“Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.”
In the lead up to the first Gulf War in 1991, the world was shocked by congressional testimony from a young woman named Nayirah, who said she was in a Kuwait Hospital when Iraqi troops arrived. She broke down describing the looting she said followed, claiming the soldiers had killed premature newborns by taking them out of their incubators and leaving them on the cold floor.
There was just one problem with this testimony that wasn’t discovered until later: it wasn’t true. The tearful story was given by the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US, who later admitted she hadn’t been at the hospital at all. The spectacle was planned by PR firm Hill and Knowlton, who earned over $10 million to sell the citizens of the US and allied countries on a campaign to “liberate” the despotic (but oil rich) monarchy. Further connecting these efforts to the first Bush’s White House, the firm was run by the President’s former chief of staff from his years as Vice President under Ronald Reagan.
The Iraqi people, already living in a police state controlled by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, were then denied vital medicines under international sanctions and routinely bombed by Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, who seemed to use bombs overseas to distract the public from his (often self inflicted) problems on the domestic front.
The second Iraq War came with fears of a mushroom cloud over a major American city. Stories of yellowcake from Niger and aluminum tubes led many to believe that Saddam Hussein’s government was working to develop nukes. Then there were the reports about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that have needed to be debunked time and again in the years since as supporters of the war routinely try to re-write history.
These stories, coming so soon after the atrocities of 9-11, convinced many in the west to support a war against one of the most ardently secular leaders in the Middle East in the name of combating religious extremism. It is a pattern that has been repeated in the secular states of Libya and Syria.
The “neoconservatives”, who defined themselves as “liberals mugged by reality”, drove the march to war both in the Bush Administration and in the op-ed pages of the western press. Many commentators pushed a kind of reverse domino theory in regards to the intervention in Iraq. Forget that the original version, in which a communist takeover in Vietnam would inevitably lead to a Soviet Southeast Asia was an ideological delusion given credence by the fact that the experts promoting war in the region had very little local knowledge. With a hubris similar to their predecessors, the neocons and their liberal interventionist fellow travelers assured the public that a liberated Iraq would bring democracy and a free market utopia to the entire region.
It should also be remembered that a major part of the post invasion plan for a democratic Iraq was to basically privatize the country’s entire economy after a massive bombing campaign that devastated its already deteriorated infrastructure. There had been some limited success with this kind of shock therapy in Chile after Pinochet took over, when the “Chicago Boys” led by economist Milton Friedman descended on the country, but even this is debatable and has proven illusory over time.
In regards to the yellowcake, there was an interesting twist to the story. In 2008 the US government revealed that it had secretly shipped 550 metric tons of the material from the country. Many of the same voices who had gotten it wrong on WMDs and Iraq’s non-existent nuclear program touted the discovery of this yellowcake years later as their redemption. Finally there was concrete proof that they’d been right all along about Saddam’s nuclear plans.
The truth, however, was that the UN had cataloged and stored the newly “discovered” material after the first Gulf War as part of the inspections regime that most of these critics had said was ineffective when they were selling the war. Adding to the irony, the marines who found the yellowcake broke the UN seals on the containers. Luckily, it was so low grade that they and civilians in the area weren’t harmed in the process.
At the end of the Bush II administration, with a few notable exceptions, the neoconservatives were out of government. Rather than having to find new careers due to their lies, failed predictions and lapses of judgement they were welcomed into think tanks like the Brookings Institution and found perches on newspaper editorial pages and in magazines like the Weekly Standard where they have continued to call for war in the Middle East and confrontations with other world powers, including nuclear armed Russia and China. Most of them opine that Obama is simply not militaristic enough, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The neocons were replaced by their ideological cousins, the liberal interventionists, whose standard bearer, Hillary Clinton, became Secretary of State. When calling for a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, claimed that Gaddafi was encouraging his army to engage in mass rapes, even giving them viagra for this purpose. There was also talk of “foreign” mercenaries being brought in from sub-Saharan Africa. Many people were targeted by various militias as a result of these stories, including Libyans with dark skin and perfectly innocent foreign born oil workers.
There were also loud cries about a potential genocide in Libya’s second largest city Benghazi, then held by rebels. This idea was circulated far and wide, despite all the evidence to the contrary. There were no mass killings, let alone “genocide” in other rebel held towns taken on the army’s march to the eastern city but western commentators, using their mind reading abilities, insisted that they knew the Libyan leaders intentions. They also laughed off Gaddafi’s assertion that at least some of the rebels were extremists linked to Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, a claim that was later shown to be all too true.
Before the dust had even cleared, Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman who is now the Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, wrote an article calling on American progressives to embrace humanitarian intervention after the success of the no-fly zone, “Today, we have the ability to conduct missions from the air that historically would have required ground troops. And we possess admittedly imperfect but highly improved ability to limit collateral damage, including civilian casualties… this means fewer bombs can accomplish the same objectives, with early estimates suggesting that the Libyan air campaign required one-third the number of sorties as earlier air wars.”
Although this rosy view of using bombs to achieve humanitarian ends is sickening, I am not trying to make the argument that Gaddafi was somehow a good man or leader but the consequences of his removal have surely been worse for ordinary Libyans than his continued rule would have been. Daesh had no presence in the country prior to his ouster, now they control his hometown of Sirte.
Rather than acknowledging the mistakes that were made and in some cases outright lies that were told, the laptop warriors once again declared “mission accomplished” and went back to their keyboards to call for yet another war, this time in nearby Syria, a disaster that just keeps giving.
It isn’t just in the US where public intellectuals and government officials work hard to sell interventions overseas, especially in the Middle East and Africa. The government of the UK was stymied twice by parliament in calling first for war in Syria and later for a role in coalition airstrikes so they’ve come up with a novel tactic to inject themselves into the unfolding chaos in Libya. Don’t bother with a parliamentary vote at all, just call it a “training” instead of a “combat” mission.
This, despite the fact that, as explained by an unnamed “senior Tory” in the UK Telegraph, foreign troops could be seen as an invading force and attacked by one of the numerous militias running roughshod there. Perhaps there are some who hope for this outcome as it might create the conditions for yet another full scale intervention in the country.
Here in Canada the progressive left breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper, who committed Canadian troops to the bombing of Libya, Iraq and Syria, was defeated in the last election but it appears that we celebrated too soon. While the general tone of our new Liberal government is much better than Harper’s, one of its first acts was to approve a $15 billion dollar arms sale to the monarchist tyranny of Saudi Arabia who have taken a leaf from the western playbook by intervening first in Bahrain during the Arab Spring and then going to war in Yemen, where they and their Gulf state allies have been repeatedly accused of war crimes.
Regardless of who leads us, the arms industry, paired with warmongering politicians and their media enablers are always trying to shape the conversation around war and peace in favor of the former. Whether its a no fly zone in Syria or a confrontation over what amounts to a bunch of rocks in the South China Sea, we must be ready to stand up against militarism and demand that diplomacy be the first rather than the last resort for dealing with the world’s conflicts.