The greatest crime of the twenty-first century so far was the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Broadly conceived by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney immediately after 9/11, it initially lacked a coherent justification . But as Condoleezza Rice noted at the time, the tragedy brought “opportunities.” (People in fear can be persuaded to support things policy-makers long wanted, but couldn’t quite sell to the public.)
First Bush and Cheney (and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Rice) made the decision to go to war. Then they sat down and carefully invented the reasons for their war.
On Sept. 11, 2001 Bush asked his counterterrorism advisor Richard A. Clarke, who had warned him in early 2001 about an “immanent al-Qaeda threat” (warnings Clarke alleges Bush “ignored”) to produce a report blaming Iraq for the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
In his own account Clarke says: “I said, Mr. President. We’ve done this before.” (Meaning, we’ve explored the possibility of ties between Baghdad and al-Qaeda before.) “We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There is no connection.”
But Clarke’s recollection of the event continues:
“He came back at me and said, ’Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there’s a connection.’ And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer. We wrote a report. It was a serious look. We got together all the FBI experts, all the CIA experts. We wrote the report. We sent the report out to CIA and found FBI and said, ‘Will you sign this report?’ They all cleared the report. And we sent it up to the president and it got bounced by the National Security Advisor or Deputy. It got bounced and sent back saying, ‘Wrong answer. … Do it again.’”
Few policy decisions in modern history can rival the evil of that demand that the U.S. intelligence community deliberately contrive a false historical narrative, to justify a war that has destroyed a country and killed half a million people.
Meanwhile Secretary of “Defense” Donald Rumsfeld advocated—from day one—attacks on Iraq as a response to 9/11. Clarke has stated that he assumed Rumsfeld was joking when he first suggested, immediately after the event, that since Afghanistan had “no good targets” the U.S. should proceed to bomb the totally un-related country. But he soon learned that Rumsfeld and his staff headed by Paul Wolfowitz were in deadly earnest.
Three months after the 9/11 attacks, which as Clarke knew had nothing to do with Iraq, George W. Bush used his first State of the Union address to declare that Iraq belonged to an “axis of evil” including North Korea and Iran. It made no sense. It was, as the Iraqi vice president at the time observed, simply “stupid.” Iraq and Iran had fought a long bloody war, with the U.S. (under Bush’s father) actively aiding Iraq. The Baathists of Iraq and the Shiite mullahs of Iran were mortal enemies, and while Tehran had proper diplomatic and trade ties with North Korea as of 2002, Baghdad had broken off ties with Pyongyang to protest its support for Iran in the war.
In any other context, this reference to an “axis” between the three countries would have been merely hilarious, an embarrassing expression of George W. Bush’s astounding historical ignorance. (And you’d think a cause of shame to Yale University, which accorded him a BA in history in 1973 with a 2.35 GPA. 0ne reason European leaders privately faulted Bush during his tenure in office was his ignorance of history and evident lack of intellectual curiosity in general.)
But in early 2002, this vilification of Iraq signaled an intention to go to war. The neoconservatives surrounding Dick Cheney were assigned the task of building a case. The key bodies responsible for hoodwinking the masses were the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) under Bush’s senior political advisor Karl Rove (a master of deceit, as shown in the fine book by James Moore and Wayne Slater, Bush’s Brain, and the documentary film based upon it), and the Office for Special Plans (OSP), in the Pentagon, under neocon Douglas Feith, a close associate of Wolfowitz. (Wolfowitz was in theory the deputy of Rumsfeld. But he actually co-managed the department and devoted all his time after 9/11 to planning the Iraq war and occupation.) Through the thoroughly corrupted U.S. “free press”—the New York Times in particular—they circulated lies in the most efficient exercise in disinformation in modern history.
Day after day we read the wild headlines. Iraq had tried to import aluminum tubes for use as uranium centrifuges. Mobile biological weapons labs. Senior-level al-Qaeda contacts. An Iraqi Kurdish al-Qaeda group producing chemical weapons with Saddam’s support in northern Iraq. Plane hijacking lessons for al-Qaeda in Iraq. Drones to disperse chemical and biological weapons. Saddam’s ability to strike British forces in Cyprus on 45 minutes’ notice. Saddam’s supposed attempt to purchase uranium from Niger. All of it was lies.
