GW Bush's Iraq War vs Obama's Iraq War
The news that several cities in Iraq fell to rebel groups has been met by quite a bit of hysteria and some predictable attempts to score purely political points. Senator John McCain revisited the old cliche, “What if the presidents loses [insert nation here]?” In this case, Iraq. This is a Cold War era phrase. Cold Warriors of the 40s and 50s claimed Truman “lost China.” The phrase has the ugly colonialist assumption that other nations are US territory, that the US as a superpower should naturally dominate them and decide who runs other counries.
It is worth remembering these points.
1.The US-Iraq War was a huge mistake that GW Bush is responsible for, along with all Republicans except for a few libertarian minded ones, some of the more warlike Democrats including Hillary Clinton, and especially the neoconservatives now calling for bombing Iraq. It is truly bizarre to see journalists turn to failed incompetents like Dick Cheney for advice.
2. This war, both the US occupation and the current civil war fought by the Iraqi government, was always an unwinnable war. Almost everyone but neoconservatives predicted that.
3. The current Iraqi government is not truly democratic nor worth saving anyway, not worth a single more American or Iraqi life.
4. Obama is enormously flawed, and when it comes to his drone assassination program, a war criminal. But one thing he did do right, though he had to be pushed into it by antiwar Americans and especially Iraq's government and people, was get out of Iraq. History, and historians and the public who are not wearing blinders, will remember this. GW Bush, on the other hand, may well be remembered as the American president whose incompetence ended the American empire.
GW Bush's War
The Iraq War, by virtually everyone else's view besides Bush and neo conservatives, was entirely unnecessary, a failed war against a nation that had not attacked the US. Even the great majority of conservatives and Republicans concede it was a failure. Claimed to be intended to bring democracy, the Iraq War led to an extremely corrupt and limited system where torture continued at a higher rate than under Saddam Hussein.
The body count for the Second US-Iraq was up to 1,033,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, about 110,000 Iraqi combat deaths, about 6,800 American military deaths, about 1,500 other coalition deaths, plus mercenary deaths.
Who also deserves blame besides? Others in the Bush administration especially Vice President Cheney, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice, and Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates all played central roles in beginning or continuing wars. The Republican Party, with the exception of a few libertarians, overwhelmingly supported war from the start. Much of the Democratic Party supported war. Slightly over half of Democratic congressmen initially voted in favor of it. Many Democrats no longer opposed the war, or kept their criticism quiet, once the war was under control of Obama.
The neo conservative movement, especially the Project for a New American Century or PNAC, had been pushing for the invasion of Iraq since 1997. Neo conservatives dominated foreign policy for the Bush administration. PNAC members made up 18 of the top 28 foreign policy officials, including Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, administrator of Iraq's occupation.
Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, set up and sponsored by the CIA, was intended to take over Iraq after Hussein's overthrow. Chalabi is one of the more bizarre figures of recent years, a mathematician raised in the west who is wanted for bank fraud and embezzlement in Jordan. That the CIA thought Iraqis would accept him as a leader shows a failure of intelligence, in both meanings of the word. The INC, a loose coalition of Iraqi opposition, was essentially a group of lobbyists passing themselves off as intelligence gatherers. The INC pushed some of the worst, most inaccurate claims. Trying to declare Chalabi the new president of Iraq after Hussein's overthrow, this failed within the first week because of opposition from Iraqis and the US military.
Fox News and talk radio played the biggest role in building public support for the wars and continuing them. Fox has always been a de facto propaganda arm for the Republican Party, run by a former Republic Party chairman, Roger Ailes. Fox executives typically coordinated their broadcasts with party leaders to fit party needs, and this was never more true than in the push for war.
Much of the remaining major media coverage was often warmongering propaganda every bit the equal of Fox. But rather than actively pushing for war, they largely passively repeated the official government line. A story to Judith Miller from the New York Times about a source codenamed Curveball claimed Iraq was building nuclear weapons. The CIA called Curveball “crazy” and a “con man.” Yet that did not stop the Bush Administration repeating the nuclear claim many times.
Many of the supposedly objective analysts for news networks, claiming to be retired military, were in fact still working for the government. The Defense Department had a unit of 40 full time propaganda producers, while the State Department had 30. Twenty agencies made hundreds of “news” segments broadcast by the major networks, and the Bush administration spent a quarter billion on public relations to sell the war to the US public.
British Prime Minister John Major was the strongest ally of GW Bush in the war, supporting the war over the opposition of much of his own Labor Party and the British public. Coalition forces in Afghanistan were technically under the orders of NATO. Begun as a Cold War coalition in Europe, NATO had been searching for a mission ever since the Cold War ended. The “Coalition of the Willing,” 39 mostly small nations that supported the Iraq War for mostly financial or political advantage. The coalition served to give the impression of greater world support, but all 39 nations left Iraq well before the US, sometimes by over five years. Originally, GW Bush claimed there were 49 nations in the coalition. Some were included without asking, while others were too small to have armies. That a few of their citizens joined the US military was enough to include them in the coalition. The nation with the smallest number of troops in Iraq was Iceland, which sent only two men, then reduced it to just one.
