Praising Iraq War, Obama Faces Another “Dumb War” Over Crimea

What I am opposed to is a dumb war.
What I am opposed to is a rash war.
What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

Barack Obama said that at an anti-war rally in Chicago on October 2, 2002, when he was still an Illinois state senator. Obama told the gathering that he favored going after al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but opposed going to war to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Reading that 2002 speech more than eleven years later creates some dissonance: what happened to that guy who was challenging President Bush to finish the fight with bin Laden, to shut down banks that handle terrorists’ funding, to let the U.N. do its work in Iraq, to safeguard nuclear weapons material around the world, to push countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to stop oppressing their own people, to control American arms merchants, to have “an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil,” to fight against ignorance and intolerance, corruption and greed, poverty and despair.

It’s all in that speech, and more. What happened to that guy? He got elected and he inherited Bush’s wars, and he chose not to act on the near-certainty that the Iraq War had been illegal and its perpetrators war criminals. There’s a clue at the end of that Chicago protest speech where, as an outsider, he seeks to prevent a war in which Americans would die and “make such an awful sacrifice in vain.” Now, with 4,486 Americans dead and probably more than a million Iraqi civilians dead, with more dying almost daily from the murderous liberation Americans inflicted on a once stable, prosperous, educated, ancient country just because its dictator “tried to kill my dad” – what president contemplating all that blood and loss would want to tell his fellow citizens that their sons and daughters died in vain, died for the vanity of a handful of war criminals and profiteers?

That’s part of what makes us special as Americans. Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it’s right. There can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people. That says something about who we are.

By late 2011, when he offered that re-assessment of the Iraq War (and implied that we’re a “new” empire), Barack Obama was a president facing re-election and trying to wind the Iraq War down and out and irrelevant as a campaign issue and a sure way NOT to do that would be to tell the country the truth, that the Iraq War had been a disaster from beginning to end, probably, although the end was nowhere near in sight then any more than it is now, but at least we were getting American troops out of harm’s way, away from the harm American policy had unleashed and exacerbated. He knew we didn’t do it because it was right, he’d already said we did it for the ideological agendas of weekend warriors.

Addressing those troops at Fort Bragg, NC, on December 14, 2011, President Obama wasn’t about to cop to the blood on American hands, even if the actual killers in the field were only following orders that most of them probably believed in, at least at the start. Why wouldn’t they prefer to be praised for a selfless mission of mercy rather than confront their own complicity in their nation’s guilt? It is very strange to watch a president embracing a criminal war and all the war crimes it precipitated, especially since he predicted such a result.

For Americans, the Iraq war is still all about us, our heroes, our dead. That may not make us special as Americans, but it’s a familiar-enough mode of cultural self-delusion. We do it because it’s right, or because we believe it’s right or we don’t understand it or we don’t have a choice or we don’t want to admit we were blatantly lied to and chose to believe the lies rather than think for ourselves. Who wants to deal with anything like that?

It’s easier, if not better, to believe another lie, that “there can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people.” Well, to the people who are left at each other’s throats, unless they’re among the Iraqi diaspora of five million, more or less. Being driven from your homeland counts as a kind of self-determination, right?

Iraqi self-determination has been little more than a chimera since the Americans invaded, disbanded the Iraqi army, left government buildings open to looters (except the oil ministry), and allowed chaos to find its own way in the midst of a military occupation. The result of a decade of this kind of self-determination has now brought Iraq a corrupt government drifting toward dictatorship.

Don’t even mention self-determination to the Kurds.

The Americans left Iraq in December 2011 and corporate media played along with the American political charade, calling it the “end of the war,” which it absolutely was not for anyone left behind in Iraq.

“That says something about who we are,” as the president said from deep inside the American rabbit hole of patriotism-like doublethink.

“Russia has pointed to America’s decision to go into Iraq as an example of Western hypocrisy. Now, it is true….”