(Recall how this last allegation was announced by Bush in his 2003 State of the Union speech; how it was immediately challenged by the IAEA, then headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, later to win the Nobel peace prize. Recall how the U.S. administration hated ElBaradei for not abetting their efforts to allege that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, and how the U.S. bugged his phone. Recall how U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, confronted with the IAEA’s conclusion that Bush had used forged documents to make a false charge against Iraq, shrugged it off as though it were no big deal.)
As revealed by the infamous “Downing Street memo,” as early as July 2002 the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) concluded that in the U.S. “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around policy.” In other words, Washington’s closest ally was aware that Bush administration officials were lying through their teeth to build support for the war against, and occupation of, Iraq.
On January 10, 2003, Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, told CNN that “there will always be some insecurity” about how quickly Saddam Hussein could obtain nuclear weapons. “But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” The terrifying image of a nuclear explosion over New York City was taken up by other war-mongers; the public was indeed successfully frightened. A Gallup poll showed 75% of those surveyed supported the assault on Iraq in March 2003.
The world did not. Outside the U.S., only Israeli polls showed mass approval. (But Israel and its chief advocates in the U.S.—including war architects Wolfowitz, Feith, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby, David Wurmser, Elliott Abrams, Adam Shulsky, John Bolton, etc.—did not foreground Israel’s Interests in the propaganda campaign. They did not want to draw attention to the fact that Israel was pressing for Saddam’s fall, or that the plan for “regime change” throughout the Middle East had been conceptualized by Perle, Feith and Wurmser—in their capacities as Israeli citizens— in a paper presented to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996. The concept, in a nutshell, was that rather than negotiating with Arab foes Israel should urge the U.S. to topple the regimes in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia replacing them with non-threatening governments..
Former NATO chief Gen. Wesley Clark has repeatedly recounted that weeks after 9/11 he was told by a—rather appalled—Pentagon colleague that the Bush administration had a “five year plan” to effect this region-wide transformation. Clark also noted in August 2002 that those favoring an attack on Iraq “will tell you, candidly and privately, that it is probably true that Saddam Hussein is no threat to the United States. But they are afraid that at some point he might decide if he had a nuclear weapon to use it against Israel.” The war on Iraq was motivated less by U.S. oil companies’ desire for Iraqi concessions—which have never substantially materialized— than by ideologues’ drive to remold the “Greater Middle East.”)
The U.N., which Cheney wanted to simply ignore but Powell thought had to be engaged to secure the planned war’s international support, refused to endorse it. Powell’s address to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003 was based entirely on lies. It was unconvincing. Powell had actually tossed an early draft of the neocon-authored speech into the air at a White House meeting. “I’m not reading this,” he exploded, “This is bullshit!”
But he did read it. Such is the morality of the career army officer who covered up the My Lai Massacre in 1968. His silence in retirement is the silence of shame (although he’s communicated his resentment of Cheney and the neocons, and how they used him, through statements by his former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson—who treats him as a victim). He knows he was used— and oh, so convenient—the first African-American secretary of state trotted out there to deliver the neocons’ lies.
The Powell UN speech, demanding global support for an attack on a threatening, al-Qaeda aligned Iraq, in fact bombed. But more than that, key U.S. allies—NATO heavies France and Germany among them—refused to get on board the program. This occasioned an amazing campaign of vilification of France, best symbolized by Congress’s decision to rename “French fries” “freedom fries” in the Congressional cafeteria. An asinine book trashing France as “our oldest enemy” became a best-seller.
Reason itself was under attack. Karl Rove, that master of disinformation, actually told Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004 that his colleagues at the White House referred to people like himself—critiques of the Bush administration and its wars—contemptuously as people “in what we call the reality-based community.”
Rove defined these as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’” Suskind according to his account “I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism.” But Rove cut him off.
‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he explained. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality— judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
In other words, “we” have—having gotten Congress to pass the (unread) PATRIOT Act in October 2001, which vastly augmented the power of the state; having invaded and occupied two countries and intimidated others into submission; having cowed the press and political opposition—the power to reconstruct the world on the basis of myth. This was not quite true, actually. The imperial project has met with setbacks, and journalistic exposés have not been entirely ineffective in undermining the “new reality.” But at that time, and even now, the ability of the rulers to shape the mentality of the ruled is quite extraordinary.
