The great American tradition of bombing Iraq – now in its third decade – has recently been revived by the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama, the fourth consecutive U.S. Commander-in-Chief to launch strikes against the beleaguered Middle East nation. Iraq may be alone in the world in being able to claim such a dubious distinction.
I remember the first time the U.S. bombed Iraq, in January 1991. I was a sophomore in high school and Wilson Phillip’s “Hold On” was at the top of the charts. I didn’t really know what to think about it, but a lot of people were tying yellow ribbons to trees and wearing “Operation Desert Storm” t-shirts with bald eagles and American flags on them, so it seemed like a good idea. Plus, there was the whole babies-being-pulled-from-incubators story, which turned out to be a complete fabrication, but we didn’t know that at the time, so the war’s justification seemed pretty solid.
It wasn’t until later when I started learning more about U.S. foreign policy in general and the lies that accompanied the build-up to Operation Desert Storm in particular that I started to question these policies, and by the late nineties, I became actively opposed to the sanctions regime and the periodic bombings of Baghdad.
The first time I protested a U.S. bombing campaign of Iraq was in 1998. It was in the midst of Congress’s efforts to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about his illicit affair with Monica Lewinsky, and the day after his announcement of the Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign, I joined a picket in front of the White House holding a hand-made sign reading “IMPEACH HIM FOR WAR CRIMES.”
As a young college student, I remember feeling passionately that the United States had no right to bomb another country, especially for so flimsy a pretext as the justification the U.S. was offering at the time. In announcing the attacks, President Clinton stated that they were a response to Saddam Hussein’s refusal to cooperate with the United Nations weapons inspectors who had been monitoring the destruction of chemical and biological weapons for seven and a half years.
By that time, stringent U.S.-backed sanctions had already led to the deaths of more than half a million Iraqi children (a price that was “worth it,” as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had artfully put it two years earlier), and there were credible allegations that the U.S. was abusing the UN weapons inspection process by embedding spies who were gathering intelligence on behalf of the U.S. government. It was this abuse of the process that Iraqis objected to, as explained by former weapons inspector Scott Ritter.
“Public perception is that the Iraqis were confrontational and blocking the work of the inspectors,” Ritter noted in a 2005 interview. “In 98% of the inspections, the Iraqis did everything we asked them to because it dealt with disarmament. However when we got into issues of sensitivity, such as coming close to presidential security installations, Iraqis raised a flag and said, ‘Time out. We got a CIA out there that’s trying to kill our president and we’re not very happy about giving you access to the most sensitive installations and the most sensitive personalities in Iraq.’”
Besides the lack of a moral or legal justification for bombing, I also remember thinking that these policies – the genocidal sanctions that led to resignations of two UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq, Denis Halliday and Hans Von Sponeck – as well as the endless bombing campaigns, would surely lead to an animosity that at some point would come back to bite the United States.
All these concerns were exacerbated, when five years later, the U.S. was gearing up for a major invasion of Iraq that would make all of the previous bombing campaigns look paltry by comparison. As I wrote in February 2003 at Consortiumnews.com, “Iraq’s ‘Day of Liberation’ – as George W. Bush calls it – is set to begin with a bombardment of 3,000 U.S. missiles delivered over 48 hours, 10 times the number of bombs dropped during the first two days of the Persian Gulf War in 1991.”
“Along with the destruction of buildings and the death of thousands from the explosive power of the weapons, the U.S. invasion force intends to paralyze Iraq’s electrical and water systems,” I wrote. “The strategy could be called liberation through devastation.”
As a writer and committed antiwar activist at the time, I worried that the policies could serve to increase the terrorist threat against the United States.
My concerns over the possible ramifications of the war were shared by a number of respected leaders both inside and outside the U.S. government. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, for example, who served as a Middle East envoy for George W. Bush, warned in October 2002 that by invading Iraq, “we are about to do something that will ignite a fuse in this region that we will rue the day we ever started.”
Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the first Bush administration, said a strike on Iraq “could unleash an Armageddon in the Middle East.” Former South African President Nelson Mandela said Bush was “introducing chaos into international affairs.”
But George W. Bush brushed those warnings aside and proceeded with his plans.
The 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent counter-insurgency campaign and civil war ended up killing more than 1,000,000 Iraqis and creating refugees of more than 4,000,000. The U.S. use of depleted uranium weapons left Iraq the most radioactive land on earth with rates of birth defects higher than those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the dropping of atomic bombs on those cities.
Now, nearly 12 years later, the U.S. is bombing Iraq yet again, this time in response to a vague threat posed by a brutal and extreme militant group, ISIS or ISIL, the existence of which could be considered a direct result of the past three decades of U.S. policy towards Iraq.
Addressing the nation on Wednesday, President Obama said that “ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East – including American citizens, personnel and facilities.”
“If left unchecked,” he continued, “these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies. Our intelligence community believes that thousands of foreigners – including Europeans and some Americans – have joined them in Syria and Iraq. Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
Eight years ago, the same intelligence community that Obama is now citing in providing justification for expanded strikes on Iraq had starkly warned that a whole new generation of Islamic radicalism had been spawned by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The 2006 intelligence estimate, representing the consensus view of the 16 spy services inside government, said “the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,” according to one American intelligence official.
After its failure in Iraq, the U.S. turned its attention to Libya, and decided to overthrow the government of Muammar Gaddafi through a massive bombing campaign. Following Gaddafi’s ouster, his caches of weapons ended up being shuttled to rebels in Syria, fueling the civil war there. The U.S. also took a keen interest in destabilizing the Syrian regime and to do so began arming groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Now, predictably, this Frankenstein’s monster has come to pose a threat to the United States and its allies. Two American journalists have been brutally murdered by ISIS terrorists, and among a cacophony of demands from the right that the Obama administration “do something” in response to this threat, the U.S. has decided to do the only thing that knows how to do, which apparently is launch airstrikes and blow things up.
From the perspective of those of us who have been protesting these policies for decades, the frustration is palpable. As long-time antiwar activist Medea Benjamin tweeted following the president’s speech on Wednesday, “I’m tired of perpetual war.” Reiterating one of the frequently made arguments against these policies – that they will continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence – Benjamin noted: “Obama says ISIL may pose a threat to US. Certainly when we bomb them, they will try to kill Americans to retaliate.”
Or, as the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis pointed out, “escalating military actions against this violent extremist organization is not going to work.”
Noting that it’s impossible to destroy an ideology through bombing (pointing to the failure to do so with al-Qaeda), Bennis calls instead for common sense policies such as implementing arms embargoes in the region and initiating broader diplomatic solutions in the United Nations.
But much like the long-standing tradition of bombing Iraq, there is an equally long-standing tradition among U.S. policymakers of ignoring calls for restraint and brushing aside alternatives to military action. The systematic snubbing of voices of reason is just as predictable as the ultimate failure of these air strikes to achieve their goals – unless of course the goals are actually to perpetuate the cycle of violence and spawn a new generation of militant groups that will make ISIS look like boy scouts in comparison.