20 Years After Catastrophe in Iraq, the War Apologists Still Dominate U.S. Foreign Policy By: Katrina vanden HeuvelRead Now
In Warsaw last February, President Joe Biden condemned the lawless Russian invasion of Ukraine: “The idea that over 100,000 forces would invade another country—since World War II, nothing like that has happened.” One month later marked the 20th anniversary of the greatest U.S. foreign policy debacle since Vietnam: America’s “war of choice” against Iraq, with 130,000 U.S. soldiers invading the country to overthrow its government.
Given the scope of the folly, it is understandable that Biden would want to bury it in a memory hole. Although not as Orwellian as Biden, much of the commentary around the 20th anniversary similarly sought to explain or justify or diminish the calamity. This isn’t surprising, since few of the perpetrators, propagandists, and cheerleaders who drove us into the war suffered any consequence. Their reputations were re-burnished; their stature in America’s foreign policy establishment was retained. Bizarrely, those who led us into the disaster continue to dominate America’s major media platforms, while those who warned against it are largely pushed to the margins.
Putting a blush on the Iraq War is not an easy task. The Bush administration touted its preventive war doctrine, scorned the need for America, at the height of its unipolar moment, to seek authority from the United Nations, approval from NATO allies, or adherence to international law. Iraq was a target for neoconservatives long before 9/11, as the propagandists at the Project for the New American Century made clear. The push for the war began hours after 9/11, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was an avowed enemy of Al Qaeda. The Bush administration campaigned to sell the threat, making it—as Secretary of State Dean Acheson wrote at the beginning of the Cold War—“clearer than the truth.” For message advice, the administration hired professional PR gurus—like Charlotte Beers, the Queen of Madison Avenue, straight from award-winning campaigns hawking Uncle Ben’s Rice and Head & Shoulders Shampoo. From the president on down, they sought to associate Saddam Hussein with 9/11, although they had no evidence of a connection that did not exist. Then they focused on the threat posed by Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. To overcome skeptical CIA analysts, Vice President Dick Cheney formed his own intelligence group, while über-lobbyist John Rendon invented an Iraqi National Congress headed by the nefarious financier Ahmed Chalabi, who provided “intelligence” on demand.
Despite the fearmongering, the administration faced the largest demonstrations ever organized against a war before it began—what The New York Times termed “a new superpower.” Germany, France, and NATO refused support; the UN denied sanction. But reporters and editorialists for the mainstream media echoed the administration’s claims; liberal pundits rushed to show their patriotic fervor. With few exceptions, liberal politicians signed on to preserve their “credibility.” The daily barrage of distortions and deceptions worked: on the eve of the war, two-thirds of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, and nearly four-fifths thought he was on the verge of having nuclear weapons.
And so the catastrophe. The war cost the United States 4,600 dead, and over 30,000 wounded. Estimates of Iraqi casualties top 400,000, with a staggering 7 million refugees and millions more internally displaced. Sectarian conflict savaged Iraq. A new generation of jihadists arose and spread. Iran gained influence in the region.
America’s reputation has not recovered to this day. Most of the world has stayed out of the Russian-Ukraine conflict, dismissing U.S. hectoring about the “rules-based international order” as hypocrisy. China’s influence spread as the United States floundered in the endless wars in the Middle East. Americans are tired of wars without victory. The press squandered its credibility. And the arrogance and irresponsibility of foreign policy establishment was exposed—all contributing to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
Twenty years later, the war’s advocates and apologists struggle to justify their calamitous course, or to mollify judgments and achieve, in the words of Richard Haas, former president of the Foreign Policy Association, “an elusive consensus about the war’s legacy.”
One frequent excuse is that the war was a mistake or a tragedy, not a crime. The administration, it’s argued, really did believe that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It was, Hal Brands writes in Foreign Affairs, “an understandable tragedy, born of honorable motive and genuine concerns.” Despite the lack of evidence, a “critical mass of senior officials…talked one another into believing the most readily available justification,” concluded Max Fisher in the Times. In fact, the “war of choice” was the product of hubris, at a time when the United States was at the height of its power, driven by zealots who scorned law, evidence, and the “rules-based order.” Or as Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, reviewing the material provided for his UN speech, “This is bullshit.”
Others, risibly, suggest that Iraq is better off today as a result of the invasion. Saddam Hussein was a bad man, “the one indisputably real WMD in Iraq,” Times columnist Bret Stephens writes, justifying his support of the war. Getting rid of him is a boon for the Iraqis, Stephens argues, with “Iraq, the Middle East and the world better off for having gotten rid of a dangerous tyrant.” This breathtaking conclusion can only be made by ignoring the devastation wrought on the country, the region and America’s credibility. It is the same arrogance that led to regime change in Libya, with the result once more a bloody civil war.
