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A sign on Santa Monica Beach, California, with numbers of American military members killed and wounded in Iraq — Reuters

By Irfan Husain

George W. Bush. Tony Blair. Dick Cheney. Paul Wolfowitz. Donald Rumsfeld. Karl Rove. Richard Perle. Irving Kristol. Richard Pipes. Colin Powell. Condoleezza Rice. Ahmed Chalabi. Kanan Makiya.

Where are these architects of the Iraq war today, over ten years after the invasion was launched? Most of them are in either comfortable retirement, or in well-paid jobs with right-wing think-tanks, or the academia. Some have written best-selling memoirs. Chalabi is a major Iraqi power-broker, having made millions by cashing in on his contacts in Baghdad. Almost all of them are frequent guests on Fox TV chat shows. And certainly, not a single one has been indicted or jailed for launching a war based on lies. Despite the death of over 4,000 Americans and at least 100,000 Iraqis, nobody has been called to account.

Wars leave a legacy that goes beyond casualty figures. In Iraq, the impact of the invasion has been deadly, with daily explosions adding to the misery of a deeply divided nation. Although this vicious underground war no longer gets the international media coverage it did after the US pullout, it continues to exact a terrible toll.

The fault lines in Iraq are manifold: old sectarian tensions between Shias and Sunnis; ethnic strife between Kurds and Arabs; regional and economic strains between the oil-rich Kurdish north and resource-poor centre; and above all, the historical reality in which three provinces (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra) of the old Ottoman Empire were merged into the modern state of Iraq by a victorious Britain after the Ottomans were defeated in World War I.

In his definitive recent book A Line in the Sand on the re-drawing of frontiers following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, James Barr writes:

“When, however, Feisal was declared king [of Iraq] at an early morning ceremony in the centre of Baghdad eight days later, there could be no doubt that it was the British, not the Iraqis, who were the king-makers.”

Before the first Gulf war in 1990, Iraq was among the most socially advanced countries in the Middle East. It had a first-class health system, and its schools and universities were considered among the best in the region. This was reflected in the health and social indicators. After the war, a decade of crippling sanctions brought this welfare system to its knees. Hospitals ran out of medicines and hundreds of thousands of children died because they couldn’t get treatment for entirely curable diseases.

The physical infrastructure was devastated as well, first by the bombardment during both conflicts, and then by the sanctions. Powerhouses are still struggling to cope, and millions of Iraqis suffer through hours of blackouts. So while Saddam Hussein might have been toppled and executed, few Iraqis have cause to celebrate his departure apart from those, like Ahmed Chalabi, who have profited by the US-led invasion.

The problems Iraq is struggling to overcome a decade after the US-led invasion have been widely documented. But what has not been as closely examined is the impact the war has had on its perpetrators. While the direct cost to the US thus far is estimated to be $3 trillion, a further recurring cost of several billions per year lies ahead on account of disability payments to wounded veterans. When the US went to war a decade ago, Americans were told that the cost would not exceed $100 billion, and most of this would be recovered from Iraq’s oil industry. Dream on, Cheney…

How much this huge drain on the US economy has contributed to its ongoing decline is a matter of some debate among economists. But the role of the war in causing the enormous debt mountain facing the US treasury is hard to ignore. And this deficit has forced the government into cutting the budget at a time when the economy is crying out for a large cash injection. So at least part of the unemployment haunting the US can be traced to the expenditure incurred in Iraq over the last decade.

A non-quantifiable element is the lack of accountability at the highest level of government: countries are taken to war on the flimsiest of pretexts; tens of thousands are killed; countries are destroyed; and yet nobody is held to account. People like Tony Blair and Dick Cheney write memoirs justifying their actions, and yet nobody is in the dock for lying to the public and shattering untold numbers of lives. Speaking at the House of Commons on March 18, two days before the firestorm broke over Iraq, Tony Blair said:

“We are now asked to seriously accept that in the last few years — contrary to all intelligence — Saddam Hussein decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons [of mass destruction]. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd.”

And yet, despite later evidence that Saddam Hussein had indeed destroyed the weapons, Blair continued to repeat his excuse for going to war in his autobiography A Journey. As an interesting aside, when this book was first distributed, copies would be removed from the biography section by Blair-haters and moved to the crime shelves.

In July 2002, Ron Suskind of the New York Times wrote a column based on a conversation with an unnamed senior US official. He quoted the person — widely believed to be Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s influential deputy chief of staff — as saying:

“That’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you are studying that reality, we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This is the hubris that prompted Bush to ignore international law and vast sections of public opinion while launching his misadventure. And to his everlasting shame, Blair brazenly lied to the British people to drag them into an illegal, unpopular and pointless war despite the stiff opposition he faced. The bulk of the support he received came not from his own Labour Party, but from the Conservatives.

Another lesson from the misadventure lies in the fact that when a government creates a climate of fear, the public and the media are easy to manipulate. Journalists, much as everybody else, are swept up in the frenzy of patriotism. Even a fiercely independent newspaper such as The New York Times fell victim to the steady release of misinformation. Instead of retaining an attitude of healthy scepticism — the default position of a free press — The Times succumbed to the stories created by Bush’s spin-doctors.

The reality is that wars push up ratings and circulation. Indeed, CNN took off during the first Gulf war in 1990 when it was the only 24/7 news channel available. In the second assault on Iraq, a wide range of broadcasters were positioned to cash in. ‘Shock and awe’ was great theatre for millions in the West who, while being spared the sights of blood and suffering on the ground, were treated to televised images of precision bombing and the retreat of Saddam’s ground forces.

