans were more likely to say that it was worth the cost than it was not — by a 47 to 30 percent margin.
Today In Counterfactual History
Bobby Ghosh believes that Saddam would have survived the Arab Spring:
Saddam forbade satellite dishes, and economic sanctions–in place since his troops were kicked out of Kuwait in 1991–meant Iraqis could have neither personal computers nor cell phones. That meant no Facebook, no Twitter, not even text messages. And no al-Jazeera to spread the word from Baghdad to other cities. Unlike Ben Ali and Mubarak, Saddam would have had no compunction ordering a general slaughter of revolutionaries; and unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian military brass, the Iraqi generals would swiftly have complied. They had already demonstrated this by killing tens of thousands of Shi’ites who rose against the dictator after his Kuwaiti misadventure.
Max Fisher thinks that possibly “the most apt comparison for how Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would fare in the Arab Spring isn’t Syria, but Algeria”:
Though Algeria is ruled by an authoritarian, nationalist, military-aligned government, and though popular discontent appears high, there has been no revolution. There are many theories for why this might be, but one of the most persuasive comes down to uprising exhaustion. The county endured an awful civil war from 1991 to about 1999, which the regime won. In the thinking of some Algeria analysts, the legacy of that conflict has left the would-be protesters too tired, too wary of bloodshed and too weak to rise up again. In this thinking, the case for Hussein’s survival isn’t that he would crush an uprising, but that the uprising, like in Algeria, would never really happen.
(Photo: A combo shows (L): Iraqi ringing a rope around a giant bronze statue of toppled Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s al-Fardous (paradise) square on April 9, 2003. (R): Iraqi women sitting under the newly erected ‘Statue of Hope’ at the square that has taken the place of the former statue of Saddam. By Ramzi Haidar (L) and Timothy A. Clary (R) /AFP/Getty Images)
Faces Of The Day
Headstones are reflected in a photograph that is leaning against the headstone for Iraq war casualty U.S. Army Master Sgt. Tulsa Tulaga Tuliau on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq at Arlington National Cemetery March 19, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. Tuliau was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee during combat operations near Rustimayah, Iraq on September 26, 2005. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Iraq War Vantage Points
Nada Bokos, a CIA analyst in the lead-up to the war, recalls how, at “the CIA’s Iraq Branch in the Counterterrorism Center, we didn’t think Saddam had any substantial ties to al-Qaida”:
On Sunday, March 16, 2003, I watched Cheney on “Meet The Press” contradict our assessment publicly. “We know that he [Saddam] has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups,” Cheney said, “including the al-Qaeda organization.” I was basically watching Cheney field-test arguments that we would have to anticipate — and rebut — at CIA. Except instead of asking us questions behind closed doors, Cheney was asserting to the public as fact something that we found to be anything but. I found myself yelling at the TV like I was contesting a ref’s blown call in a football game.
Meanwhile, George Packer recalls reporting in Iraq and the friends he had in the country:
Spending a lot of time in Iraq did not make you more keenly aware of America’s larger strategic interests. It rendered you less likely to ask the essential questions about the inception of the war. It was in some ways a narrow, blinkered position. People who had no personal connection to Iraq, however well- or ill-informed, were readier to think that it was all inevitable—that the past decade was a footnote to the main event—that the tenth anniversary of the war would look exactly like this.
The End Of Nation Building
Iraqi police are no longer getting US training:
It was the last major non-military project of the war of choice the U.S. launched 10 years ago: an ambitious, expensive post-withdrawal effort to strengthen the Iraqi police. But quietly, the Obama administration has pulled the plug on the much-criticized training program, leaving some 400,000 Iraqi cops without U.S. mentorship.
The State Department confirms to Danger Room that it pulled its final adviser out of the project, called the Police Development Program, on March 1. The move kills the training effort less than two years after the Pentagon handed it over, and after State spent at least $700 million on it.
The Iraq War Isn’t Over
Tuesday marks the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War, and while that war officially ended for the United States in December of 2011, life for Iraqi civilians — while better than it was at the bloody height of the insurgency — is still something short of peace. 4,573 Iraqi citizens were killed in 2012, up from 4,147 in 2011.
Insurgents sent a bloody message on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, carrying out a wave of bombings across the country Tuesday that killed at least 65 people in the deadliest day in Iraq this year. The nearly 20 attacks, most of them in and around Baghdad, demonstrated in stark terms how dangerously divided Iraq remains more than a year after American troops withdrew. More than 240 people were reported wounded. It was Iraq’s bloodiest day since Sept. 9, when an onslaught of bombings and shootings killed 92.
Journalist Accountability Watch
It was heartening to see the NYT’s editorial on the Iraq War today, with its ringing conclusion:
The Iraq war was unnecessary, costly and damaging on every level. It was based on faulty intelligence manipulated for ideological reasons. The terrible human and economic costs over the past 10 years show why that must never happen again.
And where is the acknowledgment that the NYT, especially Judy Miller, played a critical role in reassuring skeptics that the WMD threat was real? I wish newspapers would hold themselves accountable in the same way they expect government officials to.
Quote For The Day
“There was nothing accomplished, so why should I remember it? … Are we still talking about the Americans? I don’t think we need to do any kind of celebrating or make an effort to remember that day. I think even the Americans wish they could forget it,” – Karrar Habeeb, a 22-year-old Iraqi carpenter.
The Derangement Of Tony Blair
Obviously, I can sympathize with his stance in 2002 and 2003. It was mine. His case for war was never as connected to the presence of WMDs as Bush’s, and more to the eradication of a tyrannical monster, and so he was less undermined by the falsity of the evidence he vouched for. But the denial here is phenomenal:
“When people say to me, you know, ‘Do you regret removing him?’ I say, ‘No, how can you regret removing somebody who was a monster, who created enormous carnage?’”
He added: “And if you look at what’s happening in the Arab Spring today, and you examine what’s happening in Syria — just reflect on what Bashar Assad, who is a twentieth as bad as Saddam, is doing to his people today, and the number of lives already lost, just ask yourself, ‘What would be happening in Iraq now if he had been left in power?’”
But the over 100,000 Iraqis who died were living in a country occupied by UK and US forces obligated by international law to keep order, not one governed by a despotic brutal dynasty whose record of slaughtering its own people is not in dispute. (And one twentieth as bad as Saddam? Ask the people of Homs.) And Blair’s argument that the Arab Spring proves that Iraq under Saddam could well have become another Syria if the Shiites had revolted again, while well-taken, nonetheless presumes some kind of Western responsibility to somehow minimize or direct forces of change we neither understand nor control. It’s a benevolent imperial impulse – without connections to vital national interests.
That was Blair’s error, as well as part of mine. What you see still in Blair is a refusal to think about unintended consequences. He retreats to an a priori moral defense of unseating a monster, without weighing the devastating ripples from that mighty fall. I remember thinking before the war started that it had to be worth it, purely because ridding the earth of a man who tortured children was so moral a thing it outweighed every other doubt. Self-righteousness blinded me to the extent my critical faculties were failing. I guess if Blair were to admit that, he would have to admit some responsibility for the mass slaughter and chaos the war fomented. That’s hard to do. But it tells you a lot about Blair that he cannot.
(Photo: Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with British soldiers on duty in Basra on December 17, 2006 in Iraq. By Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Was The Iraq Insurgency Inevitable?
Michael Ware, arguably the most intrepid of all the reporters in the country, emphatically argues: no.
There were Sunni interlocutors ready to cooperate with the US as early as the summer of 2003. Ware spoke to them. The rigidity of the ideology fomented by Bremer et al – the tribes no longer existed, the insurgency was a myth, all Iraqis were elated by liberation – blinded the US to the sectarian opportunities and pitfalls that lay in front of them. They were perhaps influenced by such writers as Bill Kristol and Lawrence Kaplan who wrote before the invasion the following encouraging sentences:
Predictions of ethnic turmoil in Iraq are even more questionable than they were in the case of Afghanistan… Unlike the Taliban, Saddam has little support among any ethnic group, Sunnis included, and the Iraqi opposition is itself a multi-ethnic force… [T]he executive director of the Iraq Foundation, Rend Rahim Francke, says, “we will not have a civil war in Iraq. This is contrary to Iraqi history, and Iraq has not had a history of communal conflict as there has been in the Balkans or in Afghanistan…”
Bill Kristol has suffered not a whit from this grotesque misjudgment (and never apologized), while thousands of young Americans lie dead because of it. But to ignore sectarianism in Iraq – to declare it a non-issue beforehand - remains the most serious misunderstanding of the whole enterprise – and thus made swift adjustment to reality harder. History can turn on moments like this one:
My friend [a Sunni former Baathist] said: ‘could you explain something for me?’
‘If I can, of course. You know that.’
‘Then tell me. I used US satellite imagery to kill Iranians in the eighties. Some of us did Ranger or Pathfinder training in the States. Al Qaeda? Never in this country. Right?’ he asked, rhetorically. ‘We had no great love for Saddam, and didn’t mind you taking him down. If you came for the oil, then take it; we have to sell it to someone. And, we’re happy if the occupier becomes a guest and we host US bases, akin to Germany and Japan.’
‘So, how is it we end up on the opposite sides of this thing? I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.’
And there it was. Spoken. An insurgency.
