Imperial Times: The Narrow Spectrum of “Iraq War” Reflection
To appreciate the power of the dominant imperial ideology in the United States it is best to examine commentary at the “leftmost” outposts of establishment opinion. It is at the “liberal” New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, and the “public” broadcasting system where the most relevant boundaries of acceptable debate are set, not at more reliably and stridently reactionary venues like FOX News or the Wall Street Journal, or other “conservative” organs like the Weekly Standard.
Behold the Times’ editorial board’s reflections this morning (I am writing on Wednesday, March 20, 2013) on the tenth anniversary of the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq:
“Ten years after it began, the Iraq war still haunts the United States in the nearly 4,500 troops who died there; the more than 30,000 American wounded who have come home; the more than $2 trillion spent on combat operations and reconstruction, which inflated the deficit; and in the lessons learned about the limits of American leadership and power.”
“It haunts Iraq too, where the total number of casualties is believed to have surpassed 100,000 but has never been officially determined; and where one strongman was traded for another, albeit under a more pluralistic system with a democratic veneer. The country is increasingly influenced by Iran and buffeted by the regional turmoil caused by the Arab Spring.” (“Ten Years After,” NYT, March 20, 2013, A22).
I am struck by three problems in these two short paragraphs. First, consider the term “the Iraq War.” Besides being historically unspecific (it could also be applied to Dessert Storm  or Iraq’s long U.S.-fueled war with Iran in the 1980s), the designation “the Iraq war” tells you nothing about the basic fact of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (OIF), which is that it was a monumentally illegal and immoral and brazenly imperial invasion and occupation of Iraq by the world’s only Superpower. It was not just a war that Uncle Sam happened into somehow on Iraqi soil.
Second, the Times editors underplay the damage the imperial invasion and occupation did to Iraq. Their reflections on what “haunts Iraq” is quite an understatement of the appalling havoc America wreaked in Mesopotamia. As the left journalist, author and editor Tom Engelhardt noted in mid-January of 2008:
“Whether civilian dead between the invasion of 2003 and mid-2006 (before the worst year of civil-war level violence even hit) was in the range of 600,000 as a study in the British medical journal, The Lancet reported, or 150,000 as a recent World Health Organization study suggests, whether two million or 2.5 million Iraqis have fled the country, whether 1.1 million or more than two million have been displaced internally, whether electricity blackouts and water shortages have marginally increased or decreased, whether the country's health-care system is beyond resuscitation or could still be revived, whether Iraqi oil production has nearly crept back to the low point of the Saddam Hussein-era or not, whether fields of opium poppies are, for the first time, spreading across the country's agricultural lands or still relatively localized, Iraq is a continuing disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory.” 
According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen in the December 2007 edition of the mainstream journal Current History, “The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century…The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained.”
Third, it is telling that the Times’ editors see the United States as “haunted” only “in” the losses inflicted on its own people and government. Shouldn’t it also and especially be haunted by mass-murderous Mongols-surpassing misery its criminal war of invasion and occupation imposed on the people of Iraq? Even going by the Times editors’ lowball statistics, the damage done to Iraq far surpasses the damage to the United States in both absolute and proportional terms.
Part of why the Times’ editors don’t seem more disturbed by the harm inflicted on the Iraqis is suggested in a lament that comes later in their “Ten Years After” editorial. “None of the Bush administration’s war architects have been called to account for their mistakes,” the editors complain, “and even now, many are invited to speak on policy issues as if they were not responsible for one of the worst strategic blunders in American foreign policy” [emphasis added] (New York Times Editors, “Ten Years After”).
Another and related part of the reason for the editors’ indifference is suggested in an Op Ed piece by that vanguard neoliberal war champion and regular Times columnist Thomas Friedman one page over in today’s paper. “Given its history of brutal dictatorship,” Friedman proclaims, “Iraq might seem to be the last place in the Middle East we should have tried to help give birth to a self-governing democracy…Iraqi society under Saddam has been traumatized,” Friedman writes, “and the impact of 35 years of authoritarian rule will not dissipate quickly” – as if nothing had been done by the U.S. to traumatize Iraq when and after Saddam was deposed. Unreal.
