Donald Rumsfeld’s death is a good occasion to reflect on the Iraq War of which he was a major architect. The War was the highpoint of the U.S. pursuit of global hegemony. That means it’s been downhill since then. Its failures echo far beyond the calamity of the War itself. The collateral impacts—before, during, and after—have grievously damaged American interests and substantially diminished its power in the world. It’s the exact opposite of what was promised going in.
The War grew out of one fiscal problem and two strategic opportunities. The problem was that after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. didn’t have any meaningful military challengers. None. So, there was no rationale for the kind of military budgets the weapons makers had been accustomed to. People were demanding a “peace dividend.” It would never come.
Over the course of the Cold War, Defense Department budgets averaged $458 billion a year. But in the Clinton years, funding dropped to an average of $394 billion a year. If the weapons makers, one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, were to continue with the kind of gilded glutting they had enjoyed during the Cold War, they needed a major new kinetic event—a big war—that would require hundreds of billions—eventually trillions—of dollars of spending. They got it.
A simple thought experiment confirms this thesis: would the U.S. have invaded Iraq if, instead of possessing the world’s second largest supply of oil, it was the second largest producer of, say, figs? Just asking the question mocks itself. Of course, it wouldn’t have. The war was a naked violation of international law but Iraq could be had because it was broken, so it was taken.
The second opportunity was that a war with Iraq would take out Israel’s greatest threat, with the U.S. doing the dirty work. The War was invented and pushed by a hawkish cabal of neo-conservatives with deep ties to Israel. They included Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Elliott Abrams, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Norman Podhoretz, John Bolton, and others.
In 1996, these neo-conservatives advised Benjamin Netanyahu to make a “clean break” with the past. That included abandoning the Oslo Peace Accords, and invading and destroying Iraq. Arch neo-con Paul Wolfowitz wrote at the time, "The road to peace in the Middle East goes through Baghdad." David Wurmser, one of the founders of the neo-con Project for a New American Century and an aide to Dick Cheney, wrote, “Whoever inherits Iraq dominates the entire Levant strategically.”
So, the rationales for the War were in place: gain control of the world’s oil supply; open a gusher of spending to weapons makers; and destroy Israel’s preeminent enemy.
The problem was that Iraq posed no threat to the U.S. It had been under constant bombardment since the First Gulf War, in 1991. So, a Big Lie was manufactured and crammed down the throat of the American public to frog march it into war. It is sickening to see how many centers of American power were marshalled behind this Big Lie, and how ferociously it was forced on the American public.
Saddam Hussein was ritually made into the obligatory Hitler who posed an existential threat to the U.S. Lies were mass produced and laundered through complicit stenographers, like Judith Miller at the New York Times and all the major news networks. They warned that Saddam was close to acquiring a nuclear weapon, had sought yellow-cake uranium in Niger, had covertly bought aluminum tubes that could only be used in nuclear centrifuges, and so forth. All lies.
And they were known to be lies at the time they were tendered. The people who knew best whether Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction, were the weapons inspectors who had worked in the country for over a decade. They included Egypt’s Mohamed el Baradei, Sweden’ Hans Blix, and the U.S.’s Scott Ritter. All proclaimed publicly that Iraq did not possess WMDs and was not pursuing them It didn’t matter.
The elites and the insiders wanted their war and they were going to have it, truth and the interests of the nation and the world be damned. This included the media which benefits from higher ratings during war and which is owned by same wealthy elite who own the weapons makers and wanted the War. Its job, in the phrase of Noam Chomsky, was to “manufacture consent” for the War. It did so with thuggish abandon.
George W. Bush constantly conflated Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden, suggesting that Saddam had something to do with 9/11. Saddam and bin Laden were mortal enemies and Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. The media studiously did not correct the lies. Dick Cheney proclaimed he had “absolute certainty” Saddam was on the path to acquiring a nuclear weapon. It, too, was a lie, but, like the Saddam/bin Laden lie, it went unchallenged. Colin Powell, Secretary of State, humiliated himself, destroying his reputation for life, by peddling the lies at the U.N., knowing they were lies.
No lie was too salacious, no threat too brazen to proffer. Condoleesa Rice summed up the drummed up dumbed up hysteria of the lies with her cutesy warning: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Rumsfeld prophesied, “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” The U.S. is still there more than 18 years later. Richard Perle, neo-con head of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, declared that the War would pay for itself. It has consumed more than $6 trillion, paid for by the American taxpayer. That’s three times Joe Biden’s opening gambit for a national Infrastructure bill.
Vice President Cheney said on the eve of the War, “We will be welcomed as liberators.” The U.S. had to kill more than 300,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians, to suppress the swelling resistance. It’s use of depleted uranium in its ammunition left Iraq the most radioactive geography on earth. Acknowledging the War’s failure in its parallel with another U.S. military fiasco, Rumsfeld prohibited the use of the word “quagmire” in the Pentagon to describe the morass.
Former head of the National Security Agency, General William Odom, called the War “The greatest strategic disaster in the history of the country.” It was a calamity, a debacle, a notorious advertisement of the epic failure of the U.S. military which delusionally, robotically advertises itself as “the finest fighting force in the world.” It has not won a major war since World War II, not Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or now, Afghanistan. The War produced a substantial spike in global terror, including the creation of ISIS under the watchful, nurturing eyes of the U.S. military occupation.
The real tragedy of the War is that virtually none of its lessons have been learned. It’s easy to understand why. None of its perpetrators have ever suffered any consequences for the damage they inflicted on the country and the world.
