Ending the Iraq Catastrophe

Exclusive: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told President Barack Obama that U.S. troops wouldn’t have immunity from Iraqi laws after December, forcing the last thousands of American soldiers to leave. That signals the end of the Iraq War and the start of the U.S. battle over what the war’s lessons were, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

President Barack Obama will talk about “a promise kept” as he brings the last U.S. troops in Iraq “home for the holidays”; the neocons will try to spin the war’s outcome as “victory” — albeit one endangered by Obama’s complete withdrawal — but the hard truth is that the Iraq War has been a largely self-inflicted strategic defeat for the United States.

When the last U.S. convoys race for the Kuwaiti border in December, they will be as much in retreat as the Soviet army was when it withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. And, like the staggering Soviet Union then, the United States is reeling now from economic dislocations exacerbated by the overreach of empire.

Of course, the United States is not likely to undergo the political collapse that interred the Soviet system two years after its Afghan debacle ended, but Washington’s vast overspending on imperial ambitions since World War II of which Iraq was one of the more egregious examples has buried the American Dream for many millions of Americans.

When all the costs are finally tallied including caring for wounded veterans the price tag for the Iraq War will surely exceed $1 trillion. Yet, Iraq totters as a failed state, crippled in its ability to meet the basic needs of its people and torn by sectarian violence. The big strategic winner, as the U.S. leaves, appears to be Iran with many of its Shiite allies now in top jobs in Iraq.

Former President George W. Bush

Plus, President George W. Bush’s premature pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2002-03 allowed the Afghan War to drag on inconclusively, now passing the decade mark and costing hundreds of billions of dollars more.

The human cost, too, has been sickening, with nearly 4,500 American soldiers killed in Iraq and more than 1,800 dead in Afghanistan. The untallied death tolls for Iraqis and Afghans are even grimmer, with estimates of their fatalities in the hundreds of thousands.

Yet, the history did not have to go this way. This disaster was not inevitable. It was a catastrophe of choice.

Even after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration had chances to negotiate with the Taliban government in Afghanistan for the capture of al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. And even if a peaceful resolution were not possible, the opportunities were there in late 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden when he was holed up in the Tora Bora mountain range.

Instead, the headstrong Bush and the ambitious neoconservatives who surrounded him lost focus on al-Qaeda and concentrated on the dream of “regime change” in Iraq, Syria and Iran and then the isolation of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

Once the top names on Israel’s enemies list had been erased, the thinking went, the Palestinians and other nearby Arabs would have no choice but to accept peace terms dictated by Israeli hard-liners. And, the victorious Bush would stand astride the Middle East as a modern-day Alexander the Great, a “war president” of historic majesty.

Hailing Bush

The hubris indeed the madness of this plan may now be apparent to many, but a decade ago, this scheme of violently reshaping the Middle East was quite the rage in Washington. The major news media oohed and aahed over Bush and his famous “gut,” while the haughty neocons were the toast of the town.

When Bush’s war bandwagon rolled past with the neocons at the controls nearly everyone who mattered clambered onboard, from star Democratic senators like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to the brightest lights of the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and on and on.

Those of us who raised doubts about the legality or the practicality of this dangerous adventure were ostracized as pariahs, people to be ignored or ridiculed. We were the sorts who simply didn’t believe in “American exceptionalism.”

Much as the economic wizards of the last decade insisted that the old laws of economics had been banished by newfangled financial instruments, like credit default swaps, the neocon ideologues believed that America’s super-high-tech military machine was invulnerable to the crude roadside bombs that simple Arabs might be able to build.

That these parallel examples of arrogance on Wall Street and in Washington reached similarly destructive ends represents the core lesson of the Bush-43 era, a teaching moment that the neocons, the bankers and their various defenders in media and politics don’t want the average American to absorb.

As for the Iraq War along with the final rush to the Kuwaiti border in December and the tearful reunions at American airports before Christmas there will be endless efforts to explain away the debacle as some sort of vague success or at least a contributing factor in the unrelated uprisings of this year’s Arab Spring.

We will hear that the 4,500 U.S. soldiers did not die in vain and that to suggest otherwise is hurtful to the troops and their families.

But the painful reality is that they did die in vain. They died not for the protection of the American Republic or even for the security of the Homeland. They died for what the Nuremberg Tribunal deemed the “supreme international crime,” a war of aggression. They died for a destructive and crazy ideological vision.

The soldiers can be pitied for their pointless sacrifice. Without doubt, most were motivated by patriotism and a fierce determination to “do the job” assigned to them by the nation’s leaders. It is “the leaders” and their enablers who deserve the blame.

Yet, the final tragedy of the Iraq War as with the Wall Street crash is that the real perpetrators seem beyond the reach of law, accountability or even public humiliation.

George W. Bush sits in a place of honor at Texas Rangers games. Vice President Dick Cheney is hailed as an icon by the American Right. Except for a handful of low-level soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison, no one has been punished for authorizing the torture of detainees.

The unabashed neoconservatives are still holding down lucrative think-tank jobs (and some key posts in the Obama administration). They regularly opine on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. They are recruited by leading Republican presidential candidates.

Mitt Romney entrusted neocons to write the “white paper” on his future foreign policy. Last month, Rick Perry joined with the neocons in berating Obama for deviating even slightly from the demands of Israel’s Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Mideast peace negotiations.

After Obama’s announcement on Friday, Romney took the neocon line in denouncing Obama for not negotiating an open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq. Romney said the President’s decision was driven either by “naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.”

Also in line with the neocon desire for permanent U.S. military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Perry claimed that Obama had put “political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment” in agreeing to leave Iraq.