The war’s ultimate goal, he told me, to much nodding approval around the room, was for the Sunnis to fight and negotiate their way to a seat at the table of power in the country. A seat they felt they’d been egregiously denied.
But in the weeks and then months I was being told such things, I could not find a single attentive ear within the US mission. Government authority then rested with the Coalition Provisional Authority of proconsul Paul L Bremer. Along with declaring so foolishly that the tribes of Iraq were effectively dead, CPA officials I encountered merely sniffed at the insurgents’ desire to converse. They would buckle under the heel of a new, soon-to-be democratic government. There was absolutely no palpable interest in encouraging a dialogue. Perhaps, even, quite the contrary.
Eventually, the rapprochement happened, and allowed us to leave with some face. But what if the “enemy” had been engaged as a potential ally in the summer of 2003? How many lives would have been saved? And what would we be saying now?
(Photo: US Marines from the 2nd battalion/8 MAR, prepare themselves after receiving orders to cross the Iraqi border at Camp Shoup, northern Kuwait, 20 March 2003. By Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images.)
Nostra Maxima Culpa
Ezra apologizes for supporting the Iraq War. His key mistake:
Rather than looking at the war that was actually being sold, I’d invented my own Iraq war to support — an Iraq war with different aims, promoted by different people, conceptualized in a different way and bearing little resemblance to the project proposed by the Bush administration.
Chait also accounts for his mistakes:
The biggest single conceptual failure of my argument for war is that I gave absurdly little thought to the post-invasion phase. I was aware that the Bush administration was deploying far too few troops to the front for a workable occupation while blatantly lying about the war’s likely costs. I assumed that its real plan was to decapitate the Iraqi leadership, install a more pliant and less brutal military figure in Saddam’s place, and call it democracy.
In other words, I deemed the administration’s rhetoric about democracy to be a pack of lies. Now, I could accept this, because I assumed the successor regime would be less brutal than the psychotically cruel one that was being deposed. The quality of the regime was an important predicate for my support of the war — I would not have supported it had I believed it would make life harder for Iraqis, on the whole — but not the necessary rationale. I assumed these things because at the time Bush appeared — from the 2000 campaign through Florida through his push to cut taxes — to be a dishonest but ruthlessly effective figure. A messy, undermanned occupation would be politically fatal, I reasoned, therefore Bush wouldn’t actually undertake one.
Both critiques apply to me as well. Rumsfeld and Cheney were great at projecting confidence, competence and management skills. And we were all still traumatized by 9/11 and grappling with how to respond to it. But we know now they were as terrified as we were, and their fear drove them to abandon restraint or skepticism or competent military and intelligence advice.
This feels like an academic debate. But it isn’t. I have blood on my hands. However many times I try to wash them, the blood will not come off.
(Photo: An Iraqi carries the body of his grandson out of the morgue of a hospital in Baghdad 21 November 2006. The child was killed according to his grandfather when Iraqi and US forces raided Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City to hunt for a kidnapped US soldier, the second such raid in two days. A shattered Iraq limped into 2007 after a year in which a bloody insurgency escalated into brutal sectarian war, forcing Washington to contemplate a major policy shift to halt total disintegration. By Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty.)
Question Of The Day
“Is it really too much to ask that those who supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq so enthusiastically at the time, and whose second thoughts have been far less fierce and full-throated than their initial enthusiasm, not deploy virtually the exact same crusading rhetoric about the necessity of the use of U.S. power in the name of overthrowing tyrants, and of America serving as an armed midwife to the birth of democracy in the Middle East, with regard to Syria as they did a decade ago with regard to Iraq?” – David Rieff, TNR, in what appears to me to be a direct rebuke of Leon Wieseltier’s continued ambivalence.
Answer Of The Day
It comes (via David Corn) from Richard Perle on NPR:
Montagne: Ten years later, nearly 5000 American troops dead, thousands more with wounds, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead or wounded. When you think about this, was it worth it?
Perle: I’ve got to say I think that is not a reasonable question. What we did at the time was done with the belief that it was necessary to protect this nation. You can’t a decade later go back and say we shouldn’t have done that.
Neoconservatism: never look back; never question; never take responsibility; always avoid accountability. Just seek power. Then wage war.
Dissents Of The Day
A reader quotes me:
This feels like an academic debate. But it isn’t. I have blood on my hands. However many times I try to wash them, the blood will not come off.
Can you and all your fellow pundits spare us the self-flagellation about Iraq? I say this as a former Army officer who served in west Baghdad just after the civil war there cooled off. We get it. We know what a charlie-foxtrot it was. We also know we need to constructively talk about the lessons learned and strategic and policy failures. Folks like Tom Ricks and Rajiv Chandresekaran are doing that quite well right now. I would much rather have Paul Wolfowitz (see Bacevich) come to terms with Iraq than you give us your very own “hathos alert”.
Another piles on:
Let your self-importance go already! Blame the blamable, not the lemmings. You are a blog writer. You comment. You don’t wage wars. You fell for their BS. Nothing more.
Another takes issue with the visual part of the post:
Once again with the pictures of dead children. Was it absolutely necessary to post one of a child with his scalp tearing forward and a pacifier in his grandfather’s hand? I paid up my $20 to get my regular dose of the Dish, but I cannot stand it when you post these pictures of dead children. What is the purpose? Sensationalism? Trying to make the point that the war in Iraq was wrong? You can do that with the many essays you have written, without including the broken bodies of dead children. Please. The next time you think you will … don’t.
Another doesn’t go quite that far:
I’ve emailed about this on a number of occasions and I know you have a very “if you don’t like it, stop reading my blog” attitude sometimes but, as you are a clearly a very empathetic person, I would like you to try to put yourself in the shoes of parents with young children. As a father of two young kids, unexpectedly seeing something as horrifying as what you have posted today can be more traumatic that you realize. And I don’t expect anyone who isn’t a parent to truly understand what I’m talking about because having children literally changes your brain. And no, having dogs doesn’t fucking count.
Before having kids (I have a six and two year-old) I could see a photo like that and feel an appropriate amount of pain/empathy without it fucking up my brain for an extended period of time. Not so anymore. For example, just hearing Rachel Maddow talk about Sandy Hook again the other day almost had me in tears and made me depressed/distracted for most of the day. Am I hyper-sensitive relative to many others about this stuff? YES… because I have little kids. But I’m also a big jock of a guy and can tell you that my reaction is not half as severe as what most mothers would experience if they saw what you posted today.
I very much understand why you show these pictures. I actually applaud you for putting them out there because most Americans don’t see the horror of war, and we need to. In fact, I’ve threatened to send pictures of dead children to my father because he can be very callous about the murders we’re committing overseas in the name of “The War on Terror.” I’ve threatened to do this because I want him to see pictures and think about those dead kids as if they were HIS grandchildren. But ultimately I don’t send them because I’m not an asshole who will traumatize someone just to make a point.
So, PLEASE put photos like that below Read On with a warning of graphic images. This will at least allow your readers to choose what they are seeing and give them the opportunity to prepare themselves. That can make a huge difference.
I think that the photo you posted is the most disturbing and graphic photo you’ve ever posted on your blog. I wasn’t sure that I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing until I made the photo larger. I imagine you will get some complaints about it. But I’m glad you posted it. We can’t be reminded often enough of the real consequences of any war.
I feel no satisfaction that I was 100% opposed to the war from the very beginning. The very idea of it was devastating to me. It made no sense to me at all, and I was appalled that the America I loved was going to start a war under circumstances that I considered unjustified. It felt like a betrayal of the principles I strongly believed in and thought were absolutely sacrosanct. I hated that people around the world hated us and saw us as bullies.
Shortly before the war started, I went with my husband and baby son to Spain for a vacation. I was saddened by the hatred I felt from many people simply because I was American. We had an encounter with an airline employee at the airport in Madrid that left me shaken for days. Despite being an employee in a service position dealing with international travelers, she did not even attempt to hide her contempt for my little family, simply because we were American. She took pleasure in saying “Americans are terrible people.” I wanted to report her to her boss. I wanted to explain to her that I didn’t support the war, that a lot of Americans didn’t support the war, that I didn’t vote for Bush, that the America that would do this was not my America. But I love my country, and I respect the office of the President, even if I didn’t respect the President, and I suffered mostly in silence. She’d made her mind up, anyway.
I’m glad I didn’t read you then. I don’t think I would have stuck with you. But I don’t think you have blood on your hands. In my America, you are always allowed to say what you feel, to give your opinion, which is all you did, even if you were wrong.
George Bush and Dick Cheney are the ones with blood on their hands.
I do not mean to exaggerate my infinitesimal influence on decisions made by others. I was trying to express as clearly as possible how sorry I am. As for the graphic photos: this is the blood on my hands. I posted it not for shock value, but as a reality check against precisely the kind of solipsism one can fall into in this kind of thing. I also see one of the defining qualities of the Dish is that we will publish photos other mainstream outlets will not, for the reasons articulated by readers.
Someone, in my view, needs to get some of the brilliant but sometimes disturbing photography of some of the world’s best photo-journalists out there. If you can’t put them on your own blog, who will ever see them? And who will see them in their minds the next time we entertain something like invading a Middle East country.
Now that’s some writing I can relate to. It’s Charles Pierce’s high-spirited rant against Ezra Klein’s hymn to Kenneth Pollack. Money quote:
Let Pollack go to Walter Reed and avoid those pesky moralistic arguments.
