Ending the Iraq Catastrophe

Robert Parry

President Barack Obama will talk about “a promise kept” as he brings the last US troops in Iraq “home for the holidays”; the neocons will try to spin the war’s outcome as “victory” — albeit one endangered by Obama’s complete withdrawal — but the hard truth is that the Iraq War has been a largely self-inflicted strategic defeat for the United States.
When the last US convoys race for the Kuwaiti border in December, they will be as much in retreat as the Soviet army was when it withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. And, like the staggering Soviet Union then, the United States is reeling now from economic dislocations exacerbated by the overreach of empire.
Of course, the United States is not likely to undergo the political collapse that interred the Soviet system two years after its Afghan debacle ended, but Washington’s vast overspending on imperial ambitions since World War II – of which Iraq was one of the more egregious examples – has buried the American Dream for many millions of Americans.
When all the costs are finally tallied – including caring for wounded veterans – the price tag for the Iraq War will surely exceed $1 trillion. Yet, Iraq totters as a failed state, crippled in its ability to meet the basic needs of its people and torn by sectarian violence. The big strategic winner, as the US leaves, appears to be Iran with many of its Shiite allies now in top jobs in Iraq.
Plus, President George W. Bush’s premature pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2002-03 allowed the Afghan War to drag on inconclusively, now passing the decade mark and costing hundreds of billions of dollars more.
The human cost, too, has been sickening, with nearly 4,500 American soldiers killed in Iraq and more than 1,800 dead in Afghanistan. The untallied death tolls for Iraqis and Afghans are even grimmer, with estimates of their fatalities in the hundreds of thousands.
Yet, the history did not have to go this way. This disaster was not inevitable. It was a catastrophe of choice.
Even after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration had chances to negotiate with the Taliban government in Afghanistan for the capture of al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. And even if a peaceful resolution were not possible, the opportunities were there in late 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden when he was holed up in the Tora Bora mountain range.
Instead, the headstrong Bush and the ambitious neoconservatives who surrounded him lost focus on al-Qaeda and concentrated on the dream of “regime change” in Iraq, Syria and Iran – and then the isolation of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
Once the top names on Israel’s enemies list had been erased, the thinking went, the Palestinians and other nearby Arabs would have no choice but to accept peace terms dictated by Israeli hard-liners. And, the victorious Bush would stand astride the Middle East as a modern-day Alexander the Great, a “war president” of historic majesty. Hailing Bush The hubris – indeed the madness – of this plan may now be apparent to many, but a decade ago, this scheme of violently reshaping the Middle East was quite the rage in Washington. The major news media oohed and aahed over Bush and his famous “gut,” while the haughty neocons were the toast of the town.
When Bush’s war bandwagon rolled past – with the neocons at the controls – nearly everyone who mattered clambered onboard, from star Democratic senators like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to the brightest lights of the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and on and on.
Those of us who raised doubts about the legality or the practicality of this dangerous adventure were ostracized as pariahs, people to be ignored or ridiculed. We were the sorts who simply didn’t believe in “American exceptionalism.”
Much as the economic wizards of the last decade insisted that the old laws of economics had been banished by newfangled financial instruments, like credit default swaps, the neocon ideologues believed that America’s super-high-tech military machine was invulnerable to the crude roadside bombs that simple Arabs might be able to build.
That these parallel examples of arrogance – on Wall Street and in Washington – reached similarly destructive ends represents the core lesson of the Bush-43 era, a teaching moment that the neocons, the bankers and their various defenders in media and politics don’t want the average American to absorb.
As for the Iraq War – along with the final rush to the Kuwaiti border in December and the tearful reunions at American airports before Christmas – there will be endless efforts to explain away the debacle as some sort of vague success or at least a contributing factor in the unrelated uprisings of this year’s Arab Spring.
We will hear that the 4,500 US soldiers did not die in vain – and that to suggest otherwise is hurtful to the troops and their families.
But the painful reality is that they did die in vain. They died not for the protection of the American Republic or even for the security of the Homeland. They died for what the Nuremberg Tribunal deemed the “supreme international crime,” a war of aggression. They died for a destructive and crazy ideological vision.
The soldiers can be pitied for their pointless sacrifice. Without doubt, most were motivated by patriotism and a fierce determination to “do the job” assigned to them by the nation’s leaders. It is “the leaders” and their enablers who deserve the blame.
Yet, the final tragedy of the Iraq War – as with the Wall Street crash – is that the real perpetrators seem beyond the reach of law, accountability or even public humiliation.
George W. Bush sits in a place of honor at Texas Rangers games. Vice President Dick Cheney is hailed as an icon by the American Right. Except for a handful of low-level soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, no one has been punished for authorizing the torture of detainees.
The unabashed neoconservatives are still holding down lucrative think-tank jobs (and some key posts in the Obama administration). They regularly opine on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. They are recruited by leading Republican presidential candidates.
Mitt Romney entrusted neocons to write the “white paper” on his future foreign policy. Last month, Rick Perry joined with the neocons in berating Obama for deviating even slightly from the demands of Israel’s Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Mideast peace negotiations.
After Obama’s announcement on Friday, Romney took the neocon line in denouncing Obama for not negotiating an open-ended US military presence in Iraq. Romney said the President’s decision was driven either by “naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.”
Also in line with the neocon desire for permanent US military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Perry claimed that Obama had put “political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment” in agreeing to leave Iraq.
(Though the “status of forces agreement” that set the stage for US withdrawal was negotiated by Bush — as a way to keep US troops in Iraq after 2008 — his military advisers had expected that a new SOFA would be put in place before the 2011 deadline so a US military presence could continue.)
According to opinion polls, it also seems likely that the neocons will follow the victorious Republican nominee – whoever that is – back into the White House in 2013. Just as the Wall Street bankers landed on their feet, so too do the neocons.
Meanwhile, the handful in Official Washington who did question or criticize the Iraq invasion won few if any plaudits. The nature of the Establishment is to cast out anyone who deviates from the conventional wisdom, even if the person later turns out to be correct. Independent-minded skeptics are not viewed as having foresight or courage; they are deemed kooky and deviant.
At the major news organizations, virtually no one has been hired for getting the Iraq story right, while there has been almost zero accountability among the herd of leading pundits who were stampeded to war with falsehoods about Iraq’s WMD and lies about ties to al-Qaeda.
So, the battle over the next couple of months will be: how to interpret the catastrophe in Iraq. The neocons and the mainstream press will fight hard to make the defeat look like victory. To do otherwise, we’ll be told, would be to insult the troops who sacrificed so much.
But the greater danger is that the real lessons won’t be learned, that Americans will shield themselves from the ugly realities of what the war unleashed – and that the key perpetrators will be empowered again, in 2012, to do it all over.
[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there. consortiumnews.com