The most ideologically blind blame solely Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party. Obviously Al Qaeda deserves full blame for the deaths on September 11 and other terrorist attacks they carried out. But blaming the second two for these wars is ludicrous. Before the invasion, the Taliban actually offered to turn Bin Laden over to a third party to face criminal charges, only to be turned down by Bush. Hussein had no connection to Al Qaeda and was not a threat to the US, indeed had not even been a threat prior to the Gulf War.
The public hysteria in America following the attacks on September 11 was the most extreme the nation had seen since Pearl Harbor, and with some similar results. Both attacks led to calls for revenge. Both led to widespread hatred and even physical attacks on entire broad ethnic groups, Asians and Middle Easterners. Both led to wars most Americans would not have considered before. Both attacks also were followed by ludicrous conspiracy theories with no evidence.
But for the presidents in command, there are many more differences than similarities. Franklin Roosevelt was an accomplished man with great success in ending the Great Depression, non-dogmatic in his thinking and practices, and the most popular US president of all time, elected four times. GW Bush owed all he had in life to family connections, was one of the most ideologically blind and inflexible presidents, had been appointed to office by a partisan part of the Supreme Court after losing the election, and was in office less than eight months before the attacks.
Where Roosevelt was the most skilled wartime leader the US ever had besides Lincoln, GW Bush was the most incompetent wartime president the US had since James Madison and the War of 1812. Some of Bush's harsher critics liked to joke about how stupid Bush was. This is false. He was the smartest liar America has ever seen. But he was ignorant about most other matters, and worse, uninterested in learning.
The distinction between stupid and ignorant is important. Stupid you are born with. Ignorance can be cured, by study and by curiosity. Bush did not like study, and had little curiosity. Bush was definitely an intelligent man, with an MBA from Harvard Business School. He has a bit of dyslexia, which he took advantage of to give the impression of being an average guy, and also getting his opponents to “misunderestimate” him. Bush was quite adept at outmaneuvering his political opponents in Congress, and in manipulating the media.
A clear example of this is using the falsehood that tried to tie Al Qaeda to Iraq. There was never any evidence of such ties. In fact, Bin Laden issued a call for Hussein's overthrow and called him an infidel, socialist, and tool of the US. But Bush deliberately talked about Bin Laden and Hussein at the same time, often the same sentence, to give audiences the impression there was such a tie.
Sadly for everyone involved, Bush was also quite ignorant of Iraq and Afghanistan, their people and cultures. The clear evidence of this is believing US troops would be “welcomed as liberators” in Dick Cheney's word. The even clearer evidence of ideological blindness was continuing to believe so for six years when massive Iraqi demonstrations against US occupation began the first week after US troops overthrew Hussein. Indeed, both Bush and Cheney continue to delude themselves to this very day, with Cheney even continuing to publicly claim falsely that Hussein backed Al Qaeda.
Within less than a day after the September 11 attacks, Cheney pushed for an invasion of Iraq. By November, Bush agreed. By some accounts, Bush wanted to overthrow Hussein before he even became president as revenge for Hussein's plot to kill his father Bush Sr. Whether those accounts are accurate or not, the facts remains that Bush went to war knowing (or he should have known) that Iraq had nothing to do with Al Qaeda. While the more cynical put the blame on Dick Cheney for his control of government intelligence, again this plays upon the falsehood of Bush as unintelligent. Information on the lack of ties was widely available, through public sources, to anyone who cared to look.
As said before, Bush was simply uninterested in any information that contradicted his ideological blindness. He ignored evidence the war was doomed to failure repeatedly. Most political, military, cultural and social experts on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Mideast predicted the failure of these two wars. Even Bush's own father had avoided war in Iraq itself. Army Chief of Staff General Erik Shinseki asked for 200,000 to 300,000 troops for Iraq. Bush and Cheney originally wanted to send less than a quarter that number, then were finally talked into sending slightly over 100,000 for the invasion.
Some of Bush's other mistakes were public, indeed worldwide, embarrassments. He famously bragged like he was in a Hollywood film, calling for Iraqi insurgents to “bring it on” and saying he wanted Hussein “dead or alive.” Others were absurdities to anyone angered over losses to terrorists, such as publicly admitting he did not care about finding Bin Laden. The most embarrassing failure of all was to find absolutely no nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons in Iraq. The latter two weapons had been destroyed by UN teams over a decade before. The dictator who was supposedly another Hitler turned out to be poorly armed and could not survive even a month against the US.
