How Washington Lost Its Moral Compass in Iraq
By Juan COLE
Who remembers anymore that, in 2003, we were Vladimir Putin? Today, our cable and social-media news feeds are blanketed with denunciations of the president of the Russian Federation for his lawless and brutal invasion of Ukraine. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken met briefly with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in New Delhi on March 2nd, he told him in no uncertain terms, “End this war of aggression.”
Putin himself, however, has a longer memory. In the speech that launched his “special operation,” he pointedly denounced the U.S. for “the invasion of Iraq without any legal grounds.” Then he added, “We witnessed lies made at the highest state level and voiced from the high U.N. rostrum. As a result, we see a tremendous loss in human life, damage, destruction, and a colossal upsurge of terrorism.”
Yes, it’s true, on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, that war is long forgotten here. No one in the Biden administration today cares that it ruined what credibility America had as a pillar of international order in the global south and gave Putin cover for his own atrocity. So, sit back for a moment and let me take you on a little trip into a long-lost all-American world.
On May 1, 2003, arrayed in Top Gun gear, President George W. Bush sat in the co-pilot’s seat of a fighter jet and was flown to the USS Abraham Lincoln, the aircraft carrier then stationed just off the coast of San Diego. No rationale drove this high-priced jaunt save the visuals his propaganda team hoped to generate.
Then, from that ship’s deck beneath a banner that proclaimed, “Mission Accomplished,” he made a televised speech about the invasion of Iraq he had ordered less than two months earlier. Bush proudly announced that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Of course, neither assertion would prove faintly true. In fact, some 2,500 U.S. troops are still stationed in Iraq to this day, aiding in the fight against leaders of that country’s former Baath Party government who have now become fundamentalist guerrillas. And keep in mind that those troops remain there even though the Iraqi parliament has asked them to leave.
The rest of Bush’s speech deserves more infamy than it’s attained. The president declared, “Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians.” Dream on, but of course Bush gave that “Mission Accomplished” speech to whitewash a war of aggression as a routine instrument of presidential policy. Describing the ramshackle, fourth-world country of Iraq then as “dangerous” and “aggressive” was as hyperbolic as Putin’s categorization of Volodomyr Zelenksy’s Ukraine as a “Nazi” state.
Note, however, that one phrase was missing from Bush’s Napoleonic screed about forcibly spreading “democracy” and “freedom” with that new tool, “precision warfare,” and that was, of course, “international law.” At the Nuremberg trials after World War II, the International Military Tribunal had observed,
“War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
And, of course, the United Nations charter forbids military aggression. It allows war only in self-defense or if the Security Council authorizes it.
On the deck of that aircraft carrier, however, Bush had the nerve to say: “When Iraqi civilians looked into the faces of our servicemen and women, they saw strength and kindness and goodwill.”
In fact, Iraqis had spent a significant part of the twentieth century trying to get British colonialists out of their country and it was hardly surprising that, in 2003, so many of them didn’t see such virtues in the forces that had invaded their land. The U.S. military personnel on the ground I talked to, then or later, often spoke of the sullen, angry gazes of the Iraqis they encountered. One acquaintance of mine, Lieutenant Kylan Jones-Huffman, sent me a message that very summer in which he described sitting in the back of a troop transport with other American forces on a road in southern Iraq and being passed by a truckload of armed Iraqis. One of them squinted sourly at them and lifted his rifle menacingly. Kylan said he just patted his M1 rifle, returning the threat.
A Navy reservist and Middle East specialist, he planned on a post-military academic career, having completed a Ph.D. in history. Insightful and easy-going, a crafter of exquisite haiku poetry, Kylan promised to be an exciting colleague for me. He told me he was being sent from Bahrain to brief the military brass in the city of Hillah in southern Iraq. On the evening of August 21, 2003, as I was watching CNN, on the scroll at the bottom of the screen I noticed an American had been shot dead in Hillah and that left me uneasy. The next day I learned that Kylan had indeed been the victim, killed by a young Iraqi as he waited in a jeep at an intersection. It was an elbow to the gut that left me in tears — and it still hurts to tell the story.
He was, in fact, one of more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel to die in Iraq, Afghanistan, or other “War on Terror” locales, along with 8,000 Pentagon contractors. And that’s not even to mention the more than 30,000 veterans of those conflicts who later committed suicide. One of them took my class on the modern Middle East at the University of Michigan. Well-informed and good-natured, he nevertheless couldn’t survive to the end of the semester, given whatever demons his experiences over there had burdened him with. In fact, for those still thinking about Iraq, the gut-punches of that war never stop.
And don’t forget the more than 53,000 American military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan who were injured badly enough in battle to end up in a hospital. About 10% of them had wounds on an injury severity scale of nine or greater, suffering, according to one National Institutes of Health study, from horrors that included traumatic brain damage, open wounds, chronic blood-clotting, and burns.
And all of that was nothing compared to what the U.S. military did to Iraqis.
It should come as no surprise that President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and the other architects of one of America’s biggest foreign-policy fiascos in its 246 years of existence could support the bald-faced lie that they had invented a new kind of warfare that didn’t produce significant civilian deaths or casualties. Mind you, they also told serial whoppers about Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent ties to the al-Qaeda terror group and his supposedly active biological and nuclear weapons programs.
Contrary to President Bush’s glib assertions, the death toll in Iraq only burgeoned as the fighting went on. American planes routinely struck targets in densely populated Iraqi cities. Some American troops committed massacres, as did Blackwater mercenaries working for the U.S. military. During the civil war of 2006-2007 that emerged from the American occupation of the country, the Baghdad police had to establish a regular corpse patrol dispatched at the beginning of each workday to load up carts with human remains tossed in the streets overnight by rival sectarian militias.
