Thanks to Jeb Bush’s tongue-tied responses to repeated questions about his brother’s regrettable record as president, we finally had the “Should we invade Iraq?” debate we needed in 2002. And while “reality” did slightly better this time, the debate demonstrated yet again the power of far-right ideologues to pervert simple and obvious truths about the world in order to evade responsibility for the catastrophes their policies unleashed.
Recall what we were told at the time: “There’s no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons…. We all know that. A trained ape knows that,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted. “This is going to be a two-month war, not an eight-year war,” the genial über-hawk William Kristol promised. Vice President Dick Cheney assured us that “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” One could supply hundreds more such promises, but let these three stand in for the fact that none of the war’s perpetrators and few of its publicists have ever been called to account for the destruction created by their lethal combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence. Nor have they come forward to apologize. Instead, we get excuses, evasions, and more lies.
Now examine the results: nearly $2 trillion spent, hundreds of thousands of people killed, and millions displaced from their homes. Iraq lies in ruins; Iran’s regional power has grown; and America stands before the world as not only an imperialist nation but also a lawless one. And then there’s the birth of ISIS, a direct result of America’s failed strategy to turn Iraq into a vassal state.
Officials in the Bush administration, cheered on by their apologists, manipulated intelligence, tortured those they captured to support their lies, and slandered and mocked those who sought to warn the country away from a predictable catastrophe. (Speaking personally, Bill O’Reilly ran my photo as a mug shot for the crime of mocking Cheney’s stupid “liberators” statement, while David Brooks introduced me at a left/right Washington seminar, only half-jokingly, as someone who had just seen his entire worldview implode.)
True, Republicans lost the 2008 election, but this had more to do with Bush’s mismanagement of the economy than with Iraq. To this date, our discussions about foreign policy continue as if no one could possibly have known at the time that the Iraq War would turn out to be a disaster. The same faces appear on the same shows calling for the bombing of the same countries. Kristol, who has proven himself to be the wrongest pundit in history, has been rewarded with job offers from ABC News, Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Fox News, The Washington Post (again) and ABC News (again)—to say nothing of his own weekly-magazine/think-tank empire. (He recently proposed, I kid you not, Dick Cheney for president.)
Part of the responsibility for this sorry situation lies with the Obama administration, which made the strategic decision to paper over all Bush-era political conflict regardless of Republican responsibility or recalcitrance, and therefore explicitly forbade any talk of punishment for war crimes. And despite Senator Patrick Leahy’s efforts to demand legal (if not moral) accountability, members of the media proved more than eager to move on as well, especially those within the so-called liberal media. Indeed, just as “liberal hawks” demonstrated their “seriousness” by flacking for Bush’s warmongering in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, they assured their credibility within the Beltway in 2009 by agreeing to “get over it.”
The blogosphere celebrated when Obama called on a reporter for the Huffington Post at an early press conference; Time even said that the president was “making history” by doing so. But recall that brave, historic question: “Are you willing to rule out, right here and now, any prosecution of Bush administration officials?” Typically, Obama said he was “more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards,” adding that he wanted “to pull everybody together,” before he issued a blanket endorsement of “the members of the intelligence community who have done things the right way and have been working hard to protect America.”
The issue raised here isn’t merely the injustice of it all. Rather, having failed to hold those responsible to account, we ensure that we’ll repeat the same errors in another context. The CIA has already demonstrated its intention to do this with its Nixon-style hacking of computers used by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who were investigating the agency’s illegal torture program. This is following the lies that then–CIA director Michael Hayden told the committee regarding the agency’s wiretapping of US citizens. Like all of the high-level perpetrators of Iraq-related war crimes (but not the brave whistleblowers who revealed them), Hayden walked away scot-free.
Meanwhile, aided not only by Fox News but also by their colonization of much of cable news, talk radio, and even the august Sunday-morning lineup, these same Sabbath gasbags continue to agitate for war after war, while simultaneously insisting that whatever (eventually) went wrong in Iraq was somehow Obama’s fault. One day, they clamor for an attack on Assad in Syria; the next, they demand that we attack Assad’s opponents. And virtually every day, we’re instructed to attack Iran, by yesterday if not sooner. Neocon apparatchik Joshua Muravchik made the case for war with Iran on The Washington Post’s op-ed page on March 13, and Bush’s UN ambassador, John Bolton, made the same argument in The New York Times 13 days later.
Just imagine if the rule proposed by (I think) John Kenneth Galbraith—that economists’ present predictions should only be printed alongside their past predictions—were applied to prowar pundits and politicians. They might not be in jail, but at least they’d be out of work… Except, of course, on Fox.