Friedman concludes with hope that “all who sacrificed so that Iraq would have an opportunity for decent governance” will see democracy flourish in coming years, yielding a “positive judgment” on the invasion (T. Friedman, “Democrats, Dragons, and Drones,” NYT, March 20, 2013, A23).
Never mind that the invasion was launched under thoroughly false and concocted pretexts (“weapons of mass destruction” and supposed connections between Saddam and al Qaeda/9-11). Or that freedom- and democracy-promotion were only installed as the main reason for the neocolonial war of invasion once the original pretexts were exposed as deceptions. Or that the occupation continued over and against the opposition of the great majority of Iraqi people. Or that the real and frankly imperial goal behind the invasion, deeply consistent with U.S. foreign policy since World War II and before, was clear as day to millions at home and abroad: to deepen U.S. control over Iraqi’s remarkable and largely untapped reserves of economically and strategically hyper-significant oil.
There’s nothing new here. The Times editors’ criticism of the Iraq invasion/occupation falls within the same narrow “hawk-dove” spectrum that defined and restricted acceptable power elite foreign policy debate during the Vietnam era. Then as now the bipartisan imperial Establishment’s official “doves” (including later Barack Obama adviser Anthony Lake) could only question the practical outcomes (for American power and lives) and implementation of a monumentally mass murderous and deeply criminal war of aggression they insisted on seeing (or claiming to see) as driven by noble and democratic (never imperialist or racist) goals. And the people on the wrong end of Uncle Sam’s inherently dignified global guns and policies were beyond the sphere of the “doves” imaginable concern. The supposed “antiwar” establishment’s critique was about the Vietnam War’s negative impact on American lives and power, not the U.S. military’s role in killing 2 million or more Southeast Asians. “The doves,” Noam Chomsky recalled in 1984:
“felt that the [Vietnam] war was ‘a hopeless cause’ ….[But] Everyone across the all-too narrow elite spectrum --- ‘doves’ no less than ‘hawks’ – agreed that it was a ‘failed crusade,’ noble but ‘illusory’ and undertaken with the ‘loftiest intentions’ …there is a possible position omitted from the fierce debate between hawks and doves, namely the position of the peace movement, a position in fact shared by the large majority of citizens as recently as 1982: the war was not merely a ‘mistake,’ as the official doves allege, but was ‘fundamentally wrong and immoral.’ To put it plainly: war crimes, including the crime of launching an aggressive war, are wrong, even if they succeed in their ‘noble’ aims. This position does not enter the debate, even to be refuted; it is unthinkable within the ideological mainstream” (emphasis added).
Chomsky recalled the comments of the “antiwar” New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who once described the U.S. assault on Vietnam as “a blundering effort to do good” – consistent with what Chomsky called “the fundamental doctrine that the [U.S.] state is benevolent, governed by the loftiest intentions.”
Such, more than four decades later, is the recycled doctrinal claim of the bipartisan imperial establishment (from the president on down) in relation to Iraq. The notion that the criminal, immoral and petro-imperialist attack on Iraq was, well…criminal, immoral and petro-imperialist is simply unthinkable within reign elite doctrinal parameters. As Chomsky noted five years ago, “the reasoning and the underlying attitudes carry over with almost no change to the critical commentary on the US invasion of Iraq.”
It is disgusting that messianic militarists like Paul Wolfowitz and other “OIF” planners and propagandists are treated with respect and receive hefty speaking fees to share their rancid views on world events in the wake of their monumental transgressions. Wolfowitz, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the rest, including Condi Rice and Colin Powell (the onetime My Lai whitewasher who sold the criminally false WMD pretext for the invasion at the United Nations) should be confined behind bars for the rest of their days. But “mistakes” and “strategic blunders” don’t really cut it by any civilized moral criteria when it comes to evaluating the criminal and brazenly petro-imperialist (and richly bipartisan) U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Paul Street (email@example.com) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). Street’s next book, They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2013) will be available net fall or summer.