Some, like David Frum, the Bush speechwriter said to have coined the term “the Axis of Evil” (the preposterous grouping of Iraq and Iran—two fervid enemies—with a North Korean regime that neither had any connection to), suggest the Iraqis bear much of the blame. We “offered Iraq a better future,” Frum tweeted. “Whatever West’s mistakes; the sectarian war was a choice Iraqis made for themselves.”
The price for failing to hold the perpetrators of this debacle accountable is that their worldview still dominates America’s national security establishment. Biden came into office pledging to create a foreign policy for the middle class, but he has proceeded to reaffirm America’s imperial delusion—that we have the resources, wisdom, and charter to police the world, to counter Russia and China in their own neighborhoods, while chasing terrorists, dropping bombs from drones in seven countries, and dispatching forces to over 100 countries across the world. We sensibly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a violation of international law. Yet Richard Haass, a charter member of our foreign policy establishment, can write—apparently without irony—that the lesson to be drawn from Iraq is not opposition to aggressive war but that “wars of choice should be undertaken only with extreme care and consideration of the likely costs and benefits.” Surely, one of the enduring horrors of Iraq is that despite the calamity, our foreign policy establishment remains unshaken, and its worldview remains unchanged.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editorial director and publisher of the Nation and is president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA). She writes a weekly column at the Washington Post and is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for Democracy Now, PBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN. Find her on Twitter @KatrinaNation. This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Nation.
Imagine the uproar if China or Russia—or any other country for that matter—said it aimed to exercise military control over land, sea, air, and space to protect its interests and investments.
This amazingly has been the stated United States policy since 1997.
Full spectrum dominance, as the doctrine is known, is the reason the United States behaves the way that it does on the international stage.
The United States demands that the world bow down to its leadership. A failure to do so is met with the full force of the international military-industrial complex controlled by the Americans.
Enforcement has included everything from the funding of opposition forces in sovereign nations, the removal or even assassination of political leaders who refuse to toe the line, economic sanctions, and military intervention.
Of course, there are choices to be made by the United States about which approach—or combination of approaches—it might take. There are also decisions to be made about the degree of action within each approach.
But fundamentally the point is that Washington believes it has a right to inflict on the rest of the world its interpretation of democracy—which seems to essentially amount to agreeing with whatever course of action the United States wants to take.
So what is full spectrum dominance really for?
There’s a famous scene in the Oscar-winning film Reds where the great revolutionary journalist and activist John Reed, played by Warren Beatty, was asked at a dinner what the war in Mexico he had just returned from was all about. Before sitting down he said just one word: profits.
The United States is interested in safeguarding the profits of monopoly capital, which carries politicians in Washington around in its pockets like loose change.
The United States also will not tolerate others, such as China, muscling in on potential new markets or swaying people away from its sphere of influence.
China is seen as the biggest threat to the profits of the companies that currently decide pretty much what we will eat and even when we can eat it.
Anyone who expects the Chinese to simply sit back and take the provocations dealt out by the two-faced Americans is living in cloud cuckoo land.
China’s State Council Information Office recently issued a report that accused the United States of being the world’s biggest offender of human rights.
In “The Report on Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2022,” the Chinese government said the United States “has sanctions in place against more than 20 countries, including Cuba since 1962, Iran since 1979, Syria since 2011 and Afghanistan in recent years.”
Calling the United States out as the most prolific enforcer of unilateral sanctions in the world, the report said Washington pursues power politics in the international community, frequently uses force, provokes proxy wars, and is a saboteur of world peace.
The report added that under the guise of anti-terrorism activities, the Americans have killed some 929,000 civilians and displaced some 38 million others in 85 countries.
Between 2017 and 2020, the United States launched 23 “proxy wars” in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific region, the report stated.
The report said that violations of immigrant rights and the refusal of Washington to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp created “an ugly chapter of unrelenting human rights violations.”
The report slammed the United States for holding up to 780 people at Guantanamo, most of whom were held without trial for years, while subjecting them to cruel and inhumane treatment.
Essentially the United States will go to any lengths to enforce what it sees as its unipolar dominance of the world.
As far as it is concerned, “might is right,” and there are no consequences for its behavior.
There is no legal redress as the United States is not part of the International Criminal Court—which it lauds for threatening to prosecute Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though Russia is also not a signatory.
It has a veto at the United Nations and much of the world relies on its military shield as well as the mighty dollar with which to trade.
Given the cards stacked against those of us who oppose U.S. full spectrum dominance and the seemingly invincible power of the biggest bully on the planet, the question is: What can we do?
The answer to full spectrum dominance is full spectrum resistance and organizing.
It is necessary to gear our efforts away from piecemeal change and toward revolutionary transformation.
This will mean bringing together unions, climate activism, equality organizing, and a range of other social and economic movements in a serious change away from liberal posturing.
The guardians of capital are highly organized and put the resources where they need to go to protect and expand what they have. Activists generally just pretend that we are organized and fall out with each other at the first available opportunity.
I am not arrogant enough to believe I have all the answers. But what I do know is that we have to gaze beyond the Global North for what radical transformation might look like.
