GOP wants to pin Iraq on Barack Obama. Perhaps they need a simple refresher in the real history of the last decade
Like clockwork, the Republican noise machine is blaming Barack Obama for the crisis in Iraq. And like clockwork, they’ve got everything wrong again.
The man to blame for what’s happening in Iraq is not President Obama — it’s President Bush.
Contrary to Tony Blair’s latest protestations, the U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq — underdeliberately fraudulent pretenses – had a great deal to do with enabling the current emergence of a Sunni terrorist military power in Iraq, but it goes much deeper than that. The recent success of ISIS — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — is exactly what Osama bin Laden had hoped that the 9/11 attacks would lead to. And thanks to Bush’s spectacularly foolish responses, bin Laden’s dream has come true.
Before 9/11, bin Laden was a terrorist and could only dream of becoming the “holy warrior” he imagined himself to be. When Bush chose to respond to 9/11 as an act of war, rather than a crime, he gave bin Laden the gift he had always wanted, just by conferring that status.
First, by invading Afghanistan, Bush validated bin Laden’s claim that what was happening was a religious war between Islam and the Christian West. Then, by invading Iraq and deposing his most prominent ideological foe, Saddam Hussein, Bush gave bin Laden a second gift—a much stronger position of influence throughout the region.
But the invasion also fractured Iraq’s tenuous factional stability, and was followed by a whole series of bad decisions making matters even worse. (There was a seeming exception to this pattern, the vaunted “surge,” but as Middle East specialist Stephen Walt tweeted on June 14, “Clear now that Iraq ‘surge’ in 2006-07 failed. Had 2 goals: reduce violence & promote political reconciliation. Achieved 1st but not 2nd.”) As a result, the success of ISIS and the threatened disintegration of Iraq gives bin Laden’s ideological descendants a third gift: a level of military and political power they could never have dreamed of, much less achieved, on their own.
The root cause of all the above was Bush’s decision to respond to al-Qaida post-9/11 as warriors, not criminals. From there, the seeds of everything else were sewn, along with the skyrocketing of our national debt (more on that below). But it did not have to be that way.
In fact, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a worldwide consensus that 9/11 was a monstrous crime, and that those who committed it should be brought to justice. Gallup International revealed this via a poll conducted in 37 countries, conducted within a week of 9/11. The first question it asked was whether the U.S. should respond militarily, or by seeking extradition and trial. In all but three countries, overwhelming majorities said that the U.S. should pursue extradition and trial.
The exceptions were particularly instructive. Two countries with overwhelming majorities in favor of war (more than 70 percent) were Israel and India — countries that have spent decades unsuccessfully trying to suppress terrorist attacks through military means. “Hey, it hasn’t worked for us,” their people seemed to be saying, “but you should try it, too, so we don’t feel like such fools in our isolation.”
The third county, not surprisingly, was the U.S. But only a bare majority, 54 percent, favored a military approach, while 30 percent favored extradition and trial, and 16 percent were undecided. What’s truly remarkable about the U.S. results is that almost nowhere in the media was anyone arguing against a military response — a tally conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that Op-Eds in the New York Times and the Washington Post ran 44-2 in favor of war during the first three weeks after Sept. 11 — and yet, a total of 46 percent of Americans did not initially support the idea.
There can be no doubt that the war response was exactly what al-Qaida wanted. In the wake of bin Laden’s assassination, Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting wrote an article, “Losing the Plot: The Afghan War After bin Laden,” citing several pieces of evidence along these lines. Over the years, bin Laden had never made it a secret what he was up to: trying to bait the U.S. into a ground war in his backyard, so that he could defeat us, just as he’d defeated the USSR, in large part by bleeding us dry financially. Naureckas first cited Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, one of the few Western-based journalists to interview bin Laden, who spent three days with him in 1996. In a 2007 Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview, Atwan recalled bin Laden explaining his long-term strategy:
He told me personally that he can’t go and fight the Americans and their country. But if he manages to provoke them and bring them to the Middle East and to their Muslim worlds, where he can find them or fight them on his own turf, he will actually teach them a lesson.
Atwan also reported that bin Laden had been disappointed with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia:
He told me, again, that he expected the Americans to send troops to Somalia, and he sent his people to that country to wait for them in order to fight them. They managed actually to shoot down an American helicopter where 19 soldiers were killed, and he regretted that the Clinton administration decided to pull out their troops from Somalia and run away. He was so saddened by this. He thought they would stay there so he could fight them there. But for his bad luck, according to his definition, they left, and he was planning another provocation in order to drag them to Muslim soil.
Naureckas also cited bin Laden’s 2004 video message in which bin Laden recalled fighting alongside the Mujahedin as they “bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.” The same could be done with the U.S., he said, citing estimates that the Sept. 11 attacks, which cost al-Qaida $500,000, had cost the U.S. more than $500 billion in destruction and military expenditures. And Naureckas cited a 2011 Washington Post piece by Ezra Klein, elaborating al-Qaida expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ contention that bin Laden had been “enormously successful”:
Bin Laden, according to Gartenstein-Ross, had a strategy that we never bothered to understand, and thus that we never bothered to defend against. What he really wanted to do—and, more to the point, what he thought he could do—was bankrupt the United States of America. After all, he’d done the bankrupt-a-superpower thing before.
