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Iraq: No Lessons Learned

With the date for US forces to be fully withdrawn from Iraq fast approaching, it is important to remind ourselves how we got into that long and deadly war in the first place, to recognise that this conflict is far from over, and to hold accountable those responsible for the horrors they created during the past eight years.

In a word, the road to Baghdad was paved with “lies”. I don’t just mean the fictions of “weapons of mass destruction” or of “Saddam’s connection with Al-Qaeda” that were used by the Bush administration to justify their case for war. In both instances, the White House and its minions throughout the government worked overtime, relying on embellishment, distortion and outright fabrication to make their arguments for war. What they did in manufacturing and marketing these lies was wrong, both morally and legally.

More insidious still, were the subtle and seductive lies that were used along the way to war. These were the lies that led too many Americans, including much of the mainstream media, to conclude, in the words of one Bush apologist, that the war would be “a cakewalk”.

When pressed by Congress or the public for answers, administration officials and their supporters would argue that the war would last but a week; that it would require less than 100,000 US troops who would only need to stay in Iraq for six months; that the entire effort would only cost the US Treasury about $2 billion; that Americans would be greeted in Baghdad as liberators with flowers in the street; and that with the dictator gone, Iraq would become a “beacon of democracy” lighting up the entire Middle East.

Moved by the exaggerated “threat”, and lured by the supposed “relative ease” of the war and its expected apocalyptic outcome, America went marching off to Iraq. Those who attempted to remind then-secretary of state Colin Powell of his “Powell Doctrine”, or who questioned the wisdom of going to war in a country about whose history and culture and people we knew too little, were silenced. No one in government, back then, wanted to hear of “unintended consequences” or projections of anything less than a positive outcome.

Eight years later, we leave Iraq with thousands of Americans dead; hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives lost; millions driven into exile; and a trillion dollars spent. The politics of Iraq can be described as fragile, at best, with the country remaining a sectarian/ethnic tinderbox that can explode in an instant, with the added danger of dragging the neighbourhood into a broader conflict. And to all of this must be added the damage done to America’s standing in the region and the world resulting from the recklessness of the war, and its excesses and abuses. US troops will leave, but the scars of this conflict and its still open wounds will remain.

This must be recalled because these “sins of the past” have neither been acknowledged nor have those who committed them been held accountable for their actions. Equally important are lessons we should have learned from the fabrications created and the disasters that have resulted from ignoring reality.

Listening to the current overheated rhetoric in vogue today in US political discussions about what should be done to confront Iran and Syria, it appears that lessons have not been learned. Those who cavalierly argue for a US military response in either country all too often ignore the consequences of such actions.

With the same crowd who lied and seduced us into our eight year disaster in Iraq now spread out amongst the Republican candidates for president, serving as their foreign policy or national security advisers, their dangerous arguments can be heard once again. When they chide the president for not being more aggressive in taking the lead against the brutal regime in Syria, proposing military action, or when they flippantly suggest that the US should support an Israeli military strike against Iran (or that we should do it ourselves) it is as if nothing has been understood from the tragic disaster of the immediate past.

One main reason for this sorry state of affairs is our lack of accountability. Because we have not — and it appears will not — “call on the carpet” those who justified torture, fabricated the case for war in Iraq, and sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women into a country we did not know in order to engage in a conflict with no good end in sight, this same cast of characters are still polluting the policy debate. From their lofty perches at universities, “think tanks” and as advisers to candidates for higher office, they are recognised as “experts”, calling for more wars that will only make a bigger mess, while the mess they created has still not been cleaned up.

It makes sense to us when we hear Arab Spring protesters in Tunisia and Egypt demanding that those who were complicit in the crimes of the past governments in which they served should be called to account for their misdeeds or, at the very least, should be excluded from future leadership roles. It makes sense that we apply the same measure of accountability here at home. This is not, as some will suggest, anti-democratic or an effort to “weed out” and exclude those with differing points of view. It is rather a call for us to apply the profoundly democratic principles of transparency and accountability to our politics. Those who abused the public’s trust and who lied us into a war that took so many lives and cost us all so dearly should be called to account for what they have done. To let them “off the hook” is both wrong and dangerous.

James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.

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