Iraq — What Happened, Why and What Do We Do Now?

Reverend Larry Neumark, and our own William Anderson, Professor of Economics, invited me to speak at Frostburg State University, on October 9th, 2007. While the speech I delivered was a serious one, the evening was lively and entertaining, and Frostburg State is a lovely place, in a lovely part of the country. Five years after the government lies that brought us Iraq circa 2007, a majority of people are finally ready to believe their own hearts, and their own eyes, and they seem to wish to put some space between themselves as Americans and the false patriotism of Washington, DC. I saw this at Frostburg State, and it can be a powerful thing.

Thank you all for coming, and I want to especially thank Reverend Neumark, Protestant Chaplain, the Iraq Committee and the many sponsors of this event.

They say you should always start a speech with a joke or a humorous story, but whenever I talk about my observations of the planning and propaganda conducted by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2002 and early 2003, it really isn’t that funny.

I could tell you about how Clinton’s frenetic and unfocused efforts to nation-build and spread democracy abroad weren’t really that awful when compared to the rather focused Bush efforts to destroy nations and export American influence after 9-11.

I could wryly wonder how George W. Bush was elected initially on a non-interventionist foreign policy and when he didn’t do that, he was elected again on a foreign policy of permanent war against America haters — with extensive nation building thrown in.

That isn’t necessarily a criticism of Mr. Bush — but perhaps there’s a bit a of joke here after all. Except that it’s on us.

Before I share my own observations from inside the Pentagon about how we got here, what it means, and what we might do about it, I need to share some statistics about what we have accomplished, so far.

So far, we have spent, according to the National Priorities Project, about $460 billion on fighting in Iraq. That’s just the direct cost. We’ve racked up nearly two trillion in total costs of the war so far, including equipment and training losses, lifetime health care of the disabled soldiers, etc.

We have sacrificed the lives of nearly 4,000 American troops, and injured, in many cases permanently, over 30,000 troops. So far, well over 100,000 American troops have persistent stress reactions or other mental disturbance as a result of their experience.

We have weakened American defensive capability with multiple extended tours for both National Guardsmen and the active forces, years of reduced training and maintenance of equipment, and drastically lower standards for entry into the military. Why would any bright and principled young person want to enter the military today? I can’t think of many reasons.

Actually — I have heard of one. I’ve been told that some high school seniors, in their local job-poor environment and after listening to too much talk radio, just want to go kill somebody. Well, I guess that’s a reason to join.

To fill the military readiness gap — and to fight a modern war where rules are really just suggestions, laws are subject to constant conflicting reinterpretation, and where everyone you see in country might be the enemy — we hired lots of contractors. Mercenaries have been critical to our occupations abroad — just as they have always been for empires.

We have almost 160,000 troops in Iraq today — and perhaps five thousand of those will come home before Christmas. We care about these soldiers, of course. And we have, according to a July 2007 study by the Congressional Research Service, 182,000 contractors working for the American government in Iraq. Many of these people are Americans, too.

Thus, we have nearly 350,000 men and women doing a so-called mission in Iraq. But all this means is that about one American in 1000 is deployed to Iraq, at any given time. Maybe that’s why we say we care, but we really don’t.

There are some folks who care about this number, but they don’t vote in our elections. What we have done — intentionally or not — is to create an Iraq that today recalls the poorly functioning Ba-ath command economy, after a decade of deadly UN sanctions and periodic American bombing, as a good thing, a lovely memory. Electricity was delivered, water was clean and water systems functional, there weren’t two million internally displaced and another two million refugees in camps in neighboring countries, and people could drive their cars through comfortably mixed neighborhoods to visit, shop, and sell goods — or to visit a museum, library, or park.

As a libertarian, I condemn Iraqi Ba-ath Party socialism, its command economy, its lack of civil liberties and freedom, its crude and warlike dictator who invaded one country after another — first Iran, then Kuwait.

As an American, I am quite simply sick that we have done Saddam Hussein one better in every one of these areas.