The weapons makers and militarists got their boatloads of gravy. DoD spending jumped from an average of $394 billion a year under Clinton to $601 billion per year under Bush II. That’s a $207 billion average spending increase per year. And the gusher keeps giving. Biden just approved a military budget request for $753 billion. When it’s military spending, nothing succeeds like failure.
Israel got its biggest threat in the region destroyed, and didn’t have to put a single Israeli soldier at risk to do it. Indeed, it was given an effective immunity to continue its expropriation of Palestinian lands and a $3 billion per year stipend to expand the apartheid policies that are now its defining character.
The Bush II administration refused to raise taxes to pay for the War. Rather, it lowered them for the rich, twice. So, the national debt that stood at $6.8 trillion when Bush took office, had almost doubled, to $11.9 trillion when he left. This was a massive boon to the wealthy as the increased demand for borrowed money raised interest rates in the economy as a whole.
The wealthy are net lenders and benefit from higher interest rates. They received a multi-trillion increment to their wealth as a result of the increased borrowing needed to fund the War. It has been a major factor in the dramatic increase in economic inequality in the country and world.
The oil companies got theirs, too. The risk premium to global oil supplies occasioned by a decade-plus war in the middle of the Middle East raised global prices far above what would have obtained absent the War. The result was trillions of dollars of global wealth transferred from oil consumers to oil producers. This, too, is a major factor in skyrocketing inequality.
All of the above were intended consequences of the War, purposeful benefits to the wealthy private forces that pushed it. The negative consequences of the War, which largely fell on the public, should be noted, as well.
There is a straight line that runs from the Big Lie about Iraq to the “Big Lie” Donald Trump tells about the 2020 election. Trump’s “Big Lie” is actually a Little White Lie compared to the ravages inflicted on the country by the Big Lie of Iraq. The difference is that the media were prime peddlers—and beneficiaries—of the earlier Big Lie, so never mention it. But it was they who normalized Big Lying.
The American people know they were lied to, and that the Lying was carried out by the whole of the Elite Institution of American Governance. The Iraq War made Big Lying a legitimate tactic to achieve otherwise unacceptable ends and now there are no effective prohibitions against it. It’s like the broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, manically spawning a profusion of new, ever-more-insidious lying. But the method has jumped the medium, from mainstream media to social media, and cannot be gotten back into the bottle.
There is a similarly straight line running from the economics of the Iraq War to the cesspool that is Trumpism. In the recovery from the Great Recession of 2008, Barack Obama believed that fiscal constraints prevented him from enacting a stimulus package equal to the needs of the crisis. His own chief economic adviser, Christina Romer, said he needed three- to four-times the $787 billion package he ultimately got. The consequence was an anemic economic recovery that played into the resentment of the MAGAts against another Democratic administration.
The unashamed ethic of grift that is the oozing essence of Republican identity today got a major boost from the grifting surrounding the Iraq War. Billions of dollars on dozens of palettes meant for reconstruction went missing. Billions more were wasted on grossly substandard buildings that were never intended to be used, except as conduits to sluice money to military contractors, like Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. It was a feeding frenzy of epic proportions, and everyone was in on it.
Today, grift is the literal raison d’etre of the Republican party. No lie is too vile, no conspiracy too looney, no deceit too damaging but that some slimeball moves to make money off of it. Donald Trump, Margorie Taylor Green, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Fox News, and many others exist as little more than lying machines, ladling out non-stop bilge to monetize the clicks that follow from the ensuing outrage. Digital grift is their art form. The damage it is inflicting on the country is incalculable, eroding trust in democracy and degrading the public’s collective capacity to affirm common truths.
Tragically, our society is not capable of holding great crimes against the public to account. Those who pushed the War and profited from it have not only not been punished, they have prospered. And because of that, their hold over the country has increased.
The oil companies have eviscerated Biden’s Infrastructure plan, denuding it of anything that might boost renewable energy. The weapons makers have just been granted a $753 billion budget by the Biden administration, despite now losing Afghanistan, in addition to Iraq. It is supposedly to combat China, which has exactly one foreign military outpost in the world, to the U.S.’s 800. But if the U.S. military cannot win wars against fourth-world countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, how is it going to win one against China, which has nukes and has just surpassed the U.S. as the largest economy in the world? It’s psychotic.
While the U.S. wastes money on trillion-dollar boondoggles, China is investing prodigious sums in robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and biotechnology, the technologies of the next Industrial Revolution. While the U.S. tries to buttress its hold on the last century’s energy platform, oil, China leads the world in the next century’s platform: renewable energy. And while the U.S. writhes in the disintegration of its social capital, literally cannibalizing itself from within, China gains ever more coherence and support from its people as it blows by the U.S. and its savage Nineteenth Century grand strategy of neo-colonialism with Iraq as the archetypal model.
In Greek legend, the Lydian king, Croesus, wanted to go to war with the Persians. To cover his bets, he asked the Oracle of Delphi what it thought of the idea. The Oracle replied enigmatically: “If you go to war, a great empire will be destroyed.” Croesus fancied that this meant the Persians. In fact, it was his own empire that was destroyed, at the Battle of Sardis. Too late, he understood his folly, ruing, “In peacetime, sons bury their fathers; but in war, fathers bury their sons.”
Fathers in the U.S. are burying their sons, literally and metaphorically. They are destroying their sons’ prospects for a better world, a better life, a more vibrant future because we cannot, will not, free ourselves from the grip of internal predators, those who have captured the government to enrich themselves at the expense of all others, including to the extent of destroying the country itself. As the Oracle prophesized, the U.S. went to War, and a great empire is being destroyed. That is the true legacy of Iraq.
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