That’s part of what the President said in his much-maligned speech in Brussels on March 26, 2014, and if he’d ended this section at that point he might have limited the blowback he provoked with what followed. Someone devoted to precision might have pointed out that the hypocrisy wasn’t all that “Western” except for America (165,000 troops) and Britain (46,000 troops, out by May 2011). Other than South Korea (3,600 troops, out by December 2008) and Australia (2,000 troops, out by July 2009), most of the other members of the “coalition of the willing” joined as the result of incentives or political coercion, and few of them contributed more than a few hundred troops, often non-combat troops, almost all of whom were out by 2008. Fifteen countries participated covertly, according to the U.S. State Dept., but that’s a different kind of hypocrisy.

Other members of this “Western” alliance included Japan (600 troops), Bulgaria (485), Singapore (175, offshore), Nicaragua (230), Mongolia (180), Georgia (2,000), Kazakhstan (29), and Ukraine (1,650).

In reality, the Iraq War was pretty much dependent on Anglo-American hypocrisy, and deceit. Russia would be well-served to be clear about that.

Russia has pointed to America’s decision to go into Iraq as an example of Western hypocrisy. Now, it is true that the Iraq war was a subject of vigorous debate, not just around the world but in the United States, as well. I participated in that debate, and I opposed our military intervention there.

Again, if President Obama had stopped here on March 26, 2014, in Brussels, the reactions might have been kinder. Obama had indeed opposed the war, albeit with a rhetorical off ramp about what a terrible person Saddam Hussein was. After he was in the Senate in 2005, Obama no longer opposed the Iraq War outright. He consistently voted for off-budget war funding without much expressed concern for deficit or national debt (to which the war added $3 trillion and still growing). Not until May 2007, when it took no political courage, did Obama (and Hillary Clinton) vote against funding the illegal Iraq War.

So the reality is that Obama opposed the Iraq War before he supported it, which was before he opposed it again, with less clarity or passion than his original opposition.

But the President didn’t stop there, either, on March 26 in Brussels, when he had already defined the Crimea situation as “a moment of testing for Europe and the United States and for the international order that we have worked for generations to build.” With that kind of rhetoric early in the speech, he could have been leading up to a call for war.

Even when he said: “What we will do always is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty, to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies. And in that promise we will never waver… every NATO member state must step up and carry its share of the burden” – he still wasn’t making a call to war.

But he was making a disingenuous call to support the Ukrainian national government in Kiev as if it was a legitimate government. That bit of Western hypocrisy was needed to obscure the reality that the Kiev government came to power in a wholly undemocratic putsch. And it was a putsch in which many Western hypocrites were quite involved, so best to finesse it.

And a call for something other than war was pretty much the way to go, which the President did: “I believe that for both Ukraine and Russia, a stable peace will come through de-escalation, a direct dialogue between Russia and the government of Ukraine and the international community, monitors who can ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, a process of constitutional reform within Ukraine and free and fair elections this spring.”

Since a “stable peace” actually exists right now (an “unstable peace” is an oxymoron), there’s a veiled threat and a veiled promise in the President’s deployment of the term, since it suggests that both sides should back off and live with the status quo. In others words, so much for Crimea. You could call it giving Putin the Bush-Cheney treatment, although Putin is getting away with a lot less murder.

But that’s not something a President wants to say out loud and clear, and so he soon arrived at the distraction of the Iraq War, which he opposed, supported, opposed, and ended in disarray.

But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.

Well, that’s red meat to anyone who cares about logic, principle, or reality, and one would likely assume that President Obama was well aware of how preposterous his assertions were. But it also served as an opportunity to reinforce popular denial of the Iraq debacle by projecting a kind of wish fulfillment onto Ukraine, before it, too, spirals into chaos. One can hope. And the internal tensions and contradictions of Ukraine may be just enough less severe than Iraq’s to make the possibility plausible. Any bets?

As others have noted, seeking “to work within the international system” and having the international system tell you NO, doesn’t mean you get to go ahead and do what you want anyway – unless you’re some sort of superpower to whom NO has no meaning, which does sound a little hypocritical. The President implied that just the minimal effort within the legal system makes it OK to launch a criminal war.