For Iraqis, the numbers matter. In a country that once had 26 million inhabitants, two million have fled, two million more are internally homeless, and nearly a million have lost their lives since we invaded in 2003. The 80% who have homes remain huddled and fearful, often behind large walls that separate them from family and friend, in the name of ethnic purification, something that the U.S. military is actively pursuing because it tends to make for better statistics. Everyone in Iraq has been touched, and not in a good way, by our invasion and subsequent occupation.

The neighboring countries, Persian, Arab, and Israeli, are worried, and increasingly hostile to each other. Americans are more despised in the Middle East, and around the world, than ever before. As the State Department and the CIA itself report, terrorism has not been reduced in the world, and we are not any more secure than we were six years ago.

All this, you probably already knew. It is today’s news, today’s reality. Iraq is a small thing for us, something that according to most of Congress, and the president’s staff, we should continue to do. We should "win the war," they say. They say we should complete the so-called mission.

This is what General Petraeus says, of course. Sounds logical, at first glance. A wise military thinker and analyst, retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich, assessed the recent report by General Petraeus in the latest American Conservative magazine. He observed that most military commanders, upon discovering something is working in the field, ask not that it be ceased, or reduced, but that it be accelerated and expanded in order to seize the initiative, to claim the advantage. Our own General Petraeus, however, said that the surge was working, and then recommended it be ended post haste. Colonel Bacevich suggests that Petraeus was speaking as an expedient politician, not a military commander.

Curiously, at the beginning of the Petraeus address to Congress, retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern was thrown out of the hearing room for asking simply and politely that General Petraeus be sworn in before he gave testimony. After the address, the administration angrily attacked a cutesy pun on Petraeus’s surname that indicated he might not actually be telling the whole truth.

Before, during and after the Petraeus address, Colonel Bacevich mourned the loss of his only son and namesake, who was killed in action in Balad, Iraq on May 13th, 2007.

If I sound contemptuous of our government, and its continued muddy thinking, cruel execution, and malicious fabrications regarding what we are doing in Iraq, I am.

I got this way back in May 2002, when as a Lt Colonel in the Air Force, I was assigned to the Near East South Asia office, the home of what would become the Office of Special Plans. What the Pentagon senior civilian staff and the President were saying about Iraq that summer did not match the intelligence I’d been looking at regularly for well over four years. Furthermore, it did not pass the logic test.

It appeared that a small group of people, politically appointed neoconservatives who missed the political clarity of the Cold War, and saw 9-11 as a "new Pearl Harbor," were itching for an invasion of Iraq.

Had I been paying attention, I would have known that these particular civilians had been itching for an invasion of Iraq for some time. Some had even been in government before the current regime, such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former CIA Director James Woolsey. But I never suspected that the intelligence system would be corrupted to the extent it was in 2002, and that the mainstream media and leaders of both political parties would genuflect to a war president, and salivate at the thought of more war overseas.

I never thought that so many would lie so much, and so loudly, for so little. I was unfamiliar with the political process in Washington. I was unfamiliar with the fundamental nature of defense spending, and our long-term strategies for base building abroad. And lastly, I had never heard of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that had extremely close ties to many of the policy decision-makers overseeing Iraq invasion planning and propaganda, influence over a great many legislators in both parties, and at the time, was actively lobbying for an American toppling of Saddam Hussein.

I moved my retirement date up a few months and just after I retired, in July 2003, Knight-Ridder newspapers published an op-ed where I discussed the functional isolation of the policy-makers, their cross-agency cliques of likeminded ideologues, and the groupthink that afflicted them in the rush to war.

I realize today that I was far too kind — an improved decision-making process for the war in Iraq would have saved few lives. What we have here is a war designed in fact to take lives, to bring America to a new place where we are irrevocably physically, financially and emotionally invested in the Middle East — not just outsiders interested in peace or the trade of oil.