Fascism—the merger of state and corporate power—looms. Sure there is some variation within the corporate press; Fox and MSNBC back different political parties, that differ on such issues as gay marriage and abortion rights. But they march in lock step in supporting the State Department’s narrative on Ukraine (and in rejecting “discernible reality”, whether it involves the details of the Feb. 22 coup, and the plot to bring Ukraine into NATO; the rational fear of many Ukrainian citizens about the neo-fascist upsurge and racists’ influence in government; the details of the civil war and the limited Russian role in it—etc.
And the reports of virtually all U.S. telecommunications companies and social media networks cooperating with the National “Security” Agency to make available to mid-level NSA personnel at their whim details about all of our private lives without even bothering with the formality of a court subpoena—these confirm the merger of state and corporate power central to the fascist project.
Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, responding to a British reporter’s question in September 2004, matter-of-factly declared that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been “illegal.” “I have indicated that it was not in conformity with the UN charter,” he told the press. “From our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”
This was an understatement of course, made by a cautious man being monitored like all of us by the NSA. But the meaning was clear: the U.S. had committed the most heinous of crimes, a crime against peace. It was far worse than a madman’s mass murder in an elementary school, or a crazed fiend enslaving women in his basement. We’re talking at least half a million civilians dead due to the invasion, a modern nation murdered, dismembered. We’re taking two million internal refuges, and two million external refugees—one out of eight Iraqis. We’re talking about massive ethnic cleansing unthinkable in the Baathist era when mixed marriages and mixed communities were not even controversial. We’re talking about the flight of most of the Iraqi Christians, the plummeting status of women, the imposition of Shiite fundamentalist rules (or Sunni ones, in some places) on secular-minded people. An absolute disaster.
And no one in this country ever charged with a crime in connection with it! No accountability! When Obama calls the U.S. an “exceptional nation” he refers in part to the fact that it pointedly refuses to join the International Criminal Court. (153 countries have signed the Rome Statute that established the court. The U.S. and Israel refuse. Washington is happy when someone like Slobodan Milosevic is brought before it, but it wants its own nationals immune. It fears that—god forbid—someday U.S. soldiers might be tried before it for war crimes! And that would be just unacceptable.)
In July 2004 the U.S. Senate released its report on “pre-war intelligence” about Iraq, making clear that Iraq had had no weapons of mass destruction nor operational ties to al-Qaeda. It was a quiet admission that the war had been based on lies. But it also determined that the falsehoods merely constituted “intelligence errors” and that no laws had been broken in the construction of the case for war. One might say it was an invitation for future liars in government to make up stories as they see fit (about a Libyan leaders intention to commit genocide, or a Syrian leader’s use of chemical weapons, or an Iranian regime’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program, etc.), without having to worry about any consequences after the lies are exposed.
After his election in 2008, Barack Obama—the great reconciler, backed by Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Time Warner etc. because he seemed to be the man to mitigate the gathering storm clouds of absolute disgust among the people with the system itself, to draw the youth and angry blacks into harmless political participation firing them up with naïve expectations of “change” and “hope—made it immediately clear. He would not instruct his Justice Department to bother George W. Bush & Co. for anything they’d done. Remember that post-election video of him at the White House, his arm around Bush, thanking him for his service? Does it not make you feel sick?
So the whole rotten lot of them live comfortably, while Iraq bleeds uncontrollably. Bush appears these days occasionally, interviewed by Diane Sawyer or Jay Leno about his new painting avocation. The more voluble Cheney gets elder statesman treatment. There is no mass movement demanding their imprisonment. That is a national shame.
The fruition of the crimes of 2003 is the emergence of the Islamic State. No one can convincingly argue that this beast would have materialized without the U.S. destruction of the Iraqi state, and the forcible disbandment of its basic (secular) institutions including the army and the Baathist Party that alienated the Sunnis (and threw them out of work!).
The savagery of the U.S. forces produced immediate hatred. I wrote a CounterPunch column posted on April 29, 2003, just one month into the disastrous war, entitled “Shooting Schoolboys.” It was about the U.S. massacre of 13 kids, including an 11 year old, who’d had the audacity to throw stones (or a least one stone) at a schoolhouse in the city of Fallujah that had been commandeered by invading troops. (Now it appears 17 were killed and over 70 wounded.)
