Decline and fall

Published March 27, 2018

HE’S back. John Bolton, the Bush-era moustache best known for his burning desire to bomb five different countries, is now national security adviser. It’s not entirely unexpected: like most low-rent reality shows, the Trump presidency packs plot twists well into its second season.

What makes it ugly is the timing: Bolton returns the same week the US marks 15 years since the Iraqi invasion. They may soon say of America what they said of every super-bureaucracy going back to the Bourbons — that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Read — View from abroad: The return of the neo-cons

But it would be best to start forgetting. Fifteen years ago, George W. Bush reduced Iraq to a pile of ash. “This is the guy that tried to kill my dad,” he said of Saddam Hussein. Since then, much of America’s warmonger class has dusted itself off and confessed.

It turns out that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. It also turns out that Saddam’s Ba’ath party had nothing to do with the jihadis that made up Al Qaeda. And it also turns out that if you disband a country’s army and replace it with a sectarian sock puppet, you end up with the militant Islamic State group.

Fifteen years ago, Bush reduced Iraq to a pile of ash.

And that’s what makes Year 15 so fascinating: America is selling Iraq to itself as an ‘error’, a ‘blunder’, a ‘quagmire’. Call it end-stage empire: bombing Baghdad is the coming-of-age story you avoid in polite company.

It also helps when there’s a new monster to fight in the form of Trump. As comedian Kumail Nanjiani tweeted rather gormlessly, “I support George W. Bush instead of tearing him down. We need all the allies we can get right now. He’s not blameless, but he’s here now.”

Which is odd, because Trump’s policies are largely the same as the Bush family’s, minus their Connecticut manners: the return of torture, Gitmo fetishisation, drumbeats of war, fear of the ‘other’. But that’s beside the point: between Bush’s rehab and Bolton’s recruitment, Iraq takes on the look of another sad goof-up.

That is a lie. Just as this horror movie began on a false premise, it now ends on a note that’s equally false. Iraq wasn’t a mistake. It was a hostile takeover that left a million Iraqis dead. And it not only wrecked the fabric of American society from within, it permanently poisoned the idea of America from without.

The fact is, the US had been in a bit of a flux since the death of communism. Between the Berlin Wall falling over and the twin towers falling in on themselves, there were no more worlds left to conquer. Gents like Fukuyama called it the end of history: the West had won, and we’d do best to hail the free market.

In that sense, Osama bin Laden’s rage aligned just fine with the ideas of the Republican Party, fighting a forever war with no end in sight. Terrorism seemed a permanent punching bag: in terms of a ‘war on terror’, how does one fight a noun?

It didn’t help that Bush ran into Washington’s most depraved double act while doing it: the ageless firm of Rumsfeld & Cheney. Don and Dick were empire-builders; inhaling oil via Halliburton, signing off on torture, and maiming civilians. “There aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan,” sighed Rummy, “And there are lots of good targets in Iraq.”

After all, Iraq was never about WMD in 2003, or liberty in 2004, or peace in 2007. It was about reshaping the Middle East and projecting Americana, and it was never really challenged.

The liberal press ate up the war; warlords like Blair and Hillary cheered it on; and Muslim brother Saudi Arabia offered itself up as a staging ground. As Bush lackey Karl Rove denied ever saying, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality […] we’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

So it is, a generation later, that we study what they did — Iraq marked the fall of American supremacy. Ever since, Baghdad has escaped into Iran’s orbit, Syria has been ceded, Russia has resurged, and anger and misery have culminated in the age of Trump.

The story of the past 15 years is the story of the Free World descending into the torture chamber, the rise of kill-at-will drone strikes, and erosion of civil society to a heartless little nub.

It marks so much of our story as well: Pakistan paid a terrible price for these terror wars. The state’s since embraced the language with enthusiasm: extraordinary renditions, non-state actors, missing persons, IDPs, drone strikes.

But should it become a part of our permanent vocabulary, we’ll be left fighting a forever war too. Fifteen years after Iraq, and 17 after Afghanistan, a higher cost can hardly be imagined.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2018

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