“‘We’ll never know,’ Pollack replied. ‘History doesn’t reveal its alternatives. But I think the evidence out there is that we could have handled this much better than we did, and that it didn’t have to be this bad. The best evidence for that is the surge. In 18 months, we shut down the civil war and reversed the direction of Iraqi politics.’”
In brief, fuck you. History “revealed its alternatives” at the time. You did your damndest to make a buck while shutting them down, and 65 people died in car bombings this week as a demonstration of how the surge reversed the direction of Iraqi politics. As for Ezra, well, he should go and sin no more. It is encouraging that he no longer believes in fairy tales.
Worse Than Hiroshima?
A video segment from Democracy Now shows deeply disturbing images of Iraqi newborns with extreme birth defects reportedly traced to the use of depleted uranium in weaponry deployed by the US military. Money quote from investigative journalist Dahr Jamail:
Dr. Samira Alani actually visited with doctors in Japan, comparing statistics, and found that the amount of congenital malformations in Fallujah is 14 times greater than the same rate measured in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in the aftermath of the nuclear bombings. These types of birth defects, she said—there are types of congenital malformations that she said they don’t even have medical terms for, that some of the things they’re seeing, they’ve never seen before. They’re not in any of the books or any of the scientific literature that they have access to. She said it’s common now in Fallujah for newborns to come out with massive multiple systemic defects, immune problems, massive central nervous system problems, massive heart problems, skeletal disorders, baby’s being born with two heads, babies being born with half of their internal organs outside of their bodies, cyclops babies literally with one eye—really, really, really horrific nightmarish types of birth defects. And it is ongoing.
Worse Than Hiroshima? Ctd
Many readers voice their skepticism:
Having watched that video I was strongly impacted by the imagery and claims of higher rates of birth defects, especially the claim that the levels are 14 times that of those that were observed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings. So I decided to look for estimates on what those levels would be, and found that the level hadn’t changed in those Japanese cities. Here’s the link I found, which includes sources in scientific literature. I’m a bit baffled why Democracy Now would relate these.
The soldier’s story could have been true though, as a heavy metal uranium is very toxic, especially to the kidneys. He might have inhaled a lot of it. (Full disclosure: I work as a research scientist in nuclear fusion computations.)
Seriously, whenever you see the name Dahr Jamail, you need to be very skeptical of the assertions that follow. Briefly, Jamail has blamed depleted uranium for health problems without any evidence at all. But it’s not hard to find actual research linking birth defects in Fallujah to the more prosaic but plenty nasty elements lead and mercury. “Uranium” and “Hiroshima” probably get more pageviews than plain old lead, but I would think that these recent victims of our past warfare would be better served by accurate reporting than by an anti-nuclear ideologue’s sensationalism.
Is there really an increase in birth defects, or just an increase in reporting? Do Iraquis traditionally just kill babies with birth defects, as is true in many parts of the world, but have recently publicized the defects for some reason? What mechanism of action is proposed to explain these effects?
There is natural uranium virtually everywhere; it’s one of the three NORM materials (Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials) that occur in rocks and soil worldwide, a product of the earth being formed of material produced in a supernova explosion more than 4.5 billion years ago. Everyone is exposed to it every day, more so in certain locations than in others. Depleted uranium (DU) is actually only very slightly radioactive; the uranium decay products (which are themselves much more radioactive than the uranium itself) have been removed in the uranium mining/production/enrichment process and only slowly grow back in.
If there are birth defects occurring at 14 times the rates observed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then it’s not because the DU is radioactive – folks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were truly HEAVILY exposed to radiation. If Fallujah itself has a high rate of birth defects, which has not been established, then why? Why not other sites where DU munitions are tested? For example, are there high rates of birth defects in the communities surrounding Fort Irwin, California, or other areas where DU munitions are commonly tested in the continental US? How have the “tracers” who linked the putative increase in birth defects to DU, eliminated chemical contamination from other sources as the cause of the birth defects?
If birth defects are indeed caused by DU, perhaps it’s because of the chemical action of uranium somehow interfering with development (rather than due to radiation, which truly is not an issue with DU). In which case, testing on mice or other mammals would show up that effect quickly. The only way to learn anything in medicine is by randomized, double-blind testing. I’m not proposing testing on people, of course, but on animal surrogates. Why isn’t Democracy Now advocating for such testing? Could it be that their “issue” is really anti-war activism, rather than concern for the Iraqui citizenry?
It’s possible to be anti-war without being unscientific. Of course, agitprop is more effective than reason; quoting Mark Twain, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
Quote For The Day
“When a broadcasting executive gets out of bed in the morning, before his foot hits the floor, his thoughts are ratings. ‘What are my ratings?’ Not unlike Wall Street people, who get their—and CEOs, their first thought is the price of their stock,” – Phil Donahue, reflecting on his firing from MSNBC for being too anti-war.
Flies Collecting On A Wound
My friend and former colleague, Conor Friedersdorf, takes me to task for my demonization and dismissal of anti-war protesters a decade ago. He is right to, and I certainly don’t take it personally. I would have been disappointed if he had left me out – because it would not be consonant with Conor’s integrity as a writer.
I could quibble. But I simply do not have the standing to do so at this point. Still, here are a few salient issues that I think have been missed in this necessary reflection.
The first is the 2000 election. In some ways, 9/11 wiped that vivid, searing, deeply divisive event from the public consciousness. But it played a part, I think, in the polarized climate that made the post-9/11 debate so poisonous. In the summer of 2000, when I foolishly found myself wanting Al Gore to lose (Excelsior!), it was not a strong emotion. In the campaign, Gore was the advocate for a larger defense budget and Bush was all about being a “humble” nation. I figured there wasn’t much difference between them (and I still think Gore would have launched the Iraq War as well). But when the vote ended up a statistical tie in a key state, Florida, stances hardened.
I was a lonely Bush supporter in TNR offices back then, and I felt something I’d never felt before, even in the polarized, back-biting, ego-colliding of that era’s TNR. My colleagues felt that the election was being stolen in front of their eyes – and there was almost a cold civil war mood emerging. They also knew, as I did, that Bush would be a president without a majority of the national popular vote. Worse, Bush, instead of governing in a way that calmed the waters, and acknowledging his weak position, acted from the get-go as if he had won a landslide. America was in a constitutional crisis months before it was embroiled in a second Pearl Harbor. The very legitimacy of the entire democracy was in the air. It was in that profoundly polarized atmosphere that the catastrophe happened.
It may have seemed meaningless at the time, but now we know why 7,000 people [sic] sacrificed their lives — so that we’d all forget how Bush stole a presidential election.
My horror at 9/11, combined with crippling fear, compounded by personal polarization was a fatal combination. This is not an excuse. It’s an attempt at an explanation. And my loathing of the left had been intensified earlier that year by a traumatizing exposure of my own sex life by gay leftists determined to destroy my reputation and career because of my mere existence as a gay conservative.
I had spent much of the 1990s at war with the gay left, and I think it had embittered me. That those battles were over my campaign for marriage equality and military service as the two biggest priorities of the gay rights movement makes for a strange irony today. Nonetheless, when you have been smeared, physically threatened, picketed and despised by the gay left, you dig in and begin to see nothing but bad in that political faction. And earlier that same year, I had been publicly humiliated by parts of the gay left for being HIV-positive, and trying to find other HIV-positive men online for sex and love. That made my embitterment deeper. When I really examine my emotional state that year, I can see better now why my anger at the left in general came out so forcefully in the wake of such a massacre. It was a foolish extrapolation from a handful of haters to an entire political tradition. Again, this is not an excuse. But if I am to understand my own personal anger at the anti-war left, it is part of the story.
Second, I was marinated in the knowledge of Saddam Hussein’s unique evil. At TNR in the 1990s, the consensus was that this dictator truly was another Hitler type (and in many ways, he was). My moral umbrage was exacerbated, I think, by this previous history. You can see it in the blog – as early as September 11, the day the mass murder occurred. Here’s the post:
Check out this 1995/1996 Public Interest essay on the first World Trade Center bombing. Some of it sends chills down your spine with its prescience. But its most important suggestion is that Iraq might have been behind the bombing. Ditto today. Saddam is not only capable but willing – especially against a nemesis like the son of the first George Bush. More evidence that Colin Powell’s tragic abandonment of the war against Saddam might well be one of the biggest blunders in recent history. If this coordinated massacre needed real state-sponsored support, which nation would you pick as the prime suspect?
This was an instinctual response, not a rational one. Notice I am not stating that Saddam had WMDs or had any connection to al Qaeda. I’m just raising the question. But by merely doing that on the day of the attacks, I’m revealing something important about the neoconservative mind. I had been prepped for something like this – prepped to see Iraq behind it. And so the pivot to Iraq for me was not a surprise. It felt like the obvious response. And it took me three more years to even thoroughly doubt the necessity for taking him out. That epistemic closure, that surrender of the mind to the gut, that replacement of analysis with anger: this was part of it.
This was the mother of all confirmation biases. It was also the very beginning of the blogosphere, and I had not yet learned the brutal lessons of writing instantly with reason-crushing emotion pulsing through my brain. The one silver lining was this blog – and the necessity to write every day in real time for the years that followed. That effectively denied me cover for my massive misjudgment and bias. You forced me to confront a reality I had never wanted to see, or had blinded myself to.