I want to briefly share both parts to the story of why we are in Iraq — why we were TOLD we went to war, and why we ARE ACTUALLY AT WAR.

Why did we invade and occupy Iraq? We were told Iraq was strong and dangerous. We were told that sanctions were not working, and Saddam Hussein was not in compliance with the UN disarmament regime. We were told that Iraq was working on a viable chemical, biological and nuclear program, had many of these weapons already, and was also working with terrorists who targeted and would target the United States. It was suggested repeatedly in Presidential and Vice Presidential speeches, in statements by the Secretary of Defense and other administration mouthpieces that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9-11 attacks on the United States.

In the second half of 2002, a total of 27 different reasons were given by the administration or by Congresspersons as to why we needed to go into Iraq as soon as possible. I know this because a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote her senior honors thesis entitled “Uncovering the Rationales for the War on Iraq: The Words of the Bush Administration, Congress and the Media from September 12, 2001, to October 11, 2002.” Devon Largio did a detailed analysis identifying 23 different reasons put forth by the administration, and 4 more put forth by various congressmen in the run up to war.

That’s a lot of reasons. In the infamous words of then deputy secretary of defense and leading neoconservative thinker Paul Wolfowitz, “WMD became the reason upon which we could all bureaucratically agree.”

Now, many people in the Pentagon, at CIA, at State, across this country and around the world knew that a lot of the reasons put forth were invalid, not true, or to be generous, were the result of a narrow political interpretation of a small and known to be uncertain data set.

People in America, in the Pentagon, at CIA and the State department knew that Iraq was a fourth rate military state, with no air force, no navy and not much of an Army, in part due to the destruction of the first Gulf War, a dozen years of sanctions and being bombed by the US and the UK since 1991. The Pentagon, CIA and State Department knew that Iraq had accounted for over 96% of all suspected WMD. This 4% — biological and chemical stores — was indeed a matter of debate. Was it our own faulty estimation (after all, we had the receipts), was the material we sought already destroyed or degraded and just missing the paperwork, or did it still exist in some viable form? Saddam Hussein had last sought material for his nuclear program in the late 1980s, and under sanctions and US enforcement of the no-fly zones, had made no observed progress in his nuclear program, and did not seem to be even trying to.

The Pentagon, CIA and State Department knew Iraq had no relationship with al Qaeda. Instead, we understood that they were competitors and adversaries on both governing and religious issues. Two things angered Osama bin Laden — US forces in Saudi Arabia, and a godless Ba-ath dictatorship in Iraq. We also knew that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11

The CIA knew that Saddam Hussein had not been associated with a foiled attempt on the life of former President George H. W. Bush, in 1993 when he and other Bush family members and friends were visiting Kuwait. President Clinton sent missiles into Baghdad in retaliation shortly thereafter, although at the time and more so today, this purported 1993 attempt foiled by the Kuwaitis, did not emanate from Iraq.

Now — there were many things the Pentagon, CIA and State department did not know, because we had no trustworthy human intelligence assets in Iraq. It seems we paid little attention to what we didn’t know, short of establishing bombing targets and cultivating potential Iraqi outsiders to replace Saddam, like convicted fraudster Ahmad Chalabi. We knew nothing of the culture, political or otherwise in Iraq, we didn’t understand the economy, the history, or the people of Iraq. In the winter of 2002 and 2003, a group at Pentagon, CIA and State madly rushed to create a plan for the US occupation, for the aftermath of the invasion. As a key member of the Bush team at the time, Lt General Jay Garner recalls, when he tried to give the plan to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, he was told curtly, to "Shelve it."

Rumsfeld used to like to talk about the known knowns, the known unknowns, etc. He forgot to mention the willful, criminal, purposeful unknowns because some people (Americans and Iraqis) just don’t matter a hill of beans in a world you make up as you go along.

Today, we generally understand that we were lied to by the Pentagon, and by our government. These lies were repeated and often expanded upon by politicians and our media in 2002 and for several years after the invasion. Suggestions by politicians and media outlets that the truth was actually somewhat different were met by scorn, and accusations of sleeping with the enemy. And we all fell in line, and marched in unison.

