“If you break it, you own it,” warned U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to President George W. Bush just before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.
Powell knew that the president had no clue what unpredictable forces he was about to unleash. Bush now knows. We all do.
As we witness the inexorable, slow-motion collapse of Iraq in the face of viciousIslamic State extremists, let’s remember Powell’s private caution to Bush: “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You’ll own it all.”
This has been an awful week in the troubled history of Iraq. The stunning seizure last Sunday night of the pivotal provincial capital of Ramadi by Islamic State fighters took everyone by surprise.
Until last weekend, the United States and Iraqi view was that ISIS rebels were on the defensive and that Iraq’s questionable military had learned to hold its ground. But at Ramadi, even though they outnumbered the rebels, Iraqi soldiers abandoned the city in the face of the ferocious attack. Many of the ISIS fighters were equipped with American weapons captured earlier from fleeing Iraqi soldiers.
Once again, the debacle has called into question the country’s future as a unitary state. Not only is the Iraqi military’s will to win in doubt, but the Iraqi government is also showing itself to be divided and inept. As for the Americans, whose military intervention has been limited to largely ineffective air strikes, their strategy to “defeat” ISIS is floundering.
However, it is not as if these Islamic State jihadists, who are now roaming freely in Iraq and Syria, were invented out of thin air. They have a history.
They are largely the remnants of the Al Qaeda movement operating for years in Iraq, as well as veterans from Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. Shortly after the Americans deposed Hussein, the U.S. foolishly disbanded Iraq’s Baath army. It was a move that put more than 200,000 angry young men out of work. Is it a surprise that many of them are now are working for ISIS?
Why did they want a war? That’s a harder question to answer. Some of the warmongers believed that deploying shock and awe in Iraq would enhance American power and influence around the world. Some saw Iraq as a sort of pilot project, preparation for a series of regime changes. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there was a strong element of wagging the dog, of using military triumph to strengthen the Republican brand at home.
Whatever the precise motives, the result was a very dark chapter in American history. Once again: We were lied into war.
Now, you can understand why many political and media figures would prefer not to talk about any of this. Some of them, I suppose, may have been duped: may have fallen for the obvious lies, which doesn’t say much about their judgment. More, I suspect, were complicit: they realized that the official case for war was a pretext, but had their own reasons for wanting a war, or, alternatively, allowed themselves to be intimidated into going along. For there was a definite climate of fear among politicians and pundits in 2002 and 2003, one in which criticizing the push for war looked very much like a career killer.
On top of these personal motives, our news media in general have a hard time coping with policy dishonesty. Reporters are reluctant to call politicians on their lies, even when these involve mundane issues like budget numbers, for fear of seeming partisan. In fact, the bigger the lie, the clearer it is that major political figures are engaged in outright fraud, the more hesitant the reporting. And it doesn’t get much bigger — indeed, more or less criminal — than lying America into war.
But truth matters, and not just because those who refuse to learn from history are doomed in some general sense to repeat it. The campaign of lies that took us into Iraq was recent enough that it’s still important to hold the guilty individuals accountable. Never mind Jeb Bush’s verbal stumbles. Think, instead, about his foreign-policy team, led by people who were directly involved in concocting a false case for 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.