I cannot undo the damage and do not seek to put this behind me. Instead it is in front of me, a constant reminder that fixed convictions are dangerous, that premises should not be mistaken for conclusions, that confirmation bias is real … and can play a part in the murder of tens of thousands and even today, the birth of babies allegedly deformed horrifically by the depleted uranium we left behind. I cannot take responsibility for all of this; but I must take responsibility for some of it, for the pain and evil it fomented:
Trust your wound to a teacher’s surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.
Let a teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.
Don’t turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.
And don’t believe for a moment
that you’re healing yourself.
The Fading Memories Of War
This week, when I tried to remember the day we invaded, I couldn’t remember if it had been the 19th, the 20th, or the 21st. When I tried to think of the date we sustained our first killed in action in July 2003, I couldn’t remember that with any certainty, either. And when I tried to recall everyone I knew personally who’d been killed in the last decade, I came up with a list of half a dozen guys. But I wasn’t sure if it was everyone.
These are dates and names I once told myself I would never forget.
Most of my war stories now sit on the shelf in my living room, locked in a 256-page time capsule that I never open. Writing about the war was cathartic and served its purpose. I don’t really go there anymore. I don’t have to. The memories are trapped on the pages, like wasps in a jar.
The War That Wasn’t Covered
Christian Caryl accuses journalists of failing “to show the [Iraq] war as it was”:
Americans who did not serve may think that they have some idea of what the war in Iraq was like, but they’re wrong. The culprit here is a culture of well-intentioned self-censorship that refuses to show the real conditions of modern warfare.
You can search the seven years of US broadcast news from Iraq almost in vain for images of dead US soldiers, or the grotesque effects of a suicide bombing on buildings or bodies, or the corpses of Iraqi families who had been riddled with bullets by nervous young Americans manning nighttime checkpoints. (The photo of the blood-spattered Iraqi girl taken by the late Chris Hondros is one of the most disturbing exceptions.) For writers the task was somewhat easier: reporters like Peter Maass, Dexter Filkins, and C.J. Chivers were able to confront their readers with gruesome realities. But the problem remains. We can hardly expect Americans to comprehend the grisly reality of wars like the one in Iraq until we’re prepared to show the consequences of the policies we so blithely adopt. The Iraqis themselves, of course, need no counseling on this matter. The war was never invisible to them.
The Dish’s stance on posting graphic images of war is here.
(Photo: The remains of three US servicemen, their equipment and a Humvee lay scattered on a dirt road after a massive IED vaporized their vehicle on August 4, 2007 in Hawr Rajab, Iraq. By Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)
The Iraq War Wasn’t All Bad
Dexter Filkins recalls touring Iraq’s torture chambers with a former torture victim named Al-Musawi:
Today, in 2013—a decade later—it’s not fashionable to suggest that the American invasion of Iraq served any useful purpose. It was a catastrophe, born of original sin—of lies and exaggeration and trumped-up intelligence. How many times have you heard that this week? There are a hundred thousand dead Iraqis, more than four thousand Americans killed, and a bill for a trillion dollars. Indeed, the near-universal certainty that America’s war in Iraq was nothing but bad is as widespread and unbreachable as the notion, in 2003, that Saddam had to go.
But what are we to make of Iraqis like Al-Musawi? Or of torture chambers like Al Hakemiya? Where do we place them in our memories? And, more important, how should they shape our judgment of the war we waged?
They must be part of what shapes our judgment. Saddam was a sociopath mass murderer. But what shapes my judgment is that in deciding to depose a dictator because he was a torturer, the United States tortured countless prisoners, many of them tortured to death. We ended his torture by embracing our own.
(Photo: Iraqi security guard, Ayad Mutashar, shows off a mask that was one of the tools of torture that Saddam Hussein’s slain son, Odai, is believed to have used to punish under-performing Iraqi athletes July 29, 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq. Odai ran the Olympic committee while his father ruled Iraq and it is said that he used the devices to instill fear in the athletes to perform. By Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The Disparate Lessons Of War
Elizabeth Samet argues that politicians suggesting “some magic correlation between battlefield sacrifice and preparation for political office demonstrates our fundamental inattention to the nuances of the veteran experience”:
Those who witness and deal death almost certainly know something the rest of us do not, but it is facile to suggest that all veterans return from all wars knowing the same thing. There are soldiers for whom the crucible of combat is transformative, others for whom it is but one episode in a life filled with vivid and diverse engagements. Among war’s survivors are some who fight only to prevent its reoccurrence and a few who can’t survive without it—who find its rhythms more congenial than those of peace. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity,” Dwight David Eisenhower declared, while Theodore Roosevelt, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, felt a “power of joy” in combat and remembered the battle of San Juan Hill as “the great day of my life.” Roosevelt remained a warmonger for the rest of days.
If The Iraq War Never Happened
Drum contends that, “on a wide variety of measures, the effect of the Iraq War has actually been startlingly modest” and that the war “played no more than a bit role in ushering us into the Obama Era.” Douthat counters:
[T]ake away Iraq’s imprint on our politics, and America might well have still elected a Democrat to replace George W. Bush. But because of Iraq, the Democratic majority that did come to power in 2006 and 2008 has been more aggressive on public policy, less defensive in the culture war, and more proficient in the art of base mobilization than a hypothetical Clinton Restoration would have been – and their Republican opposition has been more ideologically bunkered-down, less nimble and less inclined to woo the center, than the G.O.P. might have been absent the trauma of Iraq.
How Graphic Should War Coverage Be? Ctd
A reader writes:
I’m sorry I missed the recent discussion about war photos. My contribution: I remember my eighth grade history teacher, in 1971, showing us photos her husband had taken as part of an American force that liberated a concentration camp in World War II. “These aren’t the worst,” she told us, “I can’t show you those. They are too terrible.” The photos she showed us were among the worst I’ve ever seen.
In April, 1979, shortly after W. Eugene Smith’s death, Popular Photography published some of his photos, including a few from the Pacific theater in World War II. It was the first time I had seen them, and I remember this one vividly. It’s hard to see how Smith’s photo from 70 years ago is so different from any of the photos you have posted. It was originally published in Life Magazine on August 28, 1944.
The iconic photo by AP photographer Nick Ut, of nine year old Kim Phuc, naked, running away from her village, her body burning from napalm, was published on the front page of the New York Times on June 9, 1972. The front page. Today they’ve gone so far off track they can’t even bring themselves to talk about torture. Life Magazine and the New York Times didn’t shy away from publishing those photos, and neither should you. The alternative is that the only evidence of the Iraq war in twenty years will be photos of cheering Iraqis tearing down statues of Saddam.
Photos like these should disturb us, and shake us to our core, and give us nightmares, and the next time someone tries to drag us off to war, we should get out these photos and look at them and remind ourselves just how much war really costs, and remember that whatever we’re going to war about had better be so goddamn important that we can look at those photos and say, “Yes, even this will be worth it.”
Please, keep posting photos. Yes, they’re disturbing, but this is too important.
Another quotes Christian Caryl:
You can search the seven years of US broadcast news from Iraq almost in vain for images of dead US soldiers, or the grotesque effects of a suicide bombing on buildings or bodies, or the corpses of Iraqi families who had been riddled with bullets by nervous young Americans manning nighttime checkpoints.
Caryl isn’t wrong, but there’s a context here: Virtually every time a news organization published those photos, there was a massive and abusive pushback from readers and viewers, who saw every graphic photo as a simple case of exploitation. At the time the Iraq War started, I was a reporter in Connecticut. One of the local newspapers (not mine) published a full front page story on fighting, with a prominent photo of an American soldier being carried off in a stretcher after being wounded.
It was a difficult image to see, but there was nothing crass or tasteless about it. Yet readers in Connecticut – not exactly a hotbed of support for George W. Bush – reacted violently. The newspaper was accused of being unpatriotic; of exploiting a solider’s death; of throwing the corpse of a son or father on its front cover to sell newspapers (it actually wasn’t clear if the solider was dead), etc., etc. No voices were raised in support of the decision.
In a perfect world, a media outlet would simply ignore the criticisms and move forward, but that sort of violent reaction is going to take its toll on the people who decide what will be on the front page each day. Combine that with the 9/11 fear you and I both felt, a polarized public united only in its hatred of the media and a shaky bottom line for many outlets, and I can see why editors might be leery about publishing those images. Was it cowardly? Probably – but as Caryl writes, “Some outstanding (news) coverage resulted nonetheless, but little of it seems to have been absorbed by the public at large.”
I don’t excuse the failures of the media leading up to the invasion, but public opinion can sometimes be an immovable object. Journalism isn’t even close to an unstoppable force.
(Photo: The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens of the Republic of Vietnam, almost entirely civilians and the majority of them women and children, perpetrated by US Army forces on March 16 1968. Here are the bodies of some of the victims lying along a road. By Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Was The Iraq Civil War Inevitable?
[Toby Dodge, author of Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism] puts quickly to rest the notion that Iraq’s unique ethnic and sectarian mix—about 60% Shia Muslim, 20% Sunni Muslim and 15% Kurdish, along with many smaller minorities—predestined the country to strife. He argues persuasively that the underlying cause of the bloodletting, which still continues on a reduced scale, was the collapse of the Iraqi state. This created the social stress and acceptance of violence that allowed what he calls “ethnic entrepreneurs”—political manipulators of sectarians fears—to flourish.