There were of course, real reasons for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. There might even be 27 real reasons. But I know of three.

One reason has to do with enhancing our military-basing posture in the region. We had been very dissatisfied with our relations with Saudi Arabia, particularly the restrictions on our basing. There was dissatisfaction from the people of Saudi Arabia, and thus the troubled monarchy. So we were looking for alternate strategic locations beyond Kuwait, beyond Qatar, to secure something we had been searching for since the days of Carter — to secure the energy lines of communication in the region. Bases in Iraq, then, were very important — that is, if you hold that is America’s role in the world. And Saddam Hussein was not about to invite us in.

A major reason for the invasion, and the urgency of it, is that sanctions and containment had worked, and over the years, almost too well. They had become counterproductive. Many companies around the world were preparing to do business with Iraq in anticipation of a lifting of sanctions. But the U.S. and the U.K. had been bombing northern and southern Iraq since 1991. So it was very unlikely that we would be in any kind of position to gain significant contracts in any post-sanctions Iraq. And those sanctions were going to be lifted soon, Saddam would still be in place, and we would get no financial benefit.

Naomi Klein has researched and written many astute articles on our foreign policy in Iraq. One of these, published by Harper’s in September 2003, was called “Baghdad Year Zero.” She made a compelling case for the convergence of business interests and a kind of neoconservative free market ideology — and that the invasion and occupation was a clean slate transformation of a command economy into a free trade utopia. Neoconservative ideology does not embrace free trade in the sense that libertarians or Adam Smith might embrace it, but instead prefers significant state involvement in trade, for the good of the nation. However, Klein’s article from 2003 sheds a great deal of light on what we really wanted and intended for Iraq.

Another reason is a uniquely American rationale, and it relates to our currency, and our debt situation. Saddam Hussein decided in November 2000 to sell his Food for Oil program oil sales in euros. The oil sales permitted in that program weren’t very much. But if the sanctions were lifted, the sales from the country with the second largest oil reserves on the planet would have been setting a standard away from, and competing with, US paper.

The U.S. dollar was, and remains, in a sensitive period because we are a major debtor nation now. Our currency is still globally popular, but these days that’s more due to habit than its reliability as a currency backed up by a government that the world trusts not to print boatloads of bills for no productive reason. To the extent that oil, almost the new gold in terms of in-demand commodity reliability, is traded on the euro, global confidence in the dollar and global bank reserve demand for the dollar shifts negatively.

In any case, the first executive order regarding Iraq that Bush signed in May [2003] switched trading on Iraq’s oil back to the dollar.

These, for me are the big three. There are other reasons, beyond American bases, American contracts, and propping up the dollar. An important factor was the neoconservative idea that the best thing we can do for Israel’s security is to be there. It is not enough to send several billions in economic and military aid each year, and it is not enough to veto UN resolutions that are unfavorable to Israel. It is not enough to have bases in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab monarchies and oligarchies. Some of these American friends are not friends of Israel, and it makes taking diplomatic actions against them more difficult. In the view of many neoconservatives, America needs to be there, militarily and economically in the region, working closely with Israel, our lone democratic ally and one that has the human intelligence capability on the ground that we have never had, and never will have.

You may notice that building civil society, fostering democracy, and improving a bad humanitarian situation were not the reasons we went to Iraq, nor why we are staying in Iraq. We had no plan and fewer resources dedicated to building civil society. We actually don’t like democracies. We prefer those we buy to stay bought, and this is the realm of dictators and monarchs in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Staying bought is a major problem for democracies.

Humanitarian reasons only make sense in an Orwellian scenario, where we kill people in order to save them. If humanitarian concern drove our policies in Iraq, the economic sanctions would have been lifted long before we invaded, instead of waiting until after we took over the country and its government, and unleashed chaos.