Given that Afghanistan has long been known as “the graveyard of empires,” it does not take a genius to figure this out. Who knows, bin Laden might even have read Paul Kennedy’s 1988 bestseller, ”The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers“; it certainly doesn’t seem that anyone in the Bush administration had. Kennedy detailed the dynamics of imperial overstretch over the past 500 years, and warned of the coming decline of both the U.S. and the USSR. After the Soviets fell much sooner than anyone expected, American elites suddenly lost interest. Funny how that worked.
So what would have happened if we had chosen to bring bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaida to trial? The Taliban initially refused to turn them over, but quickly began to waver. On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, they were willing to turn bin Laden over to a third country — something they had actually tried to negotiate prior to 9/11. This was not an ideal solution, but a clear indication that they were moving in our direction. Bush’s response? “When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations.”
Remember, we did not even recognize the Taliban government; we had no direct diplomatic relations with them. But we had enormous leverage, and clearly could have come to terms, if we had any desire to do so. Bush simply did not. He wanted vengeance, not justice. And what would have happened in a trial? One thing I would expect would be the testimony of Muslim religious authorities condemning the attacks as illegal and immoral in Islamic law and morality. But more important, I would expect testimony from the families of the victims — particularly the31 Muslims who were killed that day.
I would expect the prosecution to do everything possible, not just to seek justice for the victims, but to ensure that no one else would ever be killed in such a manner, ever again. And so I would have expected the murder of innocent Muslims to play a central role in the trial. And as a consequence, I would have expected that no child born for at least 50, if not 100 years would bear the name of “Osama.” Because make no mistake, before we went crazy in response to 9/11, we had the good will of virtually the entire world on our side. It was Bush’s foolish choice of how to respond that changed that irrevocably. Within a month, we were the ones killing innocent civilians with our airstrikes in Afghanistan; that’s how quickly we moved to erode our moral high ground. Bush rashly threw away a gift-wrapped opportunity to utterly destroy al-Qaida, and turn all the world against any who even dream of following in their footsteps.
In the second term of the Bush presidency, after the Downing Street memos made clear the duplicity of Bush’s case for going to war in Iraq, calls for his impeachment began to arise, including books by Dave Lindorff and Barbara Olshansky, by Elizabeth Holtzman, and by Elizabeth De La Vega, a former federal prosecutor. In the Nation magazine cover story that gave birth to her book, De La Vega explained her legal rationale:
Legally, there are no significant differences between the investor fraud perpetrated by Enron CEO Ken Lay and the prewar intelligence fraud perpetrated by George W. Bush. Both involved persons in authority who used half-truths and recklessly false statements to manipulate people who trusted them. There is, however, a practical difference: The presidential fraud is wider in scope and far graver in its consequences than the Enron fraud.
Yet, Gary Kamiya, writing here in May 2007, noted a distinct lack of interest in impeaching Bush for obviously serious lies, compared to impeaching Clinton for relatively trivial ones. The surface reason was simple political calculation, he wrote, but that was only part of the story:
But there’s a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off — and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush’s warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America’s support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It’s a national myth. It’s John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness — come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we’re not ready to do that.
Put another way, it’s never easy to confront the id, and that’s what impeaching Bush would have called for. So we decided to just let Bush run out the clock. After all, how much worse could things get?
Sixteen months later, Wall Street gave us the answer. But that’s another story. Yet, even after that, we still weren’t ready to scrutinize Bush too closely. At least that’s what our elite leadership told us. When President Obama said that he wanted to “look forward, not backward,” it was funny how none of the Beltway’s countless Churchill fans quoted Sir Winston back at him, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” The one time when being a Churchill fanboy might really have been helpful, for a change, and all we got was … crickets.
That’s when Obama really did start to accrue some share of blame himself, for everything that’s happening in the Iraq today, by failing to vigorously clean up the mess he inherited. The invasion of Iraq was a war crime, a violation of the U.N. charter that forbids wars of aggression, and a violation of U.S. law as well, as De La Vega wrote:
The evidence shows, then, that from early 2002 to at least March 2003, the President and his aides conspired to defraud the United States by intentionally misrepresenting intelligence about Iraq to persuade Congress to authorize force, thereby interfering with Congress’s lawful functions of overseeing foreign affairs and making appropriations, all of which violates Title 18, United States Code, Section 371.
It’s the president’s responsibility to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed. Appointing a special prosecutor to investigate these crimes would have been an eminently reasonable thing to do. Of course the Republicans would scream bloody murder if the Obama administration itself directly undertook such an investigation. Which is why an independent special prosecutor should have been appointed — someone completely outside the DOJ’s chain of command.
At the same time, a comprehensive reexamination of the response to 9/11 should also have been undertaken as well, also by a body free from political interference. This is where the utter illogic of giving bin Laden the war he wanted should have been thoroughly analyzed, debunked and replaced with proposals for a much more solid long-range plan of action. We needed a clean, sharp break with the self-defeating policies that Bush set in motion within days of 9/11.
Of course, Obama did nothing of the sort. To the contrary, he seemed eager to maintain as much continuity as possible with the outgoing Bush administration, doing nothing to seriously alter the open-ended “long war” approach to “fighting terrorism,” and keeping much of George W. Bush’s national security bureaucracy in place, as epitomized by having Robert Gates stay on as secretary of defense.
So, if you want to criticize President Obama for the chaos unfolding in Iraq, go right ahead. But blame him properly: The fault he bears is not for undermining anything Bush did, but rather, for failing to rethink and replace it with a policy that might actually work.