In the years just after the Bush invasion, one Iraqi widow from the southern port city of Basra told me that her family barely avoided being attacked by members of a destitute, displaced Marsh Arab tribe then running a protection racket in the city. The family’s escape cost them all the cash they had on hand and required them to provide a feast for the tribesmen. Determined to try to improve the situation, the man of the household ran for public office. One day, he had just gotten into his car to go campaigning when a masked assailant suddenly appeared and shot him point blank in the head. His tearful widow told me that she could never get over the sight. And such events were hardly uncommon then.
By the time the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the terrorist cult that emerged from the U.S. occupation of the country, finally went down to defeat in 2019, Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that some 300,000 Iraqis had died “from direct war-related violence caused by the U.S., its allies, the Iraqi military and police, and opposition forces.” Several times that number were wounded or crippled. Hundreds of thousands of widows lost their family breadwinners and some of them were reduced to a lifetime as beggars. Even larger numbers of children lost one or both parents. And keep in mind that such figures don’t include Iraqis who died from indirect but war-related causes like the breakdown of the provision of potable water and electricity thanks to U.S. bombing raids and damage to the country’s infrastructure.
The American Example in Iraq
In the first phase of the war, during the Bush years, four million Iraqis were displaced, some 1.5 million leaving the country and the rest internally. Many could never return home. One evening in the summer of 2008, while interviewing Iraqi refugees in Amman, Jordan, I had dinner with a professional couple, an architect and a physician. I mentioned that the worst of the civil war seemed to be over and asked if they planned to return to Baghdad. The man was a Sunni, his wife a Shiite. She explained that their home had been in an upscale Shiite district and they feared returning since so many neighborhoods had been ethnically cleansed of the rival sect.
Another man — call him “Mustafa” — was then in exile in the slums of East Amman. The members of his Sunni Iraqi family, denied work permits, were living off their dwindling savings. His wife was thinking of taking in sewing to make ends meet. Mustafa explained that he had gotten an envelope in the mailbox of his old Baghdad apartment from a militant Shiite militia, saying that if he and his family were still there in 24 hours, they would be dead. So, he and his wife had immediately packed everything they could fit into their car, awakened the children, and driven the nine hours to Amman. Mustafa hesitated. He looked around and lowered his voice. He had, he said, gotten threatening mail even in Jordan and moved to another apartment. The militia still had its eyes on him and had likely penetrated the expatriate Iraqi community. So, no, he and his wife couldn’t, he assured me, go home to Baghdad.
Under the Americans, there was no security for anyone. Two decades ago, Bush appointees dissolved the old Iraqi army and failed to train an effective new one or institute professional policing. I visited Baghdad in May 2013 during the interregnum between the two American campaigns in Iraq, to attend an international conference. We were taken by our kind Iraqi hosts to the National Museum and out to nice restaurants. To do so, however, we had to pile into white vans surrounded by Iraqi army vehicles, which strong-armed all the other traffic out of the way and ensured that our convoy never came to a standstill and so wouldn’t be the target of an ambush.
Bush’s disastrous war of aggression was a gift that just keeps giving. The disruption of Iraqi society and its government by that invasion ultimately paved the way for ISIL to take over 40% of that country’s territory in 2014. Six million Iraqis fled the brutal cultists and a million and a half of them are still displaced. Some fled to Turkey, where their lives were only recently devastated by the February 2023 earthquakes.
Today, the coffers of the Iraqi state treasury are empty, even though the country should have earned $500 billion in oil revenues since 2003. Corruption and inefficiency have become a hallmark of the new order. The unstable government installed by the U.S., dominated by Shiite religious parties, has gone through three prime ministers since 2018. Journalist Jonah Goldberg’s confidence that Iraqis would come to love the new constitution crafted under American rule in 2005 was woefully misplaced. He exemplified the pro-war intellectuals who insisted that their right-wing politics endowed them with superior judgment when it came to a country about which they, in fact, knew next to nothing.
In Iraq itself in recent years, young crowds have repeatedly gone into the streets to demand that the government once again provide basic services. The current prime minister, Mohammad Shia al-Sudani, is close to the Iran-backed militias that now play an outsized role in Iraqi politics. If anyone won the Iraq War, in fact, it was Iran.
Economists had estimated that the cost of the Iraq War to the United States, once you added in care for wounded veterans for the rest of their lives, had already reached $6 trillion even before the ISIL campaign of 2014-2019. Without the sums squandered in Iraq, our national debt would still be below our annual gross national product, putting us in a much more favorable economic position in 2023. As in today’s Russia, in the zeros of this century a war mentality fostered a fierce intolerance of dissent and of difference on the right, which is still unfolding.
One of the mantras of the U.S. government today, facing Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, is the championing of “the United Nations Charter” and a “rules-based international order.” That stands in contrast, of course, to what Washington now sees as the true international outlaw on Planet Earth, Putin’s Russian Federation. The Russian economy has been treated as the Iranian one was, subjected to relentless sanctions and boycotts. A Senate resolution sponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called on the International Criminal Court, the authority of which the U.S. doesn’t even recognize, to put Russian officials on trial for war crimes.
Graham was one of the chief cheerleaders of the equally illegal Iraq War. Hypocrisy on such a scale is hardly impressive for a country still seeking to be the global power on this planet. In retrospect, on the 20th anniversary of the nightmarish decision to invade Iraq, we’ve lost more than our credibility in the Global South or a true commitment to international law. As a country, we lost our moral compass and now, amid Russian crimes in Ukraine, it seems that we have also lost all memory of the path we paved and the example we set in Iraq, as well as the crimes that went with it.