I have reviewed what we have wrought in Iraq, and why our government felt it was necessary to enter the country through force, build many permanent bases, and create, as George W. Bush himself has said recently, a kind of Middle Eastern South Korea, a standing pseudo-occupation force of 100,000 soldiers, with all of the interference in national Iraqi affairs that this necessitates.

I hope you have enjoyed it so far, because it’s about to get worse.

What does this mean for us, as Americans? What does it say about us, as Americans? How come more Americans weren’t outraged in 2002 and 2003? How come more aren’t outraged today, with trillions of dollars wasted, millions of lives ruined, and thousands of government lies put forth to explain those dollars and those lives away?

We are a country founded on the ideas of freedom of religion. Yet the descendants of the strict Protestants who came to this country to worship God without government interference have largely embraced the war, and the godly president that demanded it.

We are a country that from the beginning took the idea of free speech and free assembly to be a God-given right, not something granted by government so long as we behave. Yet today, protesters of government policies, and the rest of us, have accepted the idea of "free speech zones" set up far away from the sensitive ears and eyes of our rulers.

We live in a country that once valued independence, of economy, of mind, of self. Today, according to the 2006 Heritage Foundation’s Index of Dependency, 52.6 million Americans, nearly 20% are dependent on government programs relating to government spending on health, government pensions, education, housing, and rural and food subsidies. Heritage is interested in tracking growth of government programs, and they have indeed been growing steadily throughout the last century.

More importantly, a study this year by economist Gary Schilling, reveals that, "Slightly over half of all Americans — 52.6 percent — now receive significant income from government programs, …That’s up from 49.4 percent in 2000 and far above the 28.3 percent of Americans in 1950."

Even if we do not work directly for government, or government contractors, and are not economically dependent on the many government benefits available to us, for every carrot there is a stick. Most of us, to be honest, fear the disciplining hand of government, and we generally do not trust the legal system to deliver justice.

It is understood in America that justice is generally reserved for those with expensive lawyers. The Duke rape case illustrates that regular people can be accused, charged, and tried for crimes that even the government prosecutor knows they did not commit. At the other end of the spectrum, the Innocence Project illustrates that without money, education and connections, we will very likely be convicted for those crimes the government says we committed.

We may have our property taken by government through eminent domain, and through civil forfeiture if we are only accused of a crime, and the government wants what we have. If we are business owners, we fear IRS audits. If we wait tables for a living, we fear that the government may discover we haven’t declared all our tips. When we travel, we worry that we still have a container of shampoo in our bag, or whether our name is on a government list somewhere.

A big question shortly after the invasion of Iraq — when the fanciful tales told by the neocons, and the mainstream media, and the government began to fall apart — was how will the American people react now, upon learning the truth? After we the people realized we had been lied into an unnecessary and illegal overseas war, that our sons and daughters were fighting and killing Iraqis and dying simply because a small elite group of politicians and policy wonks wanted them to, what would we do then?

But we the people did very little. It’s one in a thousand. And who is that one in a thousand? Overwhelmingly, young people who enlist do so because their dad or uncle, or brother or sister or cousin did. They tend to be from poorer states in the South and the Midwest, or in cities and towns near existing military bases. They tend to be those for whom wearing the military uniform is the most profitable and honorable thing anyone in their family has done recently. Sociologist Charles Moskos has studied this phenomenon extensively, and writes of an American "warrior caste." He notes that it tends to be self-perpetuating, as children and extended family members of those who have served in, and made careers of the military, constitute a "very large" percentage of recruits each year. Conversely, there are far more families in America that have no military experience, and do not see the military as a viable option for them, their spouses, their siblings, their children, or their nieces and nephews.

We have here a kind of economic and political slavery — we accept a great deal of good from government, and we grant that generous government unprecedented access into our lives, our records, our privacy. We value a lawful existence, but we have allowed the legal system to grow far beyond the needs of a civil society. The United States incarcerates and executes more people per capita than any other country on the planet. In 2003, the Christian Science Monitor reported that we were Number 1 in the world — for our incarceration rate — with one in 37 American adults either in prison or having had been in prison at some point in their life.