As predictors of the future and war planners, Bush and Cheney were nothing if not consistent. They always got it wrong. The Iraq War was supposed to be over in “weeks, not months.” Instead it lasted eight years, with both men utterly failing to predict an insurgency from a wide range of groups against the US and its sponsored Iraqi government.
Contrary to what Bush's harshest opponents claim, with the two grave exceptions of lying to go to war and ordering torture, there is no other credible evidence of Bush as an evil man. He is far more an utterly incompetent and willfully blind one. The end result of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars is truly a stunning failure, unequal to any other wars in US history. By comparison, both the War of 1812 and the US-Vietnam War were far lesser mistakes. The failed Iraq and Afghanistan Wars mean no less than the end of the American empire.
The eventual cost of these wars will reach $4 trillion. Both Bush and Cheney absurdly predicted both wars would pay for themselves, financed by Iraq's oil. Bush even cut taxes during wartime, something unheard of. Typically a nation at war not only raises taxes, they must take out loans and sell bonds. But Bush knew any cost to war would bring even more enormous opposition. Much of the public actually turned against the war when it pushed the price of gas over $3 a gallon. These wars, along with the failures of capitalism in the Great Recession, and the bailouts of Wall Street, banking, and housing markets, mean there is no financial way to pursue major wars for some time.
More importantly, and thankfully, there is no will anymore among Americans for more wars. Massive opposition to the US intervening in the Syrian Civil War proves that. Even a likely short bombing campaign that would have lasted perhaps only days was opposed by virtually all Americans across the political spectrum, by even the most conservative and the most fundamentalist. When the US-Vietnam War failed, it took a decade and a half before the US public would support a war again, and then only half the public, and then only with extensive propaganda. The chance of a major US war the public would support before 2030 is now luckily quite remote, and something to celebrate.
By then the demographics of the US will have changed even more. Minorities, those in large cities, the college educated, immigrants, the less religious, and the young tend to be far more opposed to wars, while whites, the less educated, those from the south and rural areas, fundamentalists, and the generation older than baby boomers are more likely to favor wars. All of the first group are increasing in number while all of the second are decreasing, except for fundamentalists. But even among many fundamentalists, there is an increasing split between the more reactionary and the more progressive.
The end of American empire is itself a very good thing. A democracy should never try to be or act like an empire since it is inherently inhumane and destructive to both the ruler and ruled. But one of the most disturbing consequences of both wars is that the US military is now largely privatized for the first time. Contractors, or as they should be more accurately described, mercenaries, actually outnumbered US troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
This privatizing of war is something even libertarian icon Milton Friedman opposed. The antiwar movement against both wars was largely ineffective. After the first two years, very few peace demonstrators showed up. The blame for that falls squarely on John Kerry. When he ran for president in 2004, his campaign asked peace groups to quit demonstrating, vaguely claiming Kerry would halt these wars. (In fact, Kerry favored keeping both wars going.) Once Kerry was defeated, demonstrations that once attracted tens of thousands now had hundreds, even dozens.
For most antiwar Americans, the only effective way to oppose the war became refusing to join the military, or trying to convince one's family and friends not to join. As both wars worsened, military recruiters had several years’ trouble meeting their goals. Bush shrewdly avoided even proposing a draft, for it had been such a huge rallying point against the US-Vietnam War. At first, US troops were kept beyond their enlistments with the Stop Loss program.
Then when that did not keep enough troops, Bush turned to mercenaries, the most notorious being Blackwater. Mercenaries had no rules of conduct to follow in Iraq as the military does. But they also were exempt from prosecution under local laws, just like US troops. This was the worst possible combination. In the most notorious incident, Blackwater mercenaries opened fire on a crowd of civilians, killing fourteen without cause. In another incident, a drunken Blackwater mercenary killed no less than the bodyguard of Iraq's Vice President.
Beyond the ethical and practical issues, relying on mercenaries is a way to get around having to seek and maintain popular support for a war. Most mercenaries in both wars were not Americans. Some had very questionable pasts, including in death squads in dictatorships. Indeed, some of those who carried out torture in the Abu Ghraib scandal may have been private contractors. Added to that, US military recruiters increasingly relied upon immigrants, who made up to one out of six recruits by the Iraq War's end. There were even very ironic calls from a few US conservatives arguing that immigrants without their papers be allowed to join the military.
Other empires, notably the Romans, Ottomans, and British, relied on mercenaries, and it usually has been to their discredit and infamy. For a mercenary has no loyalty to country, only to the highest paycheck. The mercenary option may be a way another future president could keep a war going in spite of public opposition, much the way GW Bush did.
A final caution: Mercenaries are often notoriously unreliable, sometimes deserting as Hessians did from British service during the American Revolution. They even turn on the empire that hired them, as the Praetorian Guard did on the Romans and the Janissaries did on the Ottomans. Mercenaries hired to guard that empire often decide who will be that empire's leader, and can bring an empire down.