We all know what happened in Fallujah after that. In March 2004 four armed U.S. Blackwater contractors were killed by angry Iraqis. The U.S. responded with the aptly named “Operation Phantom Fury”. The city was almost entirely destroyed, its population massacred or dispersed. The U.S. made its point. It showed the people who was boss. It showed them the power of a cruelty rivaling anything so far manifested by ISIL. Among other things, there has been a fourfold increase in childhood cancer rates in Fallujah since 2004.
And since January 2014 Fallujah has been solidly in the hands of ISIL. Who’s responsible for that?
Saddam Hussein was a nasty character (and as you know—or maybe didn’t—a CIA asset from 1959 to 1990). And always, when confronted with historical details, when faced with their own lies, those responsible for those crimes say, “Well, we don’t need to apologize for toppling a dictator.” But the U.S. is always in bed with dictators—such as, for example, the Saudi and Bahraini monarchs, who rarely get bad press in the U.S. Why is that that only when a Shah or Marcos or Suharto or Mubarak is overthrown, after millions of people rise up, making it absolutely obvious that they have been despised for a long time—that the U.S. press observes (as a sort of parenthetical afterthought) that, well, after all, these guys were dictators?
Yes, Saddam used gas on Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War. He killed Shiite clerics whom he thought threatened his rule. He invaded and temporarily annexed Kuwait (thinking, foolishly, that his U.S. allies wouldn’t mind, since the U.S. ambassador had actually told him in July 1990 the U.S. “had no position” on Iraq’s conflict with Kuwait). But was he worse than George W. Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, who refused to give Saddam an out in December 1990, even though the Soviets and French both had brokered terms for an Iraqi withdrawal avoiding war, and insisted on going to war so he could vitiate Iraq’s powerful army?
In the first U.S. war on Iraq, the U.S. Air Force deliberately slaughtered absolutely helpless retreating Iraqi forces on the road from Kuwait City to Basra. For them the liquidation of defenseless conscript teenagers was part of a geopolitical strategy (centrally involving the enhancement Israel’s position in the region).
Talk about terrorism. This episode in 1991 was not followed up by an outright invasion of Iraq (although some in the first Bush administration, including then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, were urging it); the president thought it would be unwise. But it was followed by a sanctions regime that Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged killed half a million Iraqi kids (and was “worth it”). Bill Clinton renewed the assault in 1998, between his attacks on the former Yugoslavia (in 1995 and 1999) and as he pursued NATO expansion. Bush II’s war on Iraq (and the world) beginning in 2003 was part of a hideous continuum spanning three administrations.
Republican presidents, Democratic presidents. All on the same page when it comes to maintaining what Wolfowitz termed “full-spectrum dominance” in the post-Cold War world. Now as it all falls apart—as ISIL expands its “caliphate,” as the Syrian Baathists hold out against both U.S.-backed and other Islamists, as Iran gains respect as a serious negotiator in the Geneva talks, as China rises, as Russia thwarts NATO expansion, as U.S.-Israeli ties fray, as a multi-polar world inevitably emerges— what triumphs can the neocons claim?
Once flushed with history, proclaiming the “end of history” with the triumph of capitalist imperialism over Marxist socialism and other competing ideologies, they have only a handful of successes they can claim.
* They have successfully avoided prison. They calculated that they could mislead the people and commit the gravest possible crimes with impunity, under the U.S. system. Wolfowitz was nominated by Bush to become World Bank president in 2005, and held the post two years before departing amidst a scandal. Feith sashayed out of office the same year, hired at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service (despite opposition from the more principled faculty). They serve as news consultants and live comfortable lives.
* They have left behind in positions of power and influence fellow neocons (most notably, Victoria Nuland, architect of the Ukraine disaster) and neocon allies, “liberal internationalists” like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as an assortment of dear friends who simply love war, such as Sen. John McCain. Some are describing Obama’s renewed bombing of Iraq, and the strikes on Syrian targets, as a new “neocon moment.” It must give them great pleasure.
* Perhaps most importantly: Iraq, although (or because) it has been absolutely destroyed as a modern state by U.S. fury, is no longer a threat to Israel.
