Does the United States owe Iraq reparations for the war it launched there in March 2003?
This is a war that now is universally recognised, even by many among its former cheerleaders, as having been unnecessary, a war that, besides causing countless Iraqi deaths, succeeded only in unlocking the country’s political, cultural, social and sectarian contradictions and wreaking incalculable damage on Iraqi society — palpable damage that continues to unfold as we speak today.
The recently released book, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq, by Robert Draper, the renowned political commentator and contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, seems to suggest indirectly that, yes, the US owes Iraqis reparations or at the very least a kind of, well, apology.
Soon after American troops reached Baghdad, President Bush was watching TV as sundry Iraqis looted abandoned government buildings, museums and libraries. He turned to his Secretary of State, Colin Powell (about whom more later), with a pained, perplexed look on his face, as Draper reports, and naively asked: “Why aren’t they cheering?”
The background against which America’s ruinous war was started in Iraq not quite two decades ago is well-trod history. So why, you ask, would anyone want to wade through a book (at 440 pages, no less) in order to retread its path?
Well, Draper’s book is not just an authoritative, prodigiously researched tome that lays out in devastating detail how the casus belli the US administration advanced to justify its invasion was anchored entirely in patent fabrications, but it is also a book that happens to be at once vivid, engaging and in places even gripping.
War seen through cold, considered lens of hindsight
Draper, much like Barbara Tuchman in her iconic The Guns of August (1962), knows how to write an adroitly readable narrative of a war seen through the cold, considered lens of hindsight.
We know by now that it was the fateful confluence of three factors that made that unnecessary war inevitable: A clueless president who, though a self-styled “decider”, didn’t know foreign affairs from a hole in the wall, a cunningly relentless cabal of neoconservatives hell-bent on regrouping the geopolitics of the region, and a spineless intelligence brass that agreed — yes, that’s the right word here — to routinely provide false intelligence reports reinforcing the biases of their hawkish bosses in the White House.
This is all old hat, you say? Sure, but, as Draper shows in his narrative, the devil is in the details.
Consider this. Soon after American troops reached Baghdad, President Bush was watching TV as sundry Iraqis looted abandoned government buildings, museums and libraries.
He turned to his Secretary of State, Colin Powell (about whom more later), with a pained, perplexed look on his face, as Draper reports, and naively asked: “Why aren’t they cheering?”
American troops as liberators?
After all, hadn’t his Vice President, Dick Cheney and his Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, both avowed hawks, assured him that Iraqis would receive American troops as liberators?
No matter, a month later, on May 1, 2003, convinced that the war had been a cakewalk, the result of American employment of “shock and awe”, the clueless president climbed an elevated lectern aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner declaring “mission Accomplished” and told the troops: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed”.
In short, folks, it’s a wrap.
It was not, of course, anything resembling that. Not by a stretch. Not for the next eight years.
If government officials were consumed by fantasies, the neocons — to the core, articulate hucksters one and all and traffickers of a rehashed neo-imperialist vision of America as supreme hegemon — knew that language was not a mere currency of rational exchange and were able to weaponize it as a vehicle to dominate the public discourse as they were able to deploy it in an intellectual framework in their rhetoric.
Meanwhile, the intelligence community went on to propagate the fiction that Iraq stockpiled weapons of mass destruction and was a central front in the global war on terrorism.
Faulty intelligence reports
As Draper recounts, in October 2002, when asked by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham, about whether any links between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden existed, CIA Director George Tenet replied that “there is solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and Al Qaida going back a decade”.
Later, in the Oval Office, he assured President Bush that the evidence for Colin Powell’s upcoming speech at the UN Security Council in support of an American invasion (“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources”) was equally solid.
The only solid thing about this story is how sordid it was.
The price paid for the unchecked naivete of a clueless president; for the gratification of the neocons’ ambitions in the region; and for the duplicity of an intelligence community that had opted to go along to get along, was hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and the upending of Iraq’s destiny as a stable nation. And Draper’s book attests to how heavy indeed that price was.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.