(This is v.2 of this blog post. I edited it to try to give a better picture of the casualty tolls in Iraq from the 2003 decision to invade. But those numbers are still really hard to capture. ~HC.)
In the months leading up to March 19, 2003, when Pres. George W. Bush launched an unprovoked and completely optional war of “total regime change” against Iraq, I was proud to take part in several of the broad and spirited antiwar demonstrations and other actions that took place all around the United States and the world.
But we failed to stop Bush from launching his illegal war.
It was 15 years ago this week, on March 19, 2003, that Bush unleashed the war. The negative consequences of that decision– primarily on Iraq and its people, but also on the United States and the integrity of the global order– were massive, and continue to this day. They include (but are not limited to) the following:
- The number of those who died directly or indirectly as a result of the invasion of Iraq or the numerous secondary conflicts sparked by the invasion has been estimated at around half a million. Around 4,500 U.S. service-members lost their lives. The numbers of those Iraqi residents wounded or displaced during the 15 years of conflict has been considerably higher. All these casualty figures continue to rise.
- The physical infrastructure of Iraq, a country of some 33 million souls, whose schools, hospitals, universities, road system, artistic infrastructure, etc, had already been very badly damaged by 13 years of extremely punitive, US-led sanctions, received considerable additional blows, leading to numerous public-health crises and de-development.
- The social/political infrastructure of Iraq was also badly damaged by Washington’s brutal and ham-handed attempt to remake the country to serve its own neoliberal purposes and to institute an explicitly sectarian system of governance.
- In June 2014, the actively genocidal battalions of Da’esh (ISIS) came roaring out of northern Syria to take over large swathes of the northern, western, and central Iraq. The birth and spread of ISIS in both countries can be traced back in a straight line to the policies Washington pursued towards both of them, including the fateful decision Pres. Bush took in 2001-02 to invade and dismember Iraq. Let us never forget the literally genocidal campaigns of extermination that ISIS pursued against Yazidis, Shi-ites, Christians, and others in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and the following years. Many of the genocided Christians were members of the oldest Christian congregations in existence.
- Pres. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq also cost U.S. taxpayers around $2 trillion in direct costs, enriching all kinds of military manufacturers and contractors. (Brown University’s Watson Center has a good web portal on the costs of US militarism in the present era.) Those are significant opportunity costs. Imagine if that much money had been sunk into repairing or building roads, schools, bridges, and hospitals here in the United States (or overseas.)
- The casus belli that Bush had invoked to justify the war, namely the allegation that Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein was still actively pursuing several aspects of a “weapons of mass destruction” program had been mendaciously built up and proved to have been completely fabricated. But even if Saddam had been pursuing a clandestine WMDs program, the United Nations provided numerous avenues through which those accusations could be (and were being!) investigated, so his pursuit of such a program would not constitute any reason, under international law, for a war to remove him. Bush’s decision to launch the war thus considerably undermined the concept and the reality that any rules-based global order existed. Very much later, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was forced to admit that the US invasion had been illegal. But by then, the damage had already been done.
Looking back today, I feel deep sadness about the fact that the antiwar movement I was part of 15 years failed so badly to save the world from the effects of US militarism.
I also feel very sad about the complete failure of both the U.S. political system and the world political system ever to hold Bush (and his equally mendacious sidekick, Britain’s Tony Blair) accountable for the effects of the war of aggression they wilfully launched back in 2003. Indeed, the U.S. public re-elected as President in 2004–or, in some ways, gave him his first legitimate election to office that year. And though Tony Blair resigned from the office of Prime Minister in 2007, he then moved seamlessly over to being the head of the (perplexingly constituted) “Quartet” of powers leading Arab-Israeli peacemaking, an arrangement that quite unconscionably subordinated the United Nations to the United States. He kept his nicely-remunerated “Quartet” position for the next eight years while also making large amounts of money in the banking sector and holding very honored positions at Yale and other universities. (And while effortlessly allowing Israel to continue its illegal pursuit of its settler-colonial project in Palestine.)
So much for “accountability.”
Beyond the sadness I feel about the fact that in 2003, the antiwar movement failed to prevent George W. Bush from going to war, I feel deeper and more lasting sadness about the fact that at that point, the antiwar movement more or less collapsed. Today, when there is increasing talk in Pres. Trump’s Washington about the possibility of– or, a claimed necessity for– going to war against Iran; and the possibility of war against North Korea is still not off the table– where are the popular forces that can counter or prevent such outrages? The antiwar movement, as a broad, conscious, and dedicated movement, collapsed, it seems to me, a long time ago… pretty soon after March 2003.
Then, exactly eight years after March 2003, on March 19, 2011, NATO warplanes (whose non-US pilots received ample help from members of the US military in targeting, refueling, and other literally essential support services) started bombing government forces in Libya. This time, the casus belli was an allegedly “humanitarian” one. The bombing of Libyan government forces, Western publics were told, was absolutely necessary if the thousands of civilians then apparently trapped in Benghazi in the course of Libya’s rapidly escalating, but Arab Spring-initiated, civil war were to be saved from what was described as “absolutely predictable” Libyan-government brutality.
This time, Pres. Barrack Obama was in the White House. Hillary Clinton was his Secretary of State; and longtime “pro-interventionist” Samantha Power was a key member of Obama’s National Security Council staff. David Cameron was the PM in London.