Did The War Cause The Recession?
I argue that the choice to finance the War on Terror by borrowing rather than by raising taxes worsened the US external imbalance and the resulting “capital flow bonanza” triggered the US credit boom. The credit boom generated the asset bubble the deflation of which generated the great global crisis from which we are still recovering. Obviously, it takes a lot of heavy lifting to get from the war-related budget deficit to the global financial and economic crisis.
(Hat tip: Farrell)
The Cost Of The Iraq & Afghanistan Wars
$4 to $6 trillion, according to a new study. This does not count the uncountable human loss, or the brutal toll of PTSD and suicide among the survivors. Last year saw more military suicides in America (349) than military combat deaths in Afghanistan (295). The post-war is becoming more deadly than the war. Yglesias adds:
What should really strike fear into your heart is [professor Linda Bilmes's] finding that “the largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid.” That’s because equipment lost or destroyed in the wars is going to have to be replaced, interest on the money borrowed to finance the wars is going to have to be paid, and most of all because health care and disability benefits are going to have to be paid well out into the future.
Spencer blames the cost on America’s overreaction to terrorism:
Money, ultimately, is power. In context, it would take a nuclear strike on the United States to inflict the kind of economic damage that the wars have reaped. The only nations capable of inflicting such damage are disinclined toward doing so; and no non-state actor will plausibly obtain the capability to match such a threat. All of that damage is the result not of what bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or the insurgencies that began in their wake did to America, but because of how American strategiests chose to respond. As Radiohead once sang, you do it to yourself, and that’s why it really hurts.
(Photo: Army veteran Brad Schwarz walks through the garage of the home he rents with his girlfriend on May 3, 2012 in Hanover Park, Illinois. The tattoo on Schwarz’s back, a quote from William Shakespeare’s Henry V, is a tribute to friends he served with in Iraq.
Schwarz uses a service dog to help him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to his 2008 tour in Iraq. In addition to suffering from PTSD Schwarz has memory loss related to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and he must walk with a cane because of vertebrae and nerve damage in his back and legs.
Ten days before he was scheduled to rotate home from a 15-month deployment in Iraq, his second, the Humvee in which he was riding was struck by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Of the 5 soldiers riding in the vehicle, which caught fire after the explosion, Schwarz was the only one to survive. By Scott Olson/Getty Images.)
Ask Andrew Anything: What Made You Turn Against The Iraq War?
by Chris Bodenner
The article about missing WMDs that Andrew refers to, “So Where Are They?”, is here. A key passage:
The third explanation is that our intelligence was radically wrong – or politically manipulated for effect. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that U.S. and British intelligence got things wrong, although in many cases, such as North Korea or India, they have erred in the direction of complacency. Or it could be that the range of possibilities discovered by intelligence was presented by the politicians in the worst possible light so as to win public support. I’ve no doubt that was partly the case. That’s what politicians do. They make a case based on evidence. Others were free to make alternative cases, and they did. Currently, we simply don’t know what happened either in intelligence gathering or the political use of the data. But we should. After a decent period of time to gather all the possible evidence, there should indeed be a thorough inquiry into whether and how the case for Saddam’s imminent WMD threat was made.
But in some ways, these matters, while important, still don’t get to the heart of the matter. The fundamental case for getting rid of Saddam was not dependent on the existence of a certain amount of some chemical or other.
It was based on a political and military judgement. Once the threat from Islamist terror was self-evident, it would have been irresponsible for any political leader to ignore the possibility of a future attack with WMDs. It was and is the obvious next step for an operation like al Qaeda. Further, the war against terror, from the beginning, was always directed not simply at terrorist groups, but at the states that aided and abetted them. The key point is that Saddam’s Iraq was a clear and present danger in that context. What mattered was not whether at any particular moment Saddam had a certain specifiable quantity of botulinum toxin. What mattered was his capacity to produce such things, his ability to conceal them, and his links to terrorists who could deploy them. No one can doubt that he had had them at one point, was capable of producing them, and was linked to groups who would be only too happy to use them. That was and is the case for getting rid of him. It’s as powerful now as it was in January.
Ask Andrew Anything: Why Such Guilt Over Iraq?
by Chris Bodenner
Ask Me Anything: The Demonization Of The Left Over Iraq
The Arab Spring Didn’t Start In Iraq
Where’s the proof? The best Makiya can do is note that a number of years after the invasion, uprisings occurred elsewhere. The logical imperfection is audacious. He does not quote any leader of those uprisings as making a connection with Iraq—perhaps because they don’t. Wael Ghonim, one of the online leaders of the Egyptian uprising, has noted, “The war in Iraq killed so many innocent people, and it’s not something that any civilized nation should be proud of.” Makiya cannot drum up support from even Fouad Ajami, another backer of the invasion. “Having supported the Iraq war, I would love to make this connection,” he wrote last year. “But Iraq, contrary to the hopes and assertions of conservative proponents of the war, is not relevant to the Arab Spring.”
The Other One Percent: Our Vets
Mikey Piro, a two-time veteran of Iraq diagnosed with PTSD in 2006, has an excellent little blog called PTSD Survivor Daily through which he processes his post-war struggles. I met him at West Point and chatted late into the night. We hope to be launching a podcast soon, and Mikey will be one of my first guests. A soldier is supposed to be as courageous as this West Point grad from Long Island. But not as gob-smackingly candid about the reality of what we as a nation did to the tiny percentage of us who fought unwinnable wars, while we merely fought about them. Never in the history of human warfare has a nation demanded so much for so long from so few. From a recent post:
In combat we were always provided something to release our emotions or frustrations. Missions and free time let us discharge not only our weapons, but our pent up frustrations. Yelling, shooting, driving, crying, walking and many other releases were all at our disposal. They were standard issue. In the staccato of combat, a rhythm existed where we could gauge and guess when we needed to pull the release valve.
However, as a civilian, life is so unpredictable by comparison that we as Veterans have a hard time adapting to a continual set of challenges at irregular and less predictable intervals. We miss the neat bookends our tours provided us to bracket the ups and downs combat threw at us. At home the issues build up and we don’t have the markers set to know when to release.
He points to an earlier post about “the pressure that builds from within our core”:
Last week, I met a woman standing in line at a Starbucks. As I stood waiting for my coffee, I showed her one of my tweets about “#caffeination.” We got to talking about twitter (@mikeypiro in case you didn’t know) and the conversation led to sitting and talking about our respective professions. We pulled up a set of chairs in a quiet corner of an outdoor café. The conversation led down many paths but we talked about the Iraq deployment, job hunting as a new civilian, and my PTSD recovery path.
As I explored the loss of my Soldiers I broke down in the court yard in front of this total stranger. She was extremely polite and shared a story of her own as I gained my composure. The conversation for me was very exciting in that this total stranger out of the kindness of her heart was willing to listen. I felt I could open up to her on a number of topics, so I did not let the previous anxiety of crying get in the way. Talk about an In Vivo exposure! Normally, medicine helps me keep those tears in check. Alas, I was on the tail end of my cycle and I have found that holding tears back is more exhausting than just letting them go.
You can follow his writing here, with posts including “The Myths of #PTSD recovery: A survivors’ perspective” and “Superheroes have issues too: The #Avengers and #PTSD symptoms“. In this post, he recalls one of many traumatic moments in Iraq:
The first KIA [killed in action] was a little ways up the road. He had bullet holes from head to toe and was in a large pool of thick red blood.
(Did I mention we didn’t have body bags? Oh yeah, that. We ran out a few months back and were forced to use tarps…)
The few ground troops got with the HQ guy, wrapped up the first KIA, and put him on the back of the truck.
The second KIA was a little farther up the road. He was a big man. Had to be two hundred and fifty pounds. He was hunched over and also lying in his own pool of blood.
Under the laws of the Geneva convention (I am paraphrasing here) , once you engage an enemy and they are wounded and you take their weapon, they are now an enemy combatant and subject to medical treatment and POW status. You own them.
Back to business
We roll the giant man over to get him ready to put on the tarp only instead of being dead, he starts screaming, moaning and gurgling.
Like many times in combat, the initial report was wrong.
He was not going to live. One third of his head was missing. The horror is of this realism of war is still with me to this day.
I wanted nothing more than to finish him. It would be easy, just cap him.
So there I was, new XO, with everyone looking at me.
What did I do?
I turned to the medic and said, “I don’t care if you have to scoop his brains back in his head. Put a bandage on him; we are taking him the to the aid station.”
It was the beginning of a very long day.
In a very long war.
(Photo from Piro’s Instagram account)
“Clay Hunt Was A Casualty Of War”
A recent 60 Minutes profile of an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who committed suicide after suffering years of PTSD:
Some more context on the crisis:
About 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are thought to suffer from PTSD, though many do not report their problems. Instead they try to dose themselves. A VA study found that veterans suffering from PTSD or depression were about four times more likely to have drug or drink problems. Too many end up in the same desperate place as Eiswert. The VA reported that, on average, 22 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010. Last year more active-duty soldiers took their own lives than were killed in combat. …
In war, it is said, there are no unwounded soldiers. Bombs that shatter bones also batter brains. Even on the periphery, war afflicts men with aching joints, ringing ears and psychological damage. Imagine, then, the human damage wrought by over a decade of battle.
