The politicians and shills in the media who orchestrated 20 years of military debacles in the Middle East, and who seek a world dominated by U.S. power, must be held accountable for their crimes.Two decades ago, I sabotaged my career at The New York Times. It was a conscious choice. I had spent seven years in the Middle East, four of them as the Middle East Bureau Chief. I was an Arabic speaker. I believed, like nearly all Arabists, including most of those in the State Department and the CIA, that a “preemptive” war against Iraq would be the most costly strategic blunder in American history. It would also constitute what the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg called the “supreme international crime.”
While Arabists in official circles were muzzled, I was not. I was invited by them to speak at The State Department, The United States Military Academy at West Point and to senior Marine Corps officers scheduled to be deployed to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion.
What is disturbing is not the cost to me personally. I was aware of the potential consequences. What is disturbing is that the architects of these debacles have never been held accountable and remain ensconced in power. They continue to promote permanent war, including the ongoing proxy war in Ukraine against Russia, as well as a future war against China.
The cheerleaders in the media for war — Thomas Friedman, David Remnick, Richard Cohen, George Packer, William Kristol, Peter Beinart, Bill Keller, Robert Kaplan, Anne Applebaum, Nicholas Kristof, Jonathan Chait, Fareed Zakaria, David Frum, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Brooks and Michael Ignatieff — were used to amplify the lies and discredit the handful of us, including Michael Moore, Robert Scheer and Phil Donahue, who opposed the war. These courtiers were often motivated more by careerism than idealism. They did not lose their megaphones or lucrative speaking fees and book contracts once the lies were exposed, as if their crazed diatribes did not matter. They served the centers of power and were rewarded for it.
Many of these same pundits are pushing further escalation of the war in Ukraine, although most know as little about Ukraine or NATO’s provocative and unnecessary expansion to the borders of Russia as they did about Iraq.
“I told myself and others that Ukraine is the most important story of our time, that everything we should care about is on the line there,” George Packer writes in The Atlantic magazine. “I believed it then, and I believe it now, but all of this talk put a nice gloss on the simple, unjustifiable desire to be there and see.”
Packer views war as a purgative, a force that will jolt a country, including the U.S., back to the core moral values he supposedly found amongst American volunteers in Ukraine.
“I didn’t know what these men thought of American politics, and I didn’t want to know,” he writes of two U.S. volunteers. “Back home we might have argued; we might have detested each other. Here, we were joined by a common belief in what the Ukrainians were trying to do and admiration for how they were doing it. Here, all the complex infighting and chronic disappointments and sheer lethargy of any democratic society, but especially ours, dissolved, and the essential things — to be free and live with dignity — became clear. It almost seemed as if the U.S. would have to be attacked or undergo some other catastrophe for Americans to remember what Ukrainians have known from the start.”
The Iraq war cost at least $3 trillion and the 20 years of warfare in the Middle East cost a total of some $8 trillion. The occupation created Shi’ite and Sunni death squads, fueled horrific sectarian violence, gangs of kidnappers, mass killings and torture. It gave rise to al-Qaeda cells and spawned ISIS which at one point controlled a third of Iraq and Syria. ISIS carried out rape, enslavement and mass executions of Iraqi ethnic and religious minorities such as the Yazidis. It persecuted Chaldean Catholics and other Christians. This mayhem was accompanied by an orgy of killing by U.S. occupation forces, such as as the gang rape and murder of Abeer al-Janabi, a 14-year-old girl and her family by members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne. The U.S. routinely engaged in the torture and execution of detained civilians, including at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca.
Yes, Saddam Hussein was brutal and murderous, but in terms of a body count, we far outstripped his killings, including his genocidal campaigns against the Kurds. We destroyed Iraq as a unified country, devastated its modern infrastructure, wiped out its thriving and educated middle class, gave birth to rogue militias and installed a kleptocracy that uses the country’s oil revenues to enrich itself. Ordinary Iraqis are impoverished. Hundreds of Iraqis protesting in the streets against the kleptocracy have been gunned down by police. There are frequent power outages. The Shi’ite majority, closely allied with Iran, dominates the country.
The occupation of Iraq, beginning 20 years ago today, turned the Muslim world and the Global South against us. The enduring images we left behind from two decades of war include President Bush standing under a “Mission Accomplished” banner onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier barely one month after he invaded Iraq, the bodies of Iraqis in Fallujah that were burned with white phosphorus and the photos of torture by U.S. soldiers.
The U.S. is desperately attempting to use Ukraine to repair its image. But the rank hypocrisy of calling for “a rules-based international order” to justify the $113 billion in arms and other aid that the U.S. has committed to send to Ukraine, won’t work. It ignores what we did. We might forget, but the victims do not. The only redemptive path is charging Bush, Cheney and the other architects of the wars in the Middle East, including Joe Biden, as war criminals in the International Criminal Court. Haul Russian President Vladimir Putin off to The Hague, but only if Bush is in the cell next to him.
Many of the apologists for the war in Iraq seek to justify their support by arguing that “mistakes” were made, that if, for example, the Iraqi civil service and army were not disbanded after the U.S. invaded, the occupation would have worked. They insist that our intentions were honorable. They ignore the hubris and lies that led to the war, the misguided belief that the U.S. could bethe sole major power in a unipolar world. They ignore the massive military expenditures spent annually to achieve this fantasy. They ignore that the war in Iraq was only an episode in this demented quest.
A national reckoning with the military fiascos in the Middle East would expose the self-delusion of the ruling class. But this reckoning is not taking place. We are trying to wish the nightmares we perpetuated in the Middle East away, burying them in a collective amnesia. “World War III Begins With Forgetting,” warns Stephen Wertheim.
The celebration of our national “virtue” by pumping weapons into Ukraine, by sustaining at least 750 military bases in more than 70 countries and by expanding our naval presence in the South China Sea, is meant to fuel this dream of global dominance.
What the mandarins in Washington fail to grasp is that most of the globe does not believe the lie of American benevolence or support its justifications for U.S. interventions. China and Russia, rather than passively accepting U.S. hegemony, are building up their militaries and strategic alliances. China, last week, brokered an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to re-establish relations after seven years of hostility, something once expected of U.S. diplomats. The rising influence of China creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who call for war with Russia and China, one that will have consequences far more catastrophic than those in the Middle East.
There is a national weariness with permanent war, especially with inflation ravaging family incomes and 57 percent of Americans unable to afford a $1,000 emergency expense. The Democratic Party and the establishment wing of the Republican Party, who peddled the lies about Iraq, are war parties. Donald Trump’s call to end the war in Ukraine, like his lambasting of the war in Iraq as the “worst decision” in American history, are attractive political stances to Americans struggling to stay afloat. The working poor, even those whose options for education and employment are limited, are no longer as inclined to fill the ranks. They have far more pressing concerns than a unipolar world or war with Russia or China. The isolationism of the far right is a potent political weapon.
The pimps of war, leaping from fiasco to fiasco, cling to the chimera of U.S. global supremacy. The dance macabre will not stop until we publicly hold them accountable for their crimes, ask those we have wronged for forgiveness and give up our lust for uncontested global power. The day of reckoning, vital if we are to protect what is left of our anemic democracy and curb the appetites of the war machine, will only come when we build mass anti-war organizations that demand an end to the imperial folly threatening to extinguish life on the planet.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, Presbyterian minister, author, and television host. His books include America: The Farewell Tour; American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America; War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction; Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009); Death of the Liberal Class (2010); Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), written with cartoonist Joe Sacco, which was a New York Times best-seller; and Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (2015). He previously worked overseas for the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor, and NPR, and hosted the Emmy-nominated RT America show On Contact.