20 years after Iraq, Americans remain in the dark about the war

There's little accountability about what happened two decades ago, which has made the US weaker on the world stage

US soldiers patrol a neighbourhood in Baghdad in January 2008. AFP
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It’s tragic and deeply distressing that 20 years after the US launched its disastrous invasion of Iraq that the ignorance, lies, and cruelty of that war have never been acknowledged.

The neocons in the Bush administration desperately wanted this war. Believing that the US had been attacked on 9/11 because its enemies perceived it as weak, they postulated that a quick and decisive victory would demonstrate US strength and resolve. This would ensure that the US would remain the world hegemon for decades to come.

I had served on a think tank-sponsored task force with many of the leading proponents of this worldview and was astounded by their hubris born of ignorance. They did not know or even consider it important to know Iraq. Not unlike their Christian evangelical allies, they were guided by a one-size-fits-all Manichean ideology: forces of good and evil were in combat across the globe; a clash between them was inevitable; and in that confrontation good would ultimately prevail. That was all they knew and all they felt it was necessary to know. Those who issued cautions were demeaned as weak and lacking resolve.

To make their case, these “experts” took to the airwaves preying on a still shell-shocked public that knew even less about Iraq or the broader Middle East. In testimonies before Congress and on television talk shows, the war’s proponents not only embellished their “good versus evil” portrait, but also deliberately misinformed the Congress and public about the impending war itself.

The “big lie” about Iraq wasn’t just about the regime’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, but a preposterous deceit about the war’s costs and terms of engagement. Leading administration spokespersons actually testified that: the war would be over in a few weeks; US forces would be greeted as liberators; it would cost no more than $1 or $2 billion; and in the end, a new democracy in Iraq would be a “beacon for the new Middle East”.

It is sickening to see the same neocon hawks now on the airwaves peddling their Manichean views about other conflicts

Journalists and commentators echoed these fact-free claims making it the dominant narrative. Most politicians cowered, and because the overwhelming majority of the public couldn’t find Iraq on a map (according to a survey conducted days before the invasion was to begin), they went along.

During the months leading up to the start of the war, my wife and I were in North Carolina where I was teaching at Davidson College. At one point, I flew back to Washington to debate a resolution I had submitted to the Democratic National Committee urging the party to oppose sending our young people into a war without knowing its costs, terms of engagement, and consequences, in a country whose history and culture we did not know. The party leaders allowed me to present it but wouldn’t permit a vote. One even said: “We don’t want to appear weak.”

At the time, I was hosting a weekly live television call-in programme on Abu Dhabi TV and Direct TV in the US. ADTV arranged two live satellite shows connecting students at Davidson with students at Baghdad University. While the exchange exposed the Iraqi students to the debate about the war taking place on campus, my students had their eyes opened to Iraqi history, culture and sensitivities. After the programme, one of the Davidson students told me that it was so hard to be speaking with the Iraqis knowing that we were going to bombing them.

Because North Carolina is also home to military bases that were staging areas for US troops being sent to Iraq, it was especially painful to watch local news programmes interviewing family members about their loved ones heading to the war. Because of the lies they had been told, in interview after interview they tearfully repeated lines like “he’s a hero fighting to keep our country safe”, or “he’s fighting to make the world freer”. I feared for these young soldiers and their families, and in my heart I damned those who had taken advantage of their goodness (and lack of understanding) putting these young people at risk to fulfil their own blind ideology.

What remains distressing is that two decades later we’ve largely forgotten the lies, and no one has ever been held accountable. Even Washington’s British allies convened the Chilcot Inquiry, which despite its limited mandate did examine aspects of the war and its aftermath. Nothing of the sort happened here.

When former president Barack Obama released the Bush-era torture memos that had been commissioned to provide a “legal” justification for and define allowable methods that could be used to torture prisoners captured in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was hope that some of those involved would be called to account for their war crimes. The memos were horrifyingly graphic in describing permissible torture practices. But after releasing the memos, Obama announced that “we wouldn’t look backwards” and sought to bury the matter.

And so here we are, two decades after the war with no accountability for the lies that left thousands of young Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. It is sickening to see the same neocon hawks, still considered “experts”, now on the airwaves peddling their Manichean views about other conflicts and enemies. And it is deeply troubling that the American public remains uninformed not only about Iraq, and what the US did there, but also about the entire Middle East and its history and culture.

Precisely because of the lack of accountability and understanding of its own history and that of other peoples who America’s policies have affected, the US continues to operate blind in a world that grows increasingly wary of its role. The truth is that accountability wouldn’t make America weaker. Accountability would make it smart, stronger and more respected.

Published: March 28, 2023, 2:00 PM