Forgetting Who Messed Up Iraq

Key U.S. political and media figures who were deeply implicated in the illegal invasion of Iraq are playing an audacious “blame game” over the current Iraqi security crisis, pointing at President Obama when they were the principal culprits, as Lawrence Davidson recalls.

By Lawrence Davidson

In November 2003, a half year after the start of “Operation: Iraqi Freedom,” President George W. Bush told the country that the invasion of Iraq was part of an effort to “spread democracy throughout the Middle East.” Initially, of course, Bush had said the U.S. attacked Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein from sharing his weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) with Islamic terrorists.

But that claim could be fact-checked and, eventually, it was. Both parts about Hussein’s WMDs and his collaboration with Islamic terrorists turned out to be false. So, Bush shifted to the back-up rationale about spreading democracy, a nebulous claim that was much harder to assess.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands after a joint White House press conference on Nov. 12, 2004. (White House photo)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands after a joint White House press conference on Nov. 12, 2004. (White House photo)

We can’t even be sure if Bush and his neoconservative allies believed in this radical goal of spreading democracy by the sword. Given that most of the regimes the U.S. has backed in the Middle East, including at one time that of Saddam Hussein, were autocracies of one sort or another, one can legitimately have doubts about the sincerity of the “democracy” claim.

However, one thing we can be sure of: the Americans are not the only ones who can launch a crusade based on an age-old idea. Islamic radicals can do it too, as they seek to replicate the spread of Islam as it took place in the Seventh and Eighth centuries. And, thanks to Bush, who opened the fortress gates for them, these Islamist radicals are doing just that.

Still, Bush and the neocons could not have created today’s disastrous dilemma in Iraq all by themselves. There had to be preconditions, and for that, one can look at Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and his use of the Sunni-Shiite divide to further his power.

Worldwide, the Sunni sect of Islam is the majority. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis. However, in Iraq the opposite is the case.  Only 9 percent of the Iraqi population are Sunni. The rest are mostly Shiites.

Nonetheless, Saddam Hussein was of Sunni background and under his rule the Shiite majority was not trusted and often discriminated against, and their leaders were killed if they showed any signs of political resistance.

The hatred that had built up among the Shiites during this period of dictatorial rule was unleashed by the American invasion. Shiite leaders took over and, with American compliance, turned on the Iraqi Sunnis. That helped spark a civil war that goes on to this day. The present Iraqi government’s anti-Sunni policies are, of course, very unwise, but they are not unexpected, nor are they unpopular among the Iraqi Shiites.

The Sunni Offensive

In the current outbreak of violence, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the radical fundamentalist group that has invaded Iraq from eastern Syria and recently captured the city of Mosul, is also Sunni. My guess is that its commanders imagine they are acting in the tradition of the first Caliphs – God-approved and -inspired. Thus, the nom de guerre taken by the present ISIS leader is Jihadi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Abu Bakr was the Muslim world’s first Caliph).

The U.S. now has two problems when it comes to Iraq: one is how to respond to the ISIS invasion. The other is how to face up to American culpability for the mess in Iraq.

Regarding the first, President Obama has announced that American ground troops will not go back into Iraq except to protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. As a consequence, it is likely that Iraq will get more substantial assistance from Tehran than Washington.

Nonetheless, Obama’s refusal to reintroduce U.S. combat troops is a wise decision. Obama has also urged a political solution, demanding that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, make his government more inclusive and reach out to Iraq’s Sunni citizens, another worthy idea. Reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is the key to the defeat of ISIS and the country’s future stability.

As for ISIS, it’s hard to know what a political solution would mean. Like hard-core ideologues of all stripes, these jihadists are not compromising types.

There is the second matter regarding Iraq’s violent chaos: how do we face up to American culpability? Pointing fingers at the current President might be politically convenient for Republicans and neocons, but it is thoroughly ahistorical.

The Republican charge is based on the notion that Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq too quickly when the Iraqi army wasn’t ready to stand on its own. In other words, the U.S. abandoned Iraq.

But the charge is simply wrong. The Iraqi parliament voted against allowing American troops to stay in the country beyond the end of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, signed by Bush and concluding in 2011.

Obama wanted to leave a contingent of U.S. advisers in Iraq but decided against it when the Iraqi government refused to grant the advisers legal immunity. There was also the fact that the U.S. withdrawal came as a response to the will of the majority of the American people.

The fact that the Iraqi armed forces were not in good shape at the time of withdrawal was not Obama’s fault. After all, the U.S. military, its trainers and advisers, had been in Iraq for years under the Bush administration.

And, it can be argued that even if U.S. advisers had stayed longer it would have made no difference. Take, for instance, the case of Iran under the Shah. From 1954 to 1979, the U.S. supplied and trained the Shah’s military forces, yet they collapsed in the face of popular revolution in 1979.

For U.S. forces to have stayed in control of Iraq until the indigenous military was fully capable would have committed the United States to decades of occupation – a scenario unpopular both in Iraq and the U.S. Even then, the issue would be in doubt if the political context undermined Iraqi military morale and loyalty to the government. The political situation is key in these matters.

War Criminals

If you want to look for those Americans who have real responsibility for this mess, you have to go back to those who put American troops in Iraq in the first place. You have to turn to George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies, the latest in a long line of American militarists who think, much as does ISIS, that they have a mission to set the world straight according to a God-approved plan. Those are the less than brilliant minds who concocted the destruction of Iraq and left it in shambles.

Bush invaded Iraq on the basis of what he now claims was faulty intelligence. But this is disingenuous. He himself insisted upon and then arranged for that faulty information – a fact now conveniently forgotten by him, his neocon allies, and the media. To blame Obama, the Republicans must maintain a purposeful ignorance of past events.

The truth is that George W. Bush and his accomplices are war criminals chargeable with one of the same indictments brought against the German and Japanese leaders after World War II. I am not talking about genocide. I am talking about the waging of unnecessary and offensive war – launching an invasion without proper legal cause. Today’s mess in Iraq is a direct consequence of that same sort of criminal act.

If you want to blame President Obama for something, blame him for letting his criminal predecessor off the hook. No doubt Obama’s advisers told him that all presidents commit acts that may be criminal in nature and to indict Bush and his team was to set a precedent that might eventually turn around and be applied to Obama himself.

Thus, after a meaningless statement about “no one being above the law,” Obama decided not to pursue a criminal investigation into the murderous operations of Bush and the neocons. He declared:

“I have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. I don’t want them [government officials] to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering up.”

The problem with Obama’s logic is that all crimes are committed in the past and thus by only “looking forward” regarding the crimes of Bush and his collaborators, you effectively do put them “above the law.”

“Looking forward” also only works if you take the past seriously. And in Iraq, you can’t understand either the disastrous present or the likely horrid future without acknowledging the past actions of the Bush administration.

At the very least the media – those responsible for informing the American people of what is going on in the world – might realize this, stop castigating Obama and start telling the unvarnished truth about George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies – the men and women who really brought you the current tragedy in Iraq.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.