But it is also making me think about the relative absence of substantive foreign policy discussion in our presidential election and politics more generally, and the extent to which the international crises of our day—aside from the climate crisis—can largely be traced back to the war against Iraq launched in 2003.
That war was critical not only because of the principles underpinning it and the destruction it caused. It was also the first real campaign of the global “War of Terror” launched by the Bush administration. President Obama’s language might have changed, but for nearly 16 years the United States has been fighting global conflicts untethered from any particular geography, but also from reality and the realm of cause-and-effect.
The war on Iraq was critical because as the administration geared up for conflict, bipartisan support for the war and a culture of violent patriotism cowed the media when it came to asking critical questions about national security, a state of affairs that has largely endured to the present.
The war was based on what I see as the truly terrifying neo-conservative conviction—shared by prominent members of both political parties, as demonstrated by the neo-con “thinkers” moving to back Clinton’s presidential bid. Namely, the United States has both the right and power to re-make the world in its own image, using whatever means are necessary.
This shockingly arrogant imperial logic has had and will continue to have devastating consequences for our world and our country.
The war on Iraq had immediate and violent consequences: it resulted in a massive (and uncounted) death toll of Iraqis, and the deaths of more than four thousand U.S. soldiers.
The war in Iraq destroyed much civic and physical infrastructure in Iraq. The country was hardly a model of good governance under Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian rule. But by destroying institutions and infrastructure, the United States obliterated the social glue that, with Saddam’s authoritarianism, had held a diverse society together.
We are seeing how the destruction of or absence of strong public institutions in our own country creates conditions in which people are liable to turn against each other. Iraq was and is no difference, although the nature of the Baathist regime, the region’s history, and the relative novelty of Iraq itself made its disintegration particularly bloody.
As the largest and most full-fledged war of the post-9/11 era, the Iraq war led the U.S. to the “dark side.” Our security state and military embraced—to varying degrees—torture, secret prisons, rendition, and a host of despicable and illegal activities that have gone largely unpunished. Our own state terrorism discredited the Bush administration’s claims to be waging a moral war for progress, and has made our soldiers and citizens targets for retaliation.
The war took a massive financial toll on our country, worsening the condition of our economy, warping the priorities in successive Bush-era budgets, and leaving us with fewer resources to cope with the devastating financial crisis that capped his disastrous terms in office. The discrediting of the traditional powerbrokers in the Republican Party along with the neo-conservative wing of the Democratic Party helped to create an opening for the rise of the Tea Party.
More inclined to save their skins than to learn lessons, Democratic supporters of and advocates for the war embraced a feeble narrative that criticized the war as poorly planned and executed. This allowed them to whack the Bush administration for partisan gains, while getting off the hook for the flawed principles and ideological underpinnings of their votes and subsequent foreign policy advocacy.
Because our military were stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, we became averse to conventional ground wars, and began to fetishize—particularly under the Obama administration—drones and aerial bombardment as the best tools for fighting “terror” and policing our global empire. These tools and the nature of their deployment have led to less accountability, the erosion of legal processes, state secrecy, and an abstraction of the methods of waging war from their consequences on the ground, meaning we are less willing to take responsibility for what unfolds when we change a government from the air or launch drone attacks.
The logic of the war on terror having largely gone unquestioned, the war on Iraq and derivative conflicts across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and South Asia have drawn a host of other states into a global war of terror. This has several consequences. First, the clash of civilizations rhetoric meets international terrorists on their preferred ground. Secondly, by requiring a massive military response to every act of terror anywhere, it ignores the root causes of terror.
The expansion of the war of terror creates violence and hardship for people around the world. But it also permits governments in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia of dubious legitimacy to conflate local terror groups that have very specific grievances and agendas with more global terrorist organizations. This grants those governments license to use violence against their own citizens on the basis of dubious claims, and often has the effect of forging real links between local and international terror where none previously existed.
This occurred most obviously in Iraq itself, where our war created a vacuum perfectly-constructed for Al Qaeda, providing the terror organization with a larger stage and a new haven from which to project itself, as well as the legitimacy that came from taking part in a fight against American occupation.
The war on Iraq also created the conditions for ISIS to flourish, with lethal consequences for millions of Iraqis and Syrians.
ISIS’ success in exacerbating the Syrian civil war and resurrecting a multidimensional civil war in Iraq is also the cause of the refugee crisis facing Turkey, which will have serious consequences for the country’s people, politics, and already-eroding secular model.
Refugees fleeing the aftermath of failed U.S. foreign policy to the European countries that subsidize our failures are also directly imperiling the viability of Europe’s welfare states. The destruction of the most enduring, revolutionary, and peaceful political-economic developments of the 20th century is something in itself to be mourned. But the crisis is also propelling the rise of nativist and fascist parties in Europe and will contribute to undoing the hard-won moves toward continental unity.
Politicians have variously sought to address the Iraq war by referring to a “mistaken” vote, poor information, somebody else’s ill-will, or poor-management. The fact, of course, is that plenty of people with some understanding of history, politics, the Middle East, etc, predicted most if not all of this.
And the scale of the repercussions, the continuing catastrophe they represent for the world, and the moral, economic, and conceptual straitjacket they impose on our own country clearly require deeper introspection and accountability, as well as answers from those who supported this disastrous war and continue to seek power.
Both presidential candidates supported the Iraq war (although one of them lies regularly about this), and then found unconvincing ways to disengage from responsibility. Unconvincing in the case of Trump because he advocates bombing campaigns, torture, and a foreign policy driven by toxic nationalism. And unconvincing in the case of Clinton because she backed similarly-premised if smaller-scale interventions in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and is the preferred candidate of neo-con “intellectuals.”
I know Democrats who will respond to this by saying that the two candidates are not equally bad, and so to harp on about Clinton’s foreign policy is to aid Donald Trump. But I care less about Clinton’s margin of victory than I do about the lives of people around the world, and if we shudder at the thought of a Trump presidency it is also worth wondering how many more disasters on the scale of Iraq our world can survive.
I hope that anyone who believes it possible to walk and chew gum will spend at least some of the coming months (and likely years) thinking about the premises underpinning our foreign policy, and the potential of a bad decision taken under those premises to cause so much destruction and violence.