War in Iraq is nearly finished, but lessons and lies live on

As US troops prepare to leave Iraq, accountability for the atrocities of the war there remains absent.

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With the date for US forces to be fully withdrawn from Iraq fast approaching, it is important to remind ourselves how America got into that long and deadly war in the first place, to recognise that this conflict is far from over, and to hold accountable those who are responsible for the horrors they created during the past eight years.

In a word, the road to Baghdad was paved with lies. I don't just mean the fictions of "weapons of mass destruction" or of "Saddam's connection with Al Qaeda" that were used by the Bush administration to justify their case for war. In both instances, the White House and its minions throughout the government worked overtime, relying on embellishment, distortion, and outright fabrication to make their arguments for war. What they did in manufacturing and marketing these lies was wrong, both morally and legally.

More insidious still, were the subtle and seductive lies that were used along the way to war. These were the lies that led too many Americans, including much of the mainstream media, to conclude, in the words of one Bush apologist, that the war would be "a cakewalk".

When pressed by Congress or the public for answers, administration officials and their supporters would argue that the war would last but a week; that it would require less than 100,000 US troops who would only need to stay in Iraq for six months; that the entire effort would only cost the US Treasury about two billion dollars; that Americans would be greeted in Baghdad as liberators with flowers in the street; and that with the dictator gone, Iraq would become a "beacon of democracy" lighting up the entire Middle East.

Moved by the exaggerated threat, and lured by the supposed relative ease of the war and its expected apocalyptic outcome, America went marching off to Iraq. Those who attempted to remind then-Secretary of State, Colin Powell, of his "Powell Doctrine", or who questioned the wisdom of going to war in a country about whose history and culture and people Americans knew too little, were silenced.

No one in government, back then, wanted to hear of unintended consequences or projections of anything less than a positive outcome.

Eight years later, the US leaves Iraq with thousands of Americans dead; hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives lost; millions driven into exile; and a bill of a trillion dollars. The politics of Iraq can be described as fragile, at best, with the country remaining a sectarian and ethnic tinderbox that could explode in an instant, with the added danger of dragging the neighbourhood into a broader conflict.

And to all of this must be added the damage done to America's standing in the region and the world resulting from the recklessness of the war, and its excesses and abuses. US troops will leave, but the scars of this conflict and its open wounds will remain.

This must be recalled because these sins of the past have neither been acknowledged nor have those who committed them been held accountable for their actions. Equally important are lessons we should have learnt from the fabrications created and the disasters that have resulted from ignoring reality.

Listening to the current overheated rhetoric in vogue today in US political discussions about what should be done to confront Iran and Syria, it appears that these lessons have not been internalised. Those who cavalierly argue for a US military response in either country ignore the consequences.

With the same crowd who lied and seduced the American people into an eight-year disaster in Iraq now spread out amongst the Republican candidates for president, serving as their foreign policy or national security advisers, their dangerous arguments can be heard once again. When they chide the US president, Barack Obama, for not being more aggressive in taking the lead against the brutal regime in Syria, or when they flippantly suggest that the US should support an Israeli military strike against Iran, it is as if nothing has been learned from the tragic disaster of the immediate past.

One main reason for this sorry state of affairs is Washington's lack of accountability. There is no appetite to punish those who justified torture, fabricated the case for war in Iraq, and sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to the Middle East to engage in a conflict with no good end in sight. And it is some of the same cast of characters that took the US to war in the first place that are still polluting the policy debate.

From their lofty perches at universities, think tanks and as advisers to candidates for higher office, these people recognised as "experts" are calling for more wars that will only make a bigger mess, while the mess they created has still not been cleaned up.

It makes sense when protesters in Tunisia and Egypt demand that those who were complicit in the crimes of the past should be called to account. It also makes sense to expect that American politicians would apply the same measure of accountability at home.

This is not, as some will suggest, anti-democratic or an effort to weed out and exclude those with differing points of view. It is rather a call to apply the profoundly democratic principles of transparency and accountability.

Those who abused the public's trust and who lied the US into a war that took so many lives and cost us all so dearly should be called to account for what they have done. To let them "off the hook" is both wrong and dangerous.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute