And this — the difference between a mistake and a crime — makes all the difference in the world.
Labeling the invasion of Iraq a “mistake” that was driven by faulty intelligence shifts the blame away from those responsible for launching the murderous invasion, which allows all involved to slip away unscathed. It also allows them to reemerge in the public sphere without any hint of shame, and without being hounded by embarrassing questions.
Paul Krugman, in a recent column for the New York Times, sums it up quite well:
The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that. We were, in a fundamental sense, lied into war…
So let’s get the Iraq story right. Yes, from a national point of view the invasion was a mistake. But (with apologies to Talleyrand) it was worse than a mistake, it was a crime.
Actually, one could go even further: It could be that the war was not just a crime, but “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,” a war of aggression.
Benjamin Berell Ferencz, a Chief Prosecutor for the United States during the Nuremberg trials, argues that the Iraq war could be labeled a war of aggression in George W. Bush, War Criminal?: The Bush Administration’s Liability for 269 War Crimes:
[A] prima facie case can be made that the United States is guilty of the supreme crime against humanity, that being an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation…
The United Nations charter has a provision which was agreed to by the United States, formulated by the United States, in fact, after World War II. It says that from now on, no nation can use armed force without the permission of the U.N. Security Council. They can use force in connection with self-defense, but a country can’t use force in anticipation of self-defense.
Regarding Iraq, the last Security Council resolution essentially said, “Look, send the weapons inspectors out to Iraq, have them come back and tell us what they’ve found — then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.” The U.S. was impatient, and decided to invade Iraq — which was all pre-arranged of course. So, the United States went to war, in violation of the charter.
Aggressive war was a crime for which Nazi war criminals were hanged. Yet, anyone who even suggests that political officials responsible for the invasion of Iraq should be investigated for war crimes, let alone prosecuted, is either ignored or shouted down as a traitor.
But the same theme that has permeated political discourse throughout the history of the United States, particularly in the post-WWII period, remains dominant: We must ignore our own crimes; only the crimes of official enemies are worth investigating, or even recognizing.
The Iraq war was a classic case of reaching a desired conclusion in advance (called “regime change“), then working in reverse to justify it, even with the most blatantly nonsensical pretexts, all of which have proven to be false. With the horrifying events of September 11, Bush and company got their Pearl Harbor-like event, and they took advantage of it.
There has been enough discussion about the Bush administration’s possible reasons for wanting to invade Iraq prior to September 11 — oil, further control over the region (called “stabilization”), helping to protect our buddies in Israel from a potential threat, installing a government that will follow orders more precisely than Saddam did when he was on our payroll, and so on.
But until we all — the general population, the media, political elites, and public intellectuals — can agree that the Iraq war was a criminal act, there is no way to ensure that something similar doesn’t happen again in the future.
In fact, President Obama has good reason to resist seeking the criminal prosecution of Bush administration officials: it would set a dangerous precedent.
And the dangerous precedent would be that those in power, including President Obama himself, might actually be held accountable for their actions. That is simply unacceptable.
Therefore, those who carried out a murderous invasion of a country that never threatened the United States, and those who were complicit in all that followed, cannot be held accountable, for this might serve as a roadblock to the furtherance of the Empire, and it might mean that those who are currently in power might have to face scrutiny some time down the road, as well.
So the media and political elites carry on as we would expect.
Now, instead of setting the useful precedent of holding criminals accountable, we have the precedent set by the Iraq war and the subsequent impunity: the right of the United States to invade anywhere, citing “anticipatory self-defense” as its sufficient reason.
The late historian Gabriel Kolko, writing about the war in Afghanistan, argued that
…the principal (but surely not exclusive) danger the entire world confronts is America’s capacity and readiness to intervene virtually anywhere. After Afghanistan there will be more American military adventures…America may well intervene elsewhere in its futile, never-ending quest to use its military power to resolve political and social instabilities that challenge its interests as it defines them.
The world…cannot afford U.S. foreign policy’s opportunistic and ad-hoc character, its wavering between the immoral and the amoral …that official speechwriters portray as rational and principled. In reality, it has neither coherence nor useful principles but often responds to one crisis after another – and these are usually of its own making [and]… proof of confusion and ineptness…Rather than leading the world in a better direction, it has usually inflicted incalculable harm wherever it has intervened.
Kolko’s words, published in a small book in 2002, proved to be prophetic, for a year later the invasion of Iraq began.
With a seemingly unlimited capacity for ignoring recent history, neoconservative warmongers like John Bolton can continue to appear on Fox News calling for yet another military campaign without any hint of shame, and Dick Cheney can emerge from his cave every now and then to grumble about his next favorite target.
Some presidential hopefuls, Marco Rubio for instance, can even claim that the Iraq war was not a mistake (citing intelligence that President Bush had at the time), and Jeb Bush doesn’t seem to know what he thinks yet, so he’ll say whatever feels appropriate at the time (although, as the Washington Post has observed, Jeb’s foreign policy team seems “eerily familiar,” leading many to question his claim that he is “his own man”).
Hillary Clinton has said that voting in favor of the Iraq invasion was “a mistake,” but that seems to be the extent of her regrets.
Principled opposition to illegal invasions of other countries remains marginalized, while the media self-righteously questions those currently vying for power about whether or not the war was a “mistake” or a blunder, seemingly forgetting that the very same media played an instrumental role in inciting jingoistic hysteria by regurgitating the lies of the Bush administration, and suppressing the significant popular opposition, both at home and worldwide.
So it goes. “We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing,” as Gore Vidal used to say.