To assert that “We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory” is to ignore the reality that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, lodged in a former Iraqi palace, is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world and is almost as large as the Vatican City State.

To claim that “We did not grab its resources for our own gain” is to lie. No, really, it’s a lie, unless you accept some twisted lawyer’s definition of “our gain.” Can you say Halliburton? Can you say any of dozens of other contractors, an unknown number of them corrupt beyond reasonable expectation?

Yes, we grabbed their resources, and we did it first by writing their constitution for them. Then we made them disgorge a public asset, their oil reserves. We forced Iraq to privatize its oil industry so that “our” oil companies and others could enjoy the spoils of war. Iraq was opened for business. And it seems like the security business is thriving. For the forty years that Iraqi oil had been nationalized, Iraqis lived in a welfare state with free education, free health care, and a relatively high standard of living. Now Iraq has free enterprise, and extensive poverty, and women are persecuted, and they’re not even grateful for all that American effort.

Back to the territory in Iraq, the part we do not claim – that’s the part we left littered with unexploded ordnance, or the part that’s poisoned with depleted uranium (DU) weapons or the part that was environmentally destroyed by a massive military rolling through. We don’t claim any of that. And we don’t even pretend to offer to clean it up – any more than we offer reparations to the survivors of those we killed, or medical help for those we maimed, or any other kind of help for those whose houses we blew up, whose orchards we leveled, whose herds we extinguished. We’re not good about cleaning up after ourselves, especially when we can blame it all on al Qaeda and the rest of those crazy Arab suicide bombers.

The Iraq we have left behind is itself a war crime. In an international system that actually worked, the crime of Iraq would have been addressed long before there were headlines about Crimea. Seriously, which do you suppose is a better place to live?

“We ended our war,” said the President, and that’s pretty much on point – “our” war is over, in the sense that we’re no longer in it. But it’s all “our” war, every bit of it – we started it, we let it go horribly wrong, and the chaos raging now in Iraq now is every bit as much “our” war as the rest of it.

“…we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.”

None of that is true in any meaningful way. The Iraqi people have been brutalized and turned against each other in ways they hadn’t experienced in centuries. For whatever it’s worth, the Saddam dictatorship was also the creation of the Iraqi people in a sovereign state. Ironically, there are recent reports that, in the wake of American intervention, Iraq is again drifting into being a sovereign police state.

Actually, Iraq is just drifting toward being a police state again. Iraq hasn’t been a fully sovereign state for some time, it’s not clear just how long. But the Iraq government no longer has territorial integrity, it does not control all the land within its borders. The Kurdish region is always problematical, but western Iraq is out of the government’s control.

Rebel/jihadist groups in Syria now control an area of Syria and Iraq that is about the size of Great Britain, according to veteran reporter Patrick Cockburn. He told Democracy Now:

The al-Qaeda-type organizations really control a massive area in northern and eastern Syria at the moment and northern and western Iraq. The largest number of volunteers fighting with these al-Qaeda-type groups are Saudi. Most of the money originally came from there. But these people now control their own oil wells. They probably are less reliant on Saudi money.

So there’s not much that President Obama said about Iraq that’s very close to true. The Iraqi people are not sovereign and they do not control their own future. They have a fundamentalist-leaning Shiite government that’s closely allied with Iran. The Iraqi people are victims several times over – victims of the Saddam regime, victims of the American liberation and plunder, victims of phantom democratic choices, victims of jihadis on all sides. And our president talks of them instead as a sovereign people deciding their own future, because the truth is way too difficult. Iraqis are victims, and America doesn’t do victims, America creates victims, sometimes America helps victims of natural disasters, but mostly America blames victims, at home and abroad, it’s what we do.

And it turns out we don’t do hope and change much, either. What happens to a country when the president the electorate thought it elected doesn’t show up in the Oval Office? We’ve been finding out since 2009 and it’s not over yet.

For now, at least, the President seems to have enough sense and strength to be able to treat going to war over Crimea as a “dumb war” worth avoiding.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This article was first published in Reader Supported News. Read other articles by William.