With the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion coming up next month, we can expect a surge of explanations for what made that catastrophe possible. An axiom from Orwell — “who controls the past controls the future” — underscores the importance of such narratives.
I encountered a disturbing version last week while debating Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Largely, Wilkerson blamed deplorable war policies on a “bubble” that surrounds top officials. That’s not just faulty history; it also offers us very misleading guidance in the present day.
During our debate on Democracy Now, Wilkerson said: “What’s happening with drone strikes around the world right now is, in my opinion, as bad a development as many of the things we now condemn so readily, with 20/20 hindsight, in the George W. Bush administration. We are creating more enemies than we’re killing. We are doing things that violate international law. We are even killing American citizens without due process…”
But why does this happen?
“These things are happening because of that bubble that you just described,” Colonel Wilkerson told host Amy Goodman. “You can’t get through that bubble” to top foreign-policy officials, “penetrate that bubble and say, ‘Do you understand what you’re doing, both to American civil liberties and to the rest of the world’s appreciation of America, with these increased drone strikes that seem to have an endless vista for future?’”
Wilkerson went on: “This is incredible. And yet, I know how these things happen. I know how these bubbles create themselves around the president and cease and stop any kind of information getting through that would alleviate or change the situation, make the discussion more fundamental about what we’re doing in the world.”
Such a “bubble” narrative encourages people to believe that reaching the powerful war-makers with information and moral suasion is key — perhaps the key — to ending terrible policies. This storyline lets those war-makers off the hook — for the past, present and future.
Hours after my debate with Wilkerson, I received an email from Fernando Andres Torres, a California-based journalist and former political prisoner in Chile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Referring to Wilkerson as “that bubble guy,” the email said: “Who they think they are? No accountability? Or do they think the government bubble gives them immunity for all the atrocities they commit? Not in the people’s memory.”
Later in the day, Torres sent me another note: “Not sure if we can call it a bubble, ’cause a bubble is easy to break; they were in a lead bunker from where the bloody consequences of their action can pass unnoticed.”
Wilkerson’s use of the bubble concept is “a tautology, a contradiction implicit,” wrote the co-editor of DissidentVoice.org, Kim Petersen, in an article analyzing the debate. “Often people escape culpability through being outside the loop. After all, how can one be blamed for what one does not know because one was not privy to the information. Can one credibly twist this situation as a defense? Wilkerson and other Bush administration officials were in the loop — privy to information that other people are denied — and yet Wilkerson, in a strong sense, claims to be a victim of being in a bubble.”
In that case, the onus is shared by those inside and outside the bubble. Wilkerson said as much when I mentioned that a decade ago, during many months before the invasion, my colleagues and I at the Institute for Public Accuracy helped to document — with large numbers of news releases and public reports — that the Bush administration’s claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were full of holes.
From there, our debate swiftly went down a rabbit hole, as Wilkerson took me to task for not getting through the bubble that surrounded him as chief of staff for Secretary of State Powell. “I didn’t see a single one of your reports,” Wilkerson said. “So, nobody called me from your group. Nobody tried to get in — nobody tried to get into my office and talk to me from your group. Other groups did, but your group never got into my office, never called me on the phone — never talked to me. Other groups did. Why didn’t you?… You didn’t call… You didn’t call… You did not call.”
Non-apology apologies have been a forte of former impresarios of the Iraq war. It speaks volumes that Col. Wilkerson has been more apologetic than most of them. The scarcity of genuine public remorse is in sync with the absence of legal accountability or political culpability.
The partway apologies are tethered to notable narcissism. It’s still mainly about them, the seasoned ones who have worked in top echelons of government, whose self-focus is enduring. At the same time, scarcely a whisper can be heard about renouncing the prerogative to launch aggressive war.
So, when faced with occasional media questions about Powell’s WMD speech to the U.N. Security Council six weeks before the Iraq invasion, both Wilkerson and Powell routinely revert to the same careful phrasing about their own life sagas. Interviewed by CNN in 2005, after his three years as Secretary of State Powell’s chief of staff, Wilkerson described his key role in preparing that speech as “the lowest point in my life.” Last week, in our debate, he called the U.N. presentation “the lowest point in my professional and personal life.”
As for Colin Powell, guess what? That U.N. speech was “a low point in my otherwise remarkable career,” he told AARP’s magazine in 2006. Yet the U.N. speech gave powerful propaganda support for the invasion that began the Iraq war — a war that was also part of Powell’s “otherwise remarkable career.”
So, too, a dozen years earlier, was the Gulf War that Powell presided over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in early 1991. On the same day that the Associated Press cited estimates from Pentagon sources that the six-week war had killed 100,000 Iraqi people, Powell told an interviewer: “It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in.”
The illustrious and sturdy bow on the entire political package is immunity — a reassuring comfort to retired and present war leaders alike. Former Bush officials and current Obama officials have scant reason to worry that their conduct of war might one day put them in a courtroom dock. They’ve turned their noses up at international law, lowered curtains on transparency and put some precious civil liberties in a garbage compactor with the president’s hand on the switch.
Normalizing silence and complicity is essential fuel for endless war. With top officials relying on their own exculpatory status, a grim feedback loop keeps spinning as the increasingly powerful warfare state runs roughshod over the principle of consent of the governed. Top officials dodge responsibility — and pay no penalty — for lying the country into, and into continuing, horrendous wars and other interventions.
Without an honest reckoning of what did and didn’t happen in the lead-up to the Iraq war, a pernicious message comes across from Wilkerson, Powell and many others: of course we stuck it out and followed orders, we had private doubts but fulfilled our responsibilities to maintain public support for the war.
It’s a kind of role modeling that further corrodes the political zeitgeist. The upshot is that people at the top of the U.S. government — whether in 2003 or 2013 — have nothing to lose by going along with the program for war. In a word: impunity.