Is It “Too Soon To Tell” On Iraq? Nope.
Paul Wolfowitz isn’t ready to declare the Iraq War a failure:
It may be a long time before we really know the outcome of the Iraq war. To put that in perspective, consider that the Korean armistice was signed 60 years ago, but South Korea struggled for decades after that. Even after 30 years, only an extreme optimist would have predicted that South Korea today would not only have one of the world’s most successful economies but also a democratic political system that has successfully conducted six free and fair presidential elections over the last 25 years.
So too, it may be many years before we have a clear picture of the future of Iraq, but we already do know two important things. An evil dictator is gone, along with his two equally brutal sons, giving the Iraqi people a chance to build a representative government that treats its people as citizens and not as subjects. And we also know that Americans did not come to Iraq to take away its oil or to subjugate the country. To the contrary, having come to remove a threat to the United States, Americans stayed on at great sacrifice and fought alongside Iraqis in a bloody struggle against the dark forces that sought to return the country to a brutal tyranny. Iraqis rarely get enough credit for their own heroism in that struggle, but roughly 10,000 members of the Iraqi security forces are estimated to have died in that fight (twice the American total) in addition to tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
It’s a testament to the power of ideology and pride that Wolfowitz is actually still using the South Korea example. South Korea. How many sectarian divisions are there? Was not the war there in order to prevent Communist take-over of the entire peninsula? What possibly equivalent threat existed in sanctioned, impoverished Iraq? There is not a single sentence of personal accountability in the entire piece, not even a flicker of conscience about what his utopianism wrought. His only mention of Abu Ghraib, where torture policies authorized by his own president were exposed, destroying the entire moral case for the war, is about Abu Ghraib under Saddam. No apology for the death of a hundred thousand Iraqis because of a bungled operation. No apology for torture. No apology for sending thousands of Americans to die so that the new Shiite prime minister could actually cancel the coming elections in two critical Sunni areas: Anbar and Nineveh, as the sectarianism Wolfowitz insisted was over by 2003 still somehow consumes a country he never understood. No:
What did require a U.S. apology—which the ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, offered in the Fall of 2011—was the failure to assist the Shia uprising in 1991, in the aftermath of Saddam’s defeat in Kuwait.
At this point, you realize you’re dealing with someone psychologically ill-equipped to reflect with even the slightest sense of responsibility on the carnage and chaos his self-righteousness wrought. He’s back to the exhausted tropes of 2002, when he last had even the faintest credibility, repeating them as if, by some magic, they will make his catastrophic error of judgment less obvious. One wonders: when exactly did Wolfowitz have his sense of shame surgically removed? Did Allan Bloom help him out? James Joyner disagrees with Wolfowitz’s view of the US’ motives:
[R]oughly 4712 Americans were killed fighting in Iraq—which is to say, 98 percent of all Americans killed fighting in Iraq—after Saddam’s regime was out of power. 94 percent of the total American KIA died after his sons were killed. 88 percent were lost after Saddam was captured, no threat to return to power, and no longer a plausible cause for the fabled “regime holdouts” to rally around. Even after Saddam was hanged, another 1548 Americans died.
From this, I would conclude that American war aims were something other than merely toppling Saddam’s regime, making sure his “equally brutal sons” did not replace him, or even assuring that Saddam was brought to justice. Because, otherwise, we could have gotten out with only 92 dead American troopers.
Larison draws a key distinction:
Wolfowitz claims that it “may be a long time before we really know the outcome of the Iraq war,” but that’s a very silly thing to say. It may be a long time before we can assess the full historical significance of the Iraq war. That’s true of any major event that happens in one’s own lifetime, to say nothing of a war. Andrew Bacevich addressed that question here, and suggested that the Iraq war might prove to be no more significant over the long term than the War of 1812 was for the later history of the United States. The Iraq war was unnecessary, appallingly destructive, and extremely stupid, but perhaps the most damning thing that will be said about it one day in the future is that it ultimately didn’t matter very much. The outcome of the Iraq war is much more straightforward: it was a costly, wasteful failure. It advanced no concrete American interests, and instead did real harm to U.S. security. Then again, that was clear to some of us over eight years ago.
And yet Wolfowitz is incapable of intellectual evolution, let alone moral responsibility. In fact he’s still blaming Shinseki for speaking the obvious: that we needed 300,000 troops to invade and retain order. Yes: all these years later and Wolfowitz is still dreaming that if only he had controlled everything … then the very fantasies he concocted would have come true. And his main point now? That the US should be more involved in the internal sectarian clusterfuck of Syria. Here’s Wolfowitz’s version of atonement:
“I realise these are consequential decisions. It’s just that they’re consequential both ways.”
The word weasel springs to mind.
(Photo: A sun-bleached flower sticker is adhered to U.S. Army Captain Russell B. Rippetoe’s headstone in Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60 on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq March 19, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. Rippetoe was killed in a suicide bombing at a checkpoint near the Hadithah Dam northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. He was the first soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Yes, Of Course It Was Torture
Until the CIA hands back its critique of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the war crimes authorized by president Bush, we lack a report that carries institutional bipartisan weight on the interrogation practices in the era of Dick Cheney’s “dark side.” Until now, that is.
The Constitution Project’s non-partisan report on the facts – an exhaustive, yet gripping and lucid 575 pages – puts any lingering doubts to rest.
Some of the participants give it particular credibility: Asa Hutchinson was a key figure in impeaching president Clinton, an Arkansas congressman whose DEA nomination was backed by an overwhelming 98 – 1 in the Senate and who subsequently ran the largest division within Bush’s Department of Homeland Security. Richard Epstein is one of the most doctrinaire libertarian conservatives you could hope to find. Thomas R Pickering was president George H W Bush’s ambassador to the UN, and American ambassador to both Russia and India. Judge William S. Sessions is the former Director of the FBI, under Reagan and Bush. They all signed off on the Constitution Project’s findings, which are inarguable, given the evidence provided in the report.
Those findings, to put it bluntly, are that for several years, the United States government systematically committed war crimes against prisoners in its custody, violating the Geneva Conventions, US domestic law, and international law. Many of these war crimes were acts of torture; many more were acts of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. All are federal crimes. None of those who authorized the war crimes has been prosecuted.
The report – which I urge you to read in full when you get the chance – dispassionately lays out all the possible legal definitions of torture (domestic and international) and then describes what the Bush administration authorized. The case is not a close one. Bush and Cheney are war criminals, as are all those involved in the implementation of these torture techniques. Perhaps the most powerful part of the case is an examination of what the US itself has condemned as torture when committed by other countries. Take one often lightly-dismissed torture technique – stress positions. The Bush administration’s own State Department has called these techniques torture:
The State Department criticized Jordan in its 2006 Human Rights report for subjecting detainees to “forced standing in painful positions for prolonged periods.” In its 2000, 2001 and 2002 reports on Iran, “suspension for long periods in contorted positions” is described as torture. In its 2001 and 2002 Human Rights report on Sri Lanka, “suspension by the wrists or feet in contorted positions” and remaining in “unnatural positions for extended periods” are described as “methods of torture.”
Flash forward to what the Bush administration authorized in one case:
While being held in this position [a prolonged standing stress position involving being shackled to a bar or hook in the ceiling by the detainee’s wrists, typically while naked, for a continual period of time, ranging from two to three days continuously, up to two or three months intermittently] some of the detainees were allowed to defecate in a bucket. A guard would come to release their hands from the bar or hook in the ceiling so that they could sit on the bucket. None of them, however, were allowed to clean themselves afterwards. Others were made to wear a garment that resembled a diaper. This was the case for Mr. Bin Attash in his fourth place of detention. However, he commented that on several occasions the diaper was not replaced so he had to urinate and defecate on himself while shackled in the prolonged stress standing position. When [prisoners fell] asleep held in this position, the whole weight of their bodies was effectively suspended from the shackled wrists, transmitting the strain through the arms to the shoulders.
The Bush administration is on record that this is torture. Now take one of the more famous techniques – waterboarding. Again, the Bush administration itself condemned the use of this barbarism when deployed by others and described it quite simply as torture:
In the section entitled Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the 2003 – 2007 Bush State Department Human Rights report on Sri Lanka described “near-drowning” as “torture and abuse.” In its Human Rights Reports for Tunisia from 1996 to 2004, “submersion of the head in water” is deemed “torture.” In the 2005 and 2006 Human Rights Reports for Tunisia, this practice is considered “torture and abuse.”
Domestic case law universally argues that waterboarding is unequivocally torture – and the report has a comprehensive set of cases to back it up. Dick Cheney has publicly admitted that he authorized this torture technique – and the report documents it occurred much more often than on the oft-cited “rare three” “high-value” prisoners. So Dick Cheney has conceded that he authorized acts which his own administration condemned as torture when committed by other countries, and which all international and domestic legal precedent defines as torture. One prisoner, as we know, was subjected to this torture technique 183 times.
I fully understand the immense difficulty any democracy has in holding its former war criminals to account. When such profound violations of human rights have occurred under the clear authority of the highest elected official in the land – who was re-elected after the torture was as plain as day – it remains very difficult to hold anyone accountable. The report assumes good faith on the part of all involved – and that the resort to torture was a function of a genuine, good faith attempt to keep Americans safe, after a uniquely horrifying act of terror on 9/11.