Very few journalists asked any tough questions about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. For instance, how could the alleged programme have been put in place under the constant aerial surveillance by US and British aircraft that had been flying over the country since the end of the first Gulf war? Secondly, given the sharp drop in oil revenue caused by the harsh UN sanctions, how could Saddam have paid for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as for their delivery systems?

Actually, far from being tough, these are elementary questions that even uninformed laymen could have posed. Instead, a respected figure like Colin Powell gave the Bush-Blair lies credibility by standing before the UN Security Council and making a presentation about the danger these non-existent weapons represented for the whole world.

Dick Cheney, in his autobiography In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, writes:

“After Christmas, the president asked [secretary of state] Colin Powell to make the public case against Saddam at the United Nations. The work Scooter [Libby] and Steve [Hadley] had done, coordinating with a CIA officer … was forwarded to Powell for him to use as he prepared his remarks…

“A few days later, Powell sat in the US chair at the Security Council, with [CIA director] George Tenet behind him, and presented the case against Iraq. ‘My colleagues’, he said. ‘Every statement I make today is backed by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.’”

When these ‘facts’ turned out to be a tissue of lies, Powell’s promising political career lay in tatters. It is the business of governments and politicians to lie, but it is for the opposition and the media to expose them. In this case, both failed miserably in their primary function. Eager to get tit-bits of manufactured intelligence, journalists fell for the official line hook, line and sinker. Newspaper editors and TV producers, not wishing to place their organisations outside the carefully crafted consensus, fell into line. The few that opposed the war saw their patriotism being questioned.

In the US, in particular, mindless jingoism took hold as the entire spectrum of the media began beating the war-drums. Opinion polls indicated overwhelming support for military action. As we have come to learn, even at this late stage, Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, sent secret messages to American policy makers, inviting any degree of inspection to assure themselves that Iraq had destroyed its WMDs years ago. But with Bush and his neo-con cabal determined to go to war, there was no stopping the US-led juggernaut.

In his magisterial book The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk, that tireless crusader against the Bush-led campaign, quotes from a column he wrote at the time: [Reading Tony Blair’s infamous ‘dodgy dossier’] “can only fill a decent human being with shame and outrage. Its pages are final proof — if the contents are true — that a massive crime against humanity has been committed in Iraq. For if the details of Saddam’s building weapons of mass destruction are correct … it means that our massive, obstructive, brutal policy of UN sanctions has totally failed. In other words, half a million Iraqi children were killed by us — for nothing.”

This tacit acceptance of lawless actions by citizens, elected officials and the media has eroded the checks that have traditionally restrained generals and soldiers. When Blackwater contract mercenaries can get away with shooting unarmed Iraqis on mere suspicion, and Wikileaks can show the crew of an army helicopter gunning down several civilians — and then chuckling about it — then the USA has no moral ground to lecture others about human rights.

And this is another long-term impact of the Iraq war: both the US and Britain have lost the right to criticise other countries about torture and other human rights violations. When they can kidnap suspects in one country and fly them to ‘interrogation centres’ in other locations, they can hardly accuse the torturers they have sub-contracted their dirty work to.

Another deadly legacy of the invasion of Iraq is the strength gained by violent Islamic groups in Iraq. Al Qaeda has been the biggest beneficiary of Saddam Hussein’s removal. Under him, extremism was crushed with an iron fist, and Al Qaeda failed to gain a toehold. In the power vacuum created by his fall and the dismantling of his intelligence services soon after the invasion, a large number of jihadis from other Muslim countries poured into Iraq to fight the coalition forces. Many of them were under the Al Qaeda banner. From the beginning, they killed indiscriminately, targeting Shias as well as Christians.

Iran, too, benefited from the US-led invasion of Iraq. The rise of Shias to political power in Iraq gave Iran an important ally. Iranian arms flowed to Hezbollah through Iraqi and Syrian territory, making an arc of Shia power from Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to emerge from the Iraq war is that if a government creates a climate of fear, the majority of the opposition, the public and the media will fall into line. Goebbels, the Nazi information minister, used this technique to good effect before and during the World War II. By demonising a foe, and ascribing non-existent powers to him, it is possible to make people believe the most outlandish lie.

When Tony Blair stood up in parliament and stated that according to information provided by the British secret service, Saddam Hussein had the capability of firing a nuclear-armed missile at Britain in 45 minutes, he was preparing the public for war. Later, the famous ‘dodgy dossier’, containing doctored intelligence, was released to the media. Although this contained dubious material, most people did not think their government would deliberately lie to them.

Another useful lesson to emerge from this tissue of official lies is that the public has a short memory. Despite our experience with the Bush-Blair propaganda a decade ago, and the misuse of doctored intelligence, we now hear war drums beating, urging the Pentagon to carry out a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. Again, secret sources are being cited to make a case for war. Surveys show considerable support in the US for this action.

Out of all the institutions that failed to do their job in the run-up to the Iraq war, perhaps the biggest failure was that of the media. Since time immemorial, we have seen that in war, truth is the first casualty. Noam Chomsky, in his groundbreaking book Manufacturing Consent, pointed to the nexus between the executive, academia and the media. Although written in the 1980’s, the insights in this seminal work showed us how even superficially independent news organisations tend to fall into line in times of manufactured crises.

Chomsky also showed us how university professors almost invariably support the government of the day in times of war, thus giving it a spurious legitimacy. And while we all expect politicians to lie to suit their own purpose, we look to academia and the media for some objectivity and independence. Chomsky effectively demolishes these myths.

Thus, although the lessons from the Iraq war have been endlessly discussed and documented, the sad fact is that given the vast power of patronage and propaganda at the disposal of modern governments, we are doomed to repeat the follies of that murderous and totally unnecessary conflict.

 

The writer is a journalist and the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West

Updated May 26, 2013 09:44am

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