(Though the “status of forces agreement” that set the stage for U.S. withdrawal was negotiated by Bush — as a way to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after 2008 — his military advisers had expected that a new SOFA would be put in place before the 2011 deadline so a U.S. military presence could continue.)

According to opinion polls, it also seems likely that the neocons will follow the victorious Republican nominee whoever that is back into the White House in 2013. Just as the Wall Street bankers landed on their feet, so too do the neocons.

Meanwhile, the handful in Official Washington who did question or criticize the Iraq invasion won few if any plaudits. The nature of the Establishment is to cast out anyone who deviates from the conventional wisdom, even if the person later turns out to be correct. Independent-minded skeptics are not viewed as having foresight or courage; they are deemed kooky and deviant.

At the major news organizations, virtually no one has been hired for getting the Iraq story right, while there has been almost zero accountability among the herd of leading pundits who were stampeded to war with falsehoods about Iraq’s WMD and lies about ties to al-Qaeda.

So, the battle over the next couple of months will be: how to interpret the catastrophe in Iraq. The neocons and the mainstream press will fight hard to make the defeat look like victory. To do otherwise, we’ll be told, would be to insult the troops who sacrificed so much.

But the greater danger is that the real lessons won’t be learned, that Americans will shield themselves from the ugly realities of what the war unleashed and that the key perpetrators will be empowered again, in 2012, to do it all over.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

9 comments for “Ending the Iraq Catastrophe

  1. Joanna Garrett
    October 24, 2011 at 08:58

    Anyone who declares this withdrawl from Iaq a “victory” is only kidding himself. To rephrase FDR, “This is a decade that will live in infamy.”

  2. bobzz
    October 22, 2011 at 15:30

    It is uncertain that American troops will have to “race for the Kuwaiti border.” Iraqis will not give our neocons any excuse to fight their way back into Iraq (I hope). Truth be told, Obama did not bring this sorry mess to an end. The Iraqis ended it by legitimate refusal to grant immunity to American troops. Perhaps Obama used this as an excuse to do what he has wanted to do all along. Who knows. Guesses are the course of the day.
    I can only wonder what the total cost of the wars have been: the direct costs of the wars themselves, indirect costs of homeland security, off-the-books costs for blackops, mercenaries, contractors’ pilfering billions—much we shall never know about. What will never be paid: treatment and rehabilitation for all troops. Many that did survive come back to joblessness, home foreclosures, divorces. How do we tag an amount for those hidden social costs? As Parry writes, the troops, sadly, did die in vain.
    Remember Richard Jewell? The media convicted him of the bombing at the World’s Fair in Atlanta, then would not offer a mea culpa when it turned out that he, a security guard, was the one that alerted everyone to the bomb. If the media could not apologize for that, why expect a mea culpa for Iraq?
    As I recall, American “intelligence” sent Hans Blix and his investigators to places where WMD’s were supposedly hidden. Turned out that every one of these areas were clean; Blix complained that the Americans were slowing down the search effort. This is what led me to question the evidence Powell presented at the UN. That would have given any thoughtful leaders pause (thoughtful being the operative word), but we rushed to judgment before Blix completed the investigations. How could we attack if the truth got out beforehand: there are no WMDs!

  3. Mary Tracy
    October 22, 2011 at 04:12

    During 9/11 Boy George was reading “My Pet Goat” to children, while Dead-Man-Walking Cheney was was at the scene of the crime (in the White House bunker) conducting scheduled, simulated war-games to fool NORAD and the FAA into standing down. Isn’t it time we put these guys on trial for treason and mass murder?

    • yuri_nahl
      October 22, 2011 at 18:07

      Good idea. But even better, if the neocon whores go to China and try to plunder that country. I remember some really old photos (early 1900s)of criminals standing on cannon balls with meat hooks in their mouths. And reading a fairly recent story about the Chinese shooting some bureaucrats who had caused mayhem there. One can only hope.

  4. Mary Tracy
    October 22, 2011 at 04:11

    A neocon clique at the Pentagon and some weapons contractors were angry that their budgets had been cut in the 1990s, as part of the winding down of the Cold War and the “peace dividend.” Back then, the neocons were whining that Clinton had “gutted the military.” It’s not surprising that cons would stage a false-flag operation like 9/11 to scare the public and Congress into giving them all the money they wanted.

  5. rosemerry
    October 22, 2011 at 03:10

    Of course Iraq, with its strongman supported for decades by Washington including 8 years of devastating war against Iran, was never a failed state or ridden with ethnic tensions while he was in power. Holding together an artificial country created by imperialism and providing excellent education, infrastructure, health services and rights for women, this dictator committed many offences but also made Iraq an advanced country where he was feared, but most people survived, Shia/Sunni intermarried and all had food and electricity. There is absolutely no excuse for the invasion, nor that of Libya or any of the other “humanitarian interventions” of the US or NATO. The cradle of civilisation in Mesopotamia had no importance fo the warlords of McDonald’s, Burger King and Halliburton.

  6. Norman
    October 21, 2011 at 20:25

    I wonder just how the Military leaders will take this defeat? Another Vietnam style defeat? Bush/Cheney will go down in the history books, along with the “O” as having brought about the defeat[s]. There will be spin, but the truth wins out in the end. The sad part is the architects will avoid being called to the bar for what they caused. This is another sad note in our countries history of adventurism. I might add too, that these same civilian members are members of the exclusive “Chicken Hawk” club, who believe it’s O.K. to send others into combat, but are themselves cowards when it came to be their turn.

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