But none of that matters as a legal or ethical issue. What matters – and the law is crystal clear about this – is that torture and anything even close to torture be prosecuted aggressively. This is true especially when a government is claiming urgent national security in defense of its own crimes. The laws specifically rule out any defense on those grounds. So either we are a republic governed by the rule of law or we are not. Yes, there is discretion as to whether to prosecute any crime. But war crimes are the gravest on the books and have no statute of limitations. Prosecuting them is integral to adherence to Geneva, which itself is integral to the maintenance of the rule of law and of Western civilization itself. Either we set up a Truth Commission and find a way to pardon the war criminals, while establishing their guilt – which would at least give a brief nod to the rule of law. Or we have to take this report and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings as a basis for legal action for war crimes.
There is no way forward without this going back. And there is no way past this but through it.
(Photo: a plaque at West Point on the integrity of America’s armed forces through history – grotesquely betrayed by the Bush administration.)
Feeling Others’ Rage
In the wake of the Boston bombings, Greenwald asks Americans to empathize with individuals in countries regularly bombed by the US:
[W]hatever rage you’re feeling toward the perpetrator of this Boston attack, that’s the rage in sustained form that people across the world feel toward the US for killing innocent people in their countries. Whatever sadness you feel for yesterday’s victims, the same level of sadness is warranted for the innocent people whose lives are ended by American bombs. However profound a loss you recognize the parents and family members of these victims to have suffered, that’s the same loss experienced by victims of US violence. It’s natural that it won’t be felt as intensely when the victims are far away and mostly invisible, but applying these reactions to those acts of US aggression would go a long way toward better understanding what they are and the outcomes they generate.
I note only that today, more than 55 Iraqi civilians were killed by a wave of terrorism, a function of the botched invasion, occupation and sectarian disintegration the US set in motion. On the day of the Boston marathon, a new post-occupation record of 65 deaths was recorded.
Bill Keller, Still Flailing
There was something almost poignant about a post yesterday by former NYT executive editor Bill Keller. It’s his way of explaining why he decided the Times could not use the plain word ‘torture’ to describe torture – when it was conducted by the Bush administration. He conflates the issue with the other t-word, terrorism, as if there were some kind of analogy. There isn’t. What happened in Benghazi was an act of terror, as Obama said the following day. What happened in Boston was an act of terror. The only circumspection about the word should be in the immediate aftermath of explosions when it seems to me prudent not to jump to conclusions. So the fire at the JFK Library Monday was not an act of terror.
The most it can take to reach the conclusion about terror is a few days. Yet the New York Times has refused to use the word ‘torture’ for years in its news pages and is still avoiding it. Keller was behind that decision. Future historians of the press will note how the most powerful single journalistic institution in the country simply caved to government and partisan pressure – even on the use of the English language.
Keller denies this. He says the avoidance of the word was because there was an ongoing debate about the legal meaning of torture, and therefore the NYT should have stayed neutral.
The editors (I was one at the time) argued that what constituted torture was still a matter of debate, that this issue was not just linguistic but legal and had not yet been resolved by a court, and that the word was commonly applied to such a range of practices as to be imprecise. We contended that the best approach was to describe the techniques as fully as possible and let readers draw their own conclusions.
Keller writes that the issue of what torture is “had not yet been resolved by a court”. Really?
Let us take, for example, a torture technique both Bush and Cheney have openly bragged about authorizing: waterboarding. Has no court adjudicated the matter? I refer Keller to page 371 of the Constitution Project report, which details countless examples of US courts finding waterboarding unequivocally to be torture:
In the early 20th century, U.S. Army Captain Elwin Glenn was court-martialed for administering the “water cure” to civilians during the combat operations in the Philippines. Japanese military personnel were convicted of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for using the “water treatment” method on POWs. And several lower-ranking soldiers were convicted of waterboarding, a war crime, in the years following the war.
Several state courts have decided cases involving waterboarding as well. In White v. State, the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out a 1922 murder conviction because the defendant’s confession had been obtained using the “water cure.” In that case, men held the appellant down while one stood on him and the other poured water into his nose in order to gain a confession. The court described this treatment as “barbarous” and “brutal treatment,” “causing pain and horror.”
In Cavazos v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals similarly reversed a murder conviction where officers had extracted a confession by coercive means, including the water cure. The Cavazos court found in 1942 that the trial judge had improperly admitted a confession that was “obtained by force and physical and mental torture.”
Four decades after Cavazos, four Texas law-enforcement officers who had waterboarded suspects were convicted of “violating and conspiring to violate the civil rights of prisoners in their custody.” The defendants, a sheriff and three deputies, had “draped a towel over each man’s face and pour[ed] water over it until the men gagged.” While not considering the nature of the treatment itself on appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1984 repeatedly described the actions of the sheriff and deputies as “torture.”
While all of the above cases were decided prior to Convention Against Torture’s ratification, U.S. courts have held that waterboarding is a form of torture after the U.S.’s ratification as well. For example, in In re Estate of Ferdinand E. Marcos Human Rights Litigation, the U.S. District Court for the District Court of Hawaii specifically listed waterboarding (or “water cure”) as one form of torture practiced by the Marcos regime, which used such techniques against political dissidents who then brought their claims in U.S. courts when seeking asylum. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit subsequently supported this finding.
The Marcos regime used waterboarding against political dissidents while it was in control of the Philippines, and it was the basis of many claims by victims in the ensuing litigation in American courts.
To repeat: Keller writes in his post that the issue of whether waterboarding was torture “had not yet been resolved by a court.” It had – and in no single case had there been any equivocation at all. Waterboarding was explicitly defined as torture by the Bush State Department and the Convention Against Torture. It is a war crime – or the law and the English language mean nothing. The same is true for a litany of other authorized abuses – which have clear, legal and regulatory status as torture. Will the former editor of the Times correct a factual error?
At any time during his position as NYT executive editor, Mr Keller could also have looked up the legal definition, which is not in dispute:
[A]n act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.
So allow me to remind Mr Keller of what his own newspaper, among others, reported about what was authorized by the president himself:
using dogs to terrorize prisoners; stripping detainees naked and hooding them; isolating people in windowless cells for weeks and even months on end; freezing prisoners to near-death and reviving them and repeating the hypothermia; contorting prisoners into stress positions that create unbearable pain in the muscles and joints; cramming prisoners into upright coffins in painful positions with minimal air; near-drowning, on a waterboard, of human beings—in one case 183 times—even after they have cooperated with interrogators.
And in many cases – it was many of the above combined – and several confirmed cases of being tortured to death. How can anyone not see that these techniques clearly “inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering” on people completely under the government’s control? There is not now and never has been a debate about this.
So why Keller’s bizarre refusal to call it by its proper name? The reason is simple. Keller knew that publishing the word torture with respect to president Bush and his administration was a factual allegation of war crimes. Such an accusation would have caused all the usual suspects to deride the NYT as a left-liberal rag, with a partisan agenda. There would have been huge partisan political blowback. It might also have prevented NYT reporters from getting access to anyone in the Bush administration. Keller basically admits as much:
Now that I reside in the opinion zone, I use the word “torture” without hesitation, but I still believe that editors in the news pages should be a little slow to preempt the judgment of readers, or to use language that carries a suggestion of political posture.
Does the nonpartisan report made public today mean that what is “torture” in the Opinion pages can now be “torture” in the news pages? Has the noun shed some of its partisan freight? Watch that space.
“Language that carries a suggestion of political posture.” But what if that language is the plain truth?
Let me just say that I have a different view of the Fourth Estate than Keller does. I believe that a newspaper should report what it can in plain English, without regard to anyone else’s views on the matter, and whatever the positions of the political parties. It should publish what it deems to be true by its own methods and conclusions.
Keller, in contrast, believes a newspaper should not publish the truth if one political party has decided – arbitrarily and in accord with its own legal self-interests – that there is a “debate” about it. It’s an almost classic Fallowsian “false equivalence” moment. There is, for example, a debate about evolution. Does the NYT use a euphemism because the theory of natural selection is fiercely opposed by a large number of Americans? Does it routinely refer to “the theory of natural selection which many Americans dispute”. Of course not. They can report on polarizing issues in plain English in most cases. But not when something as profound as a president committing war crimes is concerned. Not, in other words, when you really need an independent and free press.
He also writes: “the word was commonly applied to such a range of practices as to be imprecise.” But that reveals a deep misunderstanding of the laws against torture. They are broadly drawn because that was the entire point: to rule out of bounds anything even approaching torture or cruel and inhuman conduct. In 2003, president Bush made the following statement:
I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture and in undertaking to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment. I call on all nations to speak out against torture in all its forms and to make ending torture an essential part of their diplomacy.
There you have the president himself defining torture as broadly and clearly as the statute. And yet Keller was incapable of doing the same – out of fear of seeming biased.
To take another specific example of the US government taking this approach to torture, look at the asylum cases decided by the Justice Department and the immigration services under the Department of Homeland Security. You can examine the rules here. There is simply no doubt that an asylum-seeker who had evidence of being waterboarded by a foreign government would be granted asylum by the US. Because he had been tortured. Or imagine if an American soldier were captured by Iran and water-boarded. Would the New York Times refuse to say he was tortured? Seriously?