On this occasion, the Western-led military action (euphemistically called an “intervention”– what a weasel word that is!) was not explicitly described at the beginning as being a war of regime change. It was described as an action to “enforce” Security Council Resolution 1973, which had been passed by the SC just two days earlier and which mandated the creation of a “no-fly zone” over the whole of Libya, in support of a ceasefire that was supposed to come into effect on all the fronts of the civil war. Resolution 1973 was the first big test of the new policy, adopted by the SC only a few years earlier, of “R2P”– the idea that states all have a “Responsibility to Protect” everyone inside their borders, but if they fail to do this then other states or the United Nations should intervene to ensure such protection.
But inevitably, the NATO and allied air forces that “intervened” in Libya to suppress the Libyan Air Force and other units of the Libyan military ended up acting as the de-facto air force of the ragtag coalition of takfiri militias that made up Libya’s anti-government forces. NATO’s “intervention” shifted the balance in the civil war decisively in favor of the opposition militias, which then took over the country, ousting and brutalizing Pres. Muammar Qadhafi and all the forces loyal to him while they split the country into a lawless patchwork of warring fiefdoms.
We in the Western antiwar movement failed to prevent that war of regime change, too. But it was worse than that. This time around, many of the public figures who had argued against George Bush’s invasion of Iraq back in 2003 actually came out and supported the overthrow of Pres. Qadhafi. How and why so many people in the antiwar movement had become supporters of allegedly “humanitarian” or even “pro-democratic” or “pro-rights” campaigns of forcible regime change is a topic I plan to write a lot more about over the months ahead. For now, suffice it to say that the fact that it was Pres. Obama who was now in charge, and that people with allegedly strong “pro-rights” records like Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power were at his side, urging on this war effort, doubtless played a big role in persuading many previously antiwar people to back that particular war (and all the others that Obama engaged in around the world.)
The effects of the NATO-led regime change effort in Libya, and on its 6 million people, have been dire indeed; and they continue to be dire seven years after that war was launched. Rania Khalek has recently made this excellent short video snapshot of the situation in Libya in the wake of March 2011. Very well worth watching.
In September 2013, I have to note, the (by then, chronically depleted) antiwar movement did register one non-trivial victory. That occurred when popular forces in both the UK and the United states were able to prevent our leaders from launching a highly ill-considered (and never at all justified) attack against the government of Syria, in the wake of publication of allegations of the government’s use of chemical weapons against locations in Eastern Ghouta.
The reasons for that victory we scored in 2013 were many. The allegation that it had been the Syrian government that launched the chemical weapons in question had never at that point (or since) been backed up by any hard evidence. Indeed, senior weapons-telemetry experts who looked at the evidence, like MIT’s Ted Postol, concluded it was more likely the weapons had been launched from rebel-held areas than from government positions. It was only ideologues and a few armchair “experts” like the infamous Elliot Higgins who claimed that the evidence against the Syrian government was clear.
Neither PM David Cameron in London nor Pres. Obama in Washington was ever prepared to make public the evidence they both claimed to have against the Syrian government on this score.
Then, the British House of Commons declined to vote in favor of a military attack against the Syrian government. In Washington, Obama declined to take “executive action” to initiate military action but punted the issue over to Congress to vote on it instead. In the House of Representatives, the Republican majority was apparently torn between the desire of some Members to “get their war on” and the desire of others to be either anti-Obama, or to be straight-up isolationist. For some mix of these reasons (and also because the big Jewish-American organizations which have long bayed for tough actions against Syria were momentarily busy with the Jewish High Holidays) … and also because of some well-conducted though small-scale activities by the remnants of the antiwar movement, Obama never got the speedy Congressional “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” that he sought. And meantime, the Russians had “intervened”– diplomatically!– to propose a resolution to the CW issue in Syria that centered around Syria agreeing to allow the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to verifiably dismantle and remove all the country’s CW stockpiles and production facilities.
That was a great, welcome, and very worthwhile outcome to a serious problem: namely, the vulnerability of significant portions of Syria’s CW capabilities to coming under the control of the opposition forces, or in other ways (in those circumstances of complex civil war) falling out of the control of the government.
Our little antiwar movement played a role in that.
Too many other “progressives” and “liberals” in the United States, however, were actually upset that that negotiated de-escalation of the CW crisis at that point denied to the anti-Asad forces whom they supported the chance to jerk Washington into the civil war in Syria on their side.
Well, despite the non-trivial victory the antiwar movement scored in 2013, I still feel that over all, over the course of the past 15 years we’ve failed badly. These are some of the specific ways in which I think we’ve failed:
- We failed to stop NATO’s war against Libya in 2011.
- We failed to stop the many other lethal actions the US military has engaged in or actively supported all around the world since 2003, including but not limited to those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Niger, Yemen…
- We walked completely away from any attempt to hold the authors of the 2003 War of Aggression against Iraq accountable for the misdeeds.
- We had a huge failure to understand how easily and willingly so many of our fellow “progressives” and “liberals” could fall prey to the mendacious myth of a “humanitarian” war— or, as it is often (misleadingly) labeled, a “humanitarian intervention.”
- We have failed to adequately connect the question of warfighting abroad to the effects this warfighting has had on the quality of life of our communities here inside the United States– in terms both of the opportunity costs the investment in war machines has had on social investments that could have been made here at home, and of the “blowback” effects of militarism on the way that policing and social control are exercised in our communities… And thus, we have failed to build the broad-based movement here in the United States, of the kind that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisaged, that would unite opposition to militarism with the domestic struggle for social justice.
So now, 15 years after March 19, 2003, there are more than enough tragedies, outrages, and failures to reflect on. To my friends in the countries whom Washington’s policies have so grievously harmed, I say, as a US citizen: “I am very sorry.”
But I’m not going to sit around wallowing in sorrow or remorse for too long. There is a movement to (re-)build. And that requires that we explore and understand the lessons of the past– including of the past 15 years– a lot more deeply than we have done yet.