It really is time to shift the paradigm and bring movements together to work out how to pool our resources for real results—full spectrum resistance and organizing.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
The United Steelworkers (USW) mounted tireless battles for fair trade and other
lifelines that helped to keep McLouth Steel open during the 1980s, enabling Jay
McMurran and thousands of other Michigan workers to raise families and build
pensions amid one of the nation’s worst economic crises.
Recognizing that other workers need the same kind of strength behind them,
McMurran resolved to fight back when Republicans rammed union-gutting “right-
to-work” (RTW) legislation through the state legislature in 2012.
He and other union supporters and their allies worked relentlessly for years to oust
the corporate toadies and elect pro-worker lawmakers instead. Their long struggle
culminated in victory on March 21, 2023, when new Democratic majorities in the
House and Senate voted to repeal the deceptively named RTW laws, restoring
workers’ full power to bargain fair contracts and safe working conditions.
Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has since signed the legislation, which
represents the latest in a string of victories for workers mobilizing to build strength
across the country.
No one in America is ever forced to join a union, and no union wants workers to
join against their will. Yet a union is legally obligated to serve all workers in its
Many states allow unions to charge nonmembers a small fee to help cover the costs
of representation. But in some states, RTW laws pushed by corporations and anti-
worker groups enable nonmembers to receive union services for free.
These laws intentionally divide workers, erode the solidarity that’s the foundation
of union strength, and starve unions of the resources needed for effective
bargaining, training, and other essential purposes—all to the boss’s benefit.
“‘Right to work’ is simply a union-busting scam that the Republicans dress up as
‘choice,’” observed McMurran, a longtime USW member who worked at McLouth
Steel for 27 years.
“It weakens the local union,” he said. “It weakens every worker’s position when
you get into collective bargaining, when you get into grievance hearings, when you
get into arbitrations. The boss knows your weaknesses, and he exploits them.”
It’s no surprise that workers burdened by RTW laws make significantly lower
wages than their counterparts in other states. They’re also less likely to have
employer-provided health insurance and retirement plans than other workers.
At the same time, workers in RTW states face a higher risk of dying on the job
because they lack the strong, unified voice needed to fight for workplace safety.
“Everything I have is because I was a Steelworker,” said McMurran, who recalled
that unshakable solidarity among his coworkers not only ensured good contracts
and safe working conditions but also kept their employer in business.
“The steel mill that I came out of was in financial trouble for 13 years, and the
Steelworkers fought to keep the place open nearly every day of those 13 years,”
said McMurran, citing the busloads of USW members who converged on
Washington, D.C., in the 1980s to demand support for the company. “We actually
kept the place going so more people qualified for pensions and employer-
sponsored health care. We did some good things there.”
Sadly, despite successes like that, Michigan’s GOP legislators conspired with
corporations and other anti-union interests to undermine worker power.
McMurran was among the 10,000 protesters who packed the statehouse in a last-
ditch effort to stop Republicans from pushing RTW through a lame-duck session
during the 2012 holiday season.
Union members lost that skirmish but won the war.
After Republicans passed the legislation over the protesters’ objections, McMurran
said, workers and their allies launched a “long-game” plan to reverse it.
Workers helped pass a 2018 referendum that took redistricting out of the hands of
partisan political hacks and put fair-minded citizens in charge of the process. New,
equitably drawn legislative districts enabled voters to elect pro-worker lawmakers
willing to represent them rather than corporations.
And those pro-worker majorities, in turn, speedily acted to end RTW. For
McMurran, the victory highlighted both the power of collective action and the
importance of electing the right people to office.
Workers in other states also are beating back RTW amid growing support for
organized labor and a pandemic that underscored Americans’ need for good wages,
affordable health care, and the other benefits that unions deliver.
For example, even as Republicans in Michigan united behind a failed defense of
RTW, several GOP legislators in Montana helped to kill RTW legislation in that
state in February 2023. The opponents included Republican Senator Jason Small, a
member of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, who described his 26
years of union membership as a “heck of an opportunity” in his life.
“It has nothing to do with red or blue. It’s what’s right for people and their
families,” explained Curtis Schomer, vice president of USW Local 11-0001.
Schomer, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for the Montana
House in 2022, repeatedly traveled to Helena, the state capital, to rally against
RTW and testify against the harmful legislation.
He noted that a strong union gives him and his 1,300 coworkers at the Sibanye-
Stillwater mining complex the power to take safety concerns directly to
management and address problems immediately. In a dangerous industry like
mining, he noted, that kind of voice saves lives and ensures workers return home
safely at the end of their shifts.
Schomer expects pro-business interests to continue to push RTW in Montana. But
he predicted those efforts will fall flat in communities that not only have a rich
legacy of labor activism but also continue to appreciate the benefits unions
“Our unions do a lot for our communities,” Schomer said. “They especially do a
lot on workplace safety. People see that.”
Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.