Why do we apparently not really mind being lied into war by our government? Why do we tend to believe what government tells us rather than our own eyes, our own logic, our own morality? Why do we defer to a strong decider and fear real freedom in this country?

When you look at our overwhelming dependency on government — for jobs, income, help and subsidies — rather than ourselves, our communities and our churches, the answer is simple. When you realize that we are 25 times more likely to personally know someone who has been in a government jail than to personally know a soldier in Iraq, the answer is simple.

We support the government’s wishes in foreign policy, because at some very basic level, we do not wish to risk all that government grants us here at home. We wish to be seen as patriotic citizens because we equate the state with our own family welfare. We cannot easily separate our economic, educational, and political lives from the state.

This identification of individuals with the state is the fundamental tenet not of democracy, not of constitutional republicanism, but of fascism. Fascism is alien to American traditions — but it is attractive and often successful for a time in states with pre-existing and highly extensive welfare states.

Very simply, we don’t bite the hand that feeds us.

Our mainstream media doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it. Neither do congressmen and women, who realize that most of us don’t really know a soldier in Iraq — but a great many of us care deeply about that next health care bill, that sub-prime mortgage bailout we hope will save our home, that defense industry or government contract that employs us, that Medicare and Social Security check we hope keeps up with inflation.

They also know, much like the infamous toe-tapping Senator Craig, that we deeply fear government detention and incarceration, as well we should.

George W. Bush, advised by neoconservatives, brought us to a war in Iraq that we didn’t understand, and wouldn’t have wanted if we had known the truth in time. He, the Congress, and the beholden mainstream media worked overtime to repeat lies that we too willingly believed. But before Bush launched this illegal war, a war and occupation that continues now in its fourth year, he established the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. In fact, Bush signed this particular executive order on January 29th, 2001, ten days after his first inauguration.

One asks, as Martin Luther King asked, what is the proper role of churches and religious organizations in standing up for peace, and civil liberties, building character at home and demanding it in our politicians? In the 1960s, the churches were free to answer positively and to act accordingly. Today, many churches and other centers of moral-minded community activism accept government money. They’d like it to continue, so they can do good works. Many who don’t get this money today may want to compete for it in the future.

We don’t bite the hand that feeds us.

I can’t tell you how to heal what we have become. At some basic level, when Americans decide to come home from Iraq, we will do it. But we are still in Korea, Japan and Germany, fifty years later, for reasons that have less to do with national security than national welfare. In the past decade we have launched new long-term military bases in several of the former Soviet satellites, and in Bosnia and Kosovo. Our bases in Iraq are matched by shiny new bases, or those under construction and expansion, in Qatar and Afghanistan and Djibouti. Most of us really don’t even want to know about all this unseemly activity.

Perhaps when the government hand stops feeding, medicating, educating and housing us, or perhaps when it incarcerates more than one in 37 of us, perhaps then we will be able to have a more moral foreign policy. Until then, perhaps it isn’t completely fair to place all the blame on that lousy Congress and our violent, small-minded president.

I had hoped to be able to share, at the conclusion of this already too long speech, some of the good things we might be able to do to improve the world condition, gain peace and reconciliation around the world, to forgive others and ourselves, and to go forward. Obviously, we should bring the troops home now, from everywhere around the world. But I truly don’t see our government as having any real part of this peace. I believe Randolph Bourne was right when he wrote in 1918, that "war is the health of the state."

I’d like to close with a bit more from his famous essay. Bourne wrote,

We cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State. And we cannot expect, or take measures to ensure, that this war is a war to end war, unless at the same time we take measures to end the State in its traditional form. The State is not the nation, and the State can be modified and even abolished in its present form, without harming the nation.

This is the right — and perhaps the only — direction for those who prefer truth to lies, life over death, peace instead of violent conflict, freedom over slavery and occupation.