Keller knew the truth and his newspaper did sterling work in uncovering it. But he refused to tell the legal truth in plain English because he couldn’t take the political whirlwind that would ensue. He’s now searching for an excuse to decide that the issue was once vague but now clear and so we can all move along quietly please.
I’m sorry, but no. Keller needs to take responsibility for a key failure of nerve at a vital moment in the history of basic human rights. In this he is sadly like the president: against torture, except when it might mean serious political headwinds. History will condemn them both – but nothing is more damaging to the reputation of a newspaper than cowardice and equivocation in the face of such glaringly obvious facts.
(Photo: Inside the ‘page one meeting’ with New York Times Editor Bill Keller, May, 2008 in New York City. There are two daily meeting one at 10:30am and the other at 4pm to discuss what stories will be used on the front page of the paper, with the section editors and senior editors. By Jonathan Torgovnik/Edit by Getty Images.)
Blinded By Isolation?
Aaron David Miller argues that America’s unique geography “explain[s] the way Americans see the world”:
The United States is the only great power in the history of the world that has had the luxury of having nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and fish to its east and west. … Canadians, Mexicans, and fish. That trio of neighbors has given the United States an unprecedented degree of security, a huge margin for error in international affairs, and the luxury of largely unfettered development.
He views these circumstances as a major factor in determining US foreign policy:
U.S. nationalism was defined politically, not ethnically. Anyone can be an American, regardless of color, creed, or religion. America’s public square has become an inclusive one — and is becoming more so, not less. That’s all good news, but too often, it leads Americans to see the world on their terms and not the way it really is.
Just look at America’s recent foreign-policy misadventures. Americans’ mistaken belief that post-invasion Iraq would be a place where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would somehow look to the future to build a new nation reflected this tendency. It’s the same story with the Arab Spring: From the beginning, America seemed determined to impose its own upbeat Hollywood ending on a movie that was only just getting started and would become much darker than imagined. The notion that what was happening in Egypt was a transformative event that would turn the country over to the secular liberals powered by Facebook and Twitter was truly an American conceit.
Larison disagrees, placing more of the blame on political elites.
The Other One Percent: Our Vets, Ctd
A reader writes:
Glad to see this subject make it on your blog. You have been fairly consistent in talking about a lot of these issues that don’t get reported on a ton in other media venues. I just want to jump in though and speak a bit about my own experiences – if nothing else, just for the catharsis of it. This country’s nonsupport of their veterans is borderline criminal. Whether it’s the stigma that gets attached to PTSD thanks to the machismo mentality of the military or the constant stereotyping of veterans with PTSD by Hollywood, or the out-and-out hostility of the VA towards the veterans who they are supposed to help.
I returned from Iraq in 2003 and left the service in 2004. For the next three years, I fought tooth and nail to get help from the VA for PTSD. Every chance they had they denied that any of the symptoms I was suffering from were related to combat; they hilariously told me that they were pre-existing conditions and that they wouldn’t cover it. I spiraled down in those years, drinking myself to sleep pretty much every night and somehow staying in school.
I finally got serious about seeking help after friends of mine sat me down, after a violent outburst followed by some cutting, and helped set me straight. Since then it’s been a constant battle with myself and many times with the VA. Pretty much every day is a struggle and yet the organization that is supposed to be on my side seems to excel at antagonizing and obstructing. For years, my only recourse was the VA because I didn’t have health insurance, and it’s only recently since I’ve gotten an actual job with insurance that I’ve been able to really start addressing these issues.
This story is replayed every single day, thousands of times across the country. Instead of seeking help, veterans will often commit suicide because there is no one there for them. Yet the VA is continuing to repeat the same mistakes. Instead of confronting the issues head-on, they are working actively to downplay the suicide numbers. It’s only recently in the last few years, with the help of veterans organizations, that the totality of the problem is coming out. (There are a lot of great organizations out there who are doing great work; Give An Hour has been a huge help to me.)
Unfortunately, nothing will happen until people start being held accountable and start losing their jobs or elections over this issue. The only way that will happen, as hard as it can be, is for those of us that are struggling with this to start a conversation with our friends, loved ones, and strangers. Only then can the totality of this issue be realized by people who have no connection to these wars and there effects. A clumsy way of saying it is that we need to come out. We need to show that yeah, we may have issues, but we’re not broken. We did our part and held up our end of the bargain – now it’s time for you to fulfill yours.
My grandfather landed on Normandy Beach and never talked about it and struggled with it his whole life. My father was in Vietnam and came back the same way. It’s time for us in this war and generation to be more open and talk about these issues and seek help. Only then can we force the country and our leaders to keep their promises to us.
I am the forty-one year old adult child of a Vietnam veteran diagnosed with PTSD. In my own experience, the effects of “secondary PTSD” can feel almost as debilitating as actual PTSD itself. As a child, my father was loving and engaged at times, but also unpredictable, swinging from violently abusive to depressed and withdrawn, as he attempted to come to grips with what he saw and did in Vietnam. He also struggled with a host of substance abuse issues – another common symptom of PTSD sufferers.
It took me a number of years to finally connect my own free-floating anxiety, guilt and depression (not to mention my own struggle with drugs and alcohol) with my father’s war experiences. I make no excuses now – trauma affects everyone differently and my father and I both remain responsible for our actions. But to think that the effects of combat (and the costs of our wars) end when our soldiers return home is naïve at best. We are still paying for Vietnam 40 years later and I suspect we will be paying for our current wars for years to come, in one of the currencies that is most valuable to us: the well-being of our families. The trauma of war is now inextricably interwoven in the fabric of my family, and I suspect even filters down into the lives of my own children.
We work hard to heal, and my father and I are both much different now after so many years have passed, but the wound is real, and sometimes still raw. There is great honor in the service and sacrifice our soldiers provide and I remain proud of what my father did in Vietnam, just as I am proud of soldiers today who risk much. But it is a real sacrifice, both for themselves and their families. When we calculate the costs of war, we would do well to remember how long those costs linger.
Our Collective 9/11 PTSD
Londoners, who endured IRA terror for years, might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They’re right – and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we’ve seen previously in the United States. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after 9/11 Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the “threat” of terrorism. …
If only Americans reacted the same way to the actual threats that exist in their country.
Which is to say that the terrorists succeeded in almost every way possible. The day after the IRA bombing of the hotel in which she was staying, injuring 31 and killing five, Margaret Thatcher gave a speech, on schedule, to her party conference. The IRA suspects were still at large and threatening to kill again:
Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.
Norman Geras thinks these arguments miss the point:
The supposed ‘overreaction’ to terrorist attacks isn’t primarily about the extent of risk relative to accidental death, or about fear for one’s own safety. It’s about people taking quite proper exception when, finding it morally outrageous indeed that, individuals moved by some grievance or other and/or the tenets of a murderous ideology, freely choose to put the innocent in peril by random acts of violence.
I wrote about this for my Sunday column. I am second to none in finding these acts morally outrageous, which is why we need to exercise more control in not giving them more power over our psyches than we need to. I think, in many ways, we’re still living with 9/11 collective PTSD:
Last week shows how terrorism works. It terrorizes – and the trauma of that terror lies often buried in the psyche for years, and untreated and un-addressed, it can suddenly return, without perspective or rationality. In some ways, this is understandable. Before 9/11, Americans outside Pearl Harbor, had lived for centuries feeling relatively invulnerable to the terrorism that I grew up with in Britain in the 1970s, or that occurs routinely as a consequence of the US invasion of Iraq (on the day of the Boston marathon, 65 Iraqis were murdered by terrorist bombs). 9/11 was so traumatic, in fact, that it led the US to adopt the torture techniques of totalitarian regimes and to invade and occupy two countries. Americans lost it. And I cannot say I was immune. It changed Americans because we allowed it to traumatize us.
Before 9/11, terrorism didn’t have this kind of power. The first bombing of the World Trade Center did not “change everything”. Last week, the historian Rick Perlstein noted that in Christmastime, 1975, an explosion at a La Guardia baggage claim killed 24 civilians, with severed limbs and heads flying all over the place. No one was ever found responsible – and the city of New York was not under lockdown. It’s different now.
Which means bin Laden succeeded as well – in simply terrorizing Americans. Take this statistic: the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that the number of terror attacks in the US in the decade before 9/11 was 41 a year. Since 9/11, it has been 19 a year. And yet our terror panic endures – and even grows. It seems we cannot yet simply live with and through occasional terror. We demand its complete absence, in the black-and-white way Americans often do:
We think in absolutes, in terms of avoiding all harms and dismissing potential benefits instead of debating the relative contributions of both. … “Never eat red meat”. “Never let kids watch TV or play video games”. “Never eat soft cheese while pregnant”. “Never fail to screen for disease”. And so on.
Is this a United States thing? Or am I just wired differently? I’m just not sure that the way we react to potential harms is the best approach. This includes, by the way, our response to terrorism.
Previous Dish on Americans’ response to terrorism here.
(Photo: At around 11:45 a.m., April 19, this was the view on Congress Street looking towards Post Office Square as a lockdown-in-place was in effect in Boston during the during the ongoing manhunt for a suspect in the terrorist bombing of the 117th Boston Marathon earlier this week. By Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.)