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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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George W. Bush's presidency, 2000-04

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The secret world of Defense Secretary Gates

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Few Big Lies: Not Handling Iraq Truth

By Nat Parry
March 26, 2008

With the Iraq War entering its sixth year and the U.S. death toll now surpassing 4,000, it has become fashionable – and rather convenient – to claim that no one prior to the invasion five years ago could have foreseen what a bloody disaster the war would turn out to be.

Typical is a recent article by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter John Burns, published in the New York Times a few days before the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion.

“Back in 2003,” he wrote, “only the most prescient could have guessed that … the toll would include tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed, as well as nearly 4,000 American troops.”

Burns goes on to marvel over the fact that there are now “a million or more Iraqis living as refugees in neighboring Arab countries,” suggesting that this too, was utterly unpredictable.

But while it may now be conventional wisdom to claim that the war’s bloody and tragic toll was unforeseen, it is not, in fact, true.

In the months leading up to the invasion, independent journalists and international organizations tried to highlight the potential human costs, while tens of millions of ordinary people marched in cities across the world in a desperate attempt to stop the war before it started.

Central to the pleas for peace was the argument that any attack on Iraq would necessarily involve needless deaths of Iraqi civilians and that the Bush administration’s primary argument for invading – Iraq’s alleged possession of WMD – was unsubstantiated and possibly unfounded.

International organizations and well-respected NGOs also highlighted the likely human costs of a war, including its inevitable civilian casualties and the potential displacement of countless Iraqis.

Warnings Ignored

Before the invasion, for example, the United Nations predicted that the civilian casualties caused by a U.S. invasion would likely be much higher than the Persian Gulf War in 1991 (which killed an estimated 100,000 civilians), since in 2003 the impoverished Iraqi population was so heavily dependent on government handouts to survive.

The UN noted that those government supplies would be severely disrupted by a U.S.-led invasion, inevitably leading to great hardship among the population.

Also, as I noted at on Feb. 5, 2003, UN planners said that the coming war and its aftermath would likely kill or injure more than 500,000 civilians and leave nearly one million as refugees. About three million Iraqis – out of a population of 23 million – would suffer severe hunger, the UN report said.

This confidential report was leaked to the public over a month before the March 19 invasion, but was generally ignored by the American media, much like the unprecedented and historic mass demonstrations taking place at the time.

Also ignored was a report by the International Study Team, a Canadian non-governmental organization, which focused on the likely effects of a war on Iraqi children.

The NGO noted that “because most of the 13 million Iraqi children are dependent on food distributed by the Government of Iraq, the disruption of this system by war would have a devastating impact on children who already have a high rate of malnutrition.”

The report said that due to 12 years of U.S.-led economic sanctions, the physical state of Iraqi children in 2003 made them much more vulnerable to war than they were in 1991.

The report concluded that war on Iraq would cause a “grave humanitarian disaster,” with potential casualties among children in “the tens of thousands, and possibly in the hundreds of thousands.”

But these reports received little attention at the time.

Much like the cautionary warnings from some quarters of the U.S. intelligence community about strategic risks from the invasion, warnings about the human cost of the war did not generally catch the eye of mainstream journalists or politicians in Congress.

Congressional Enablers

Two of those members of Congress, who brushed aside warnings of human catastrophe in Iraq, remain in contention for the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

In the U.S. Senate, Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton unquestioningly accepted the Bush administration’s trumped-up arguments for war, and opted to authorize military action in a fateful vote on Oct. 10, 2002.

McCain was one of Bush’s staunchest and most steadfast allies in Congress, using his “credibility” as a Vietnam War hero to push the invasion forward. He argued that Iraq posed a “a clear and present danger to the United States of America,” and claimed that “we will be welcomed [by the Iraqi people] as liberators.”

Although she was a member of the opposition party, Clinton was no less vocal in endorsing all of the administration’s rationales for war.

While she questioned the wisdom of launching a “unilateral war,” she also warned against relying on the United Nations to take the necessary action against the Iraqi government, reiterating the “Clinton Doctrine,” once articulated by her husband, that “we will act multilaterally when possible, but unilaterally when necessary.”

In explaining her vote to authorize the invasion, Sen. Clinton argued in a floor speech on Oct. 10, 2002, that “if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.”

She asserted that the threat posed by Iraq to U.S. national security was “undisputed,” and that the only questions remaining were “what should we do about it?” and “how, when, and with whom?”

Despite Sen. Clinton’s assertion, Iraq’s alleged threat to U.S national security was, in fact, adamantly disputed – by think tanks and NGOs, antiwar activists and academics, foreign governments and international organizations, and a former UN weapons inspector. Scott Ritter, an American who served as a weapons inspector from 1991 to 1998, rightly argued that Iraq’s WMD arsenal had been eliminated in the 1990s.

A Different Agenda

In the years after his service as a weapons inspector, Ritter also asserted that the UN inspections process had another agenda. The U.S. government, from the beginning of the inspections in 1991, was more interested in regime change than it was with Iraq’s disarmament, Ritter alleged.

A former U.S. Marine officer, Ritter claimed that from day one, the U.S. was “manipulating, suppressing and fatally undermining the inspections process in support of a different agenda – regime change.”

As he states in his book Iraq Confidential, “The U.S. intelligence community, when it came to Iraq, seemed interested only in maintaining the perception that the Iraqis were not telling the truth, regardless of what the facts showed.”

But Ritter’s arguments, not fitting into the dominant narrative of those heady days of late 2002 and early 2003, were largely ignored. As war hysteria gripped the nation, there was little tolerance for people like Scott Ritter who questioned the Bush administration’s motives or poked holes in the conclusions of George Tenet's CIA.

The Washington establishment had decided that invading Iraq was both inevitable and desirable, regardless of what the facts told, or what the likely costs of war would be.

Weekend Warriors

Today, it may be difficult for some to remember how much courage it took to stand up and speak out in those days, but one who has likely not forgotten is presidential hopeful Barack Obama, who as a state senator from Illinois, was speaking at peace rallies and vocally questioning the administration’s motivation and rationale for going to war.

At a demonstration on Oct. 26, 2002, Obama lashed out against “weekend warriors in this administration [who] shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.”

Unlike Clinton or McCain, Obama understood that “even a successful war against Iraq [would] require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” This approach, he warned, would “only fan the flames of the Middle East … and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

He also spoke out against “the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income – to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.”

It is hard to deny now that Obama’s analysis was far closer to the mark than either Clinton’s or McCain’s.

The “facts” that the two pro-war senators claimed at the time were “undisputed,” particularly Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD program and his government’s supposed ties to terrorists, have turned out to be bogus, while Obama’s warnings of an indefinite occupation and strengthened al-Qaeda recruiting have turned out to be right on target.

But still, five years on, false narratives of the build-up to war persist, largely thanks to respected journalists like John Burns who continue to claim that “only the most prescient” could have foreseen what a tragedy the war would turn out to be.

These claims, of course, have a largely self-serving function. By falsely claiming that no one in 2003 could have foreseen the costs of war, the journalists and politicians who cheered the war on hope to absolve themselves from any responsibility for the tragic consequences – including now the lives of 4,000 American soldiers.

The real tragedy though is that the “prescient” warnings offered by international organizations like the UN, NGOs like the International Study Team, critics like Scott Ritter, Barack Obama and countless ordinary people taking to the streets of cities all over the world, were so thoroughly ignored then, and continue to be forgotten to this day.

Equally tragic may be the reality that those who ignored the warnings continue to be rewarded with prizes like lucrative book deals, promotions, and maybe even the ultimate prize of winning the presidency of the United States.

Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.

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