Oilmen Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush (and Rice who has an oil tanker named after her) lusted after oil profits. They lusted too for an expansion of U.S. military power in the “Greater Middle East.” They were less concerned with Israel. But Israel’s survival as a specifically “Jewish” state, with a subject Arab population that must never become demographically threatening—and blow the whole Zionist project by forcing a one-state multi-ethnic solution—is the central neocon concern. They will not say this, of course; Leo Strauss students like Wolfowitz and Shulsky believe in the need for deception to get things done. But this was the minimal objective of the neocons’ response to 9/11: to use the event to advantage Israel.
Recall how, in late 2003, as it became embarrassingly evident that Iraq had had no weapons of mass destruction, Wolfowitz in Iraq tried to change the subject entirely. Who cares about weapons of mass destruction? he told a reporter. The Iraqi people want to reconstruct their country, he declared (as though the question of the war’s legitimacy was an irrelevant detail). Having acknowledged some “intelligence flaws” (attributing them to the CIA, rather than to themselves—despite what we know of the unprecedented Cheney-Libby visits to the Pentagon to browbeat the intelligence professionals to include their bullshit into official reports), Cheney and his neocon camp changed the subject.
The real issue, they now averred, was creating “democracy” in the Middle East. Condi Rice happily connived with this strategy, arguing dramatically that it was as wrong to deny people in the Middle East their freedom as it had been to deny black people in her home of Birmingham, Alabama their right to vote. Suddenly special diplomats were dispatched to Arab countries to lecture skeptical, sometimes glowering audiences on the advantages of the U.S. political system.
Under great pressure, some Arab countries somewhat expanded their parliamentary processes. The effort backfired as Islamists were elected in Egypt, Hizbollah made advances in Lebanon, and Hamas won a majority in the first free Palestinian election (in 2006). The “terrorists” were winning elections! The State Department denounced such results and has since shut up about “democracy” in the Middle East.
No, it wasn’t about the announced reasons: weapons of mass destruction, or al-Qaeda ties. Nor was it about U.S. Big Oil (which hasn’t profited from the Iraq War, the big contracts going to China and Russia). Nor was it about permanent military bases; the Iraqis have successfully rejected them. What does that leave us with?
A war pushed by the neocons to destroy a foe of Israel. It succeeded, surely, but only to produce a vicious Sunni successor state in Anbar Province potentially far more threatening to Israel than Saddam ever was.
But Binyamin Netanyahu doesn’t see it that way. He has repeatedly dubbed Iran as a greater threat than ISIL. Having predicted since 1992 that Iran is close to developing a nuclear bomb; having repeatedly demanded (echoed by prominent U.S. neocons such as Norman Podhoretz) that the U.S. bomb Iran (to prevent a “nuclear holocaust”); having angrily dismissed U.S. intelligence assessments that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, Netanyahu wants Obama to focus on destroying the Iranian regime.
That Shiite-dominated regime, as you know, however repressive it might be, allows Iranian Jews (the largest community of Jews in the Middle East outside Israel) to go to their synagogues, attend Hebrew schools, maintain their kosher shops and elect a Jewish representative to the parliament. Just like it allows Sunni Muslims, Christians and Zoroastrians limited religious freedom. It is a model of civilization compared to the Islamic State.
But, just as Victoria Nuland (a Jewish American neoconservative and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, a protégé of both Cheney and Hillary Clinton) is less concerned with the rise of Ukraine’s anti-Semitic Svoboda Party and Right Sector than the achievement of U.S. objectives in Ukraine including its incorporation into NATO, Netanyahu is less concerned with the rise of the ferociously anti-Semitic ISIL than the attainment of his long held goal: the downfall of Iran.
They talk about the defense of world Jewry. And when criticized, they howl about the imagined anti-Semitism of their critics. In fact they, along with the planners of the Iraq War and the campaign of lies surrounding it, are Israel-firsters determined to use U.S. power to crush anyone challenging Israel in the Middle East. If that means what Rumsfeld called “creative chaos,” they’re fine with it.
Again: they have succeeded. They’re not in prison, they have friends still in power, and they have destroyed the Iraqi state on behalf of Israel. Will they attain their next goal, and using their press and awesomely powerful lobby, sabotage a nuclear deal with Iran? I would not take any bets.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org