The Worst Crime of the 21st Century

The United States’ destruction of Iraq remains the worst international crime of our time. Its perpetrators remain free and its horrors are buried.

Content warning: Descriptions of graphic violence

First, a story from the years of the American occupation of Iraq , one of thousands that could be recounted. This one appears in Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War

“The most basic barrier was language itself. Very few of the Americans in Iraq, whether soldiers or diplomats or newspaper reporters, could speak more than a few words of Arabic. A remarkable number of them didn’t even have translators. That meant that for many Iraqis, the typical nineteen-year-old army corporal from South Dakota was not a youthful innocent carrying America’s goodwill; he was a terrifying combination of firepower and ignorance. In Diyala, east of Baghdad, in the early days of the war, I came upon a group of American marines standing next to a shot-up bus and a line of six Iraqi corpses. Omar, a fifteen-year-old boy, sat on the roadside weeping, drenched in the blood of his father, who had been shot dead by American marines when he ran a roadblock.”
“What could we have done?” one of the marines muttered.
It had been dark, there were suicide bombers about and that same night the marines had found a cache of weapons stowed on a truck. They were under orders to stop every car. The minibus, they said, kept coming anyway. They fired four warning shots, tracer rounds, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding.
Omar’s family, ten in all, were driving together to get out of the fighting in Baghdad. They claimed they had stopped in time, just as the marines had asked them to. In the confusion, the truth was elusive, but it seemed possible that Omar’s family had not understood.
“We yelled at them to stop,” Corporal Eric Jewell told me. “Everybody knows the word ‘stop.’ It’s universal.”
In all, six members of Omar’s family were dead, covered by blankets on the roadside. Among them were Omar’s father, mother, brother and sister. A two-year-old boy, Ali, had been shot in the face.
“My whole family is dead,” muttered Aleya, one of the survivors, careening between hysteria and grief. “How can I grieve for so many people?”1 

Filkins tells us that among the marines at the scene, reactions to the killings were mixed. “Better them than us,” muttered one. Another broke down in tears as he loaded one of the corpses onto a vehicle. Filkins quotes a colonel insisting that “most of the Iraqis are glad we are here, and they are cooperating with us.” This was plainly false, though Filkins attributes the impression partly to Iraqis telling Americans what they thought the occupiers wanted to hear. Nevertheless, he writes:

The Iraqis lied to the Americans, no question. But the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves. They believed them because it was convenient—and because not to believe them was too horrifying to think about.

The United States’ war on Iraq remains the deadliest act of aggressive warfare in our century, and a strong candidate for the worst crime committed in the last 30 years. It was, as George W. Bush said in an unintentional slip of the tongue, “wholly unjustified and brutal.” At least 500,000 Iraqis died as a result of the U.S. war. At least 200,000 of those were violent deaths—people who were blown to pieces by coalition airstrikes, or shot at checkpoints, or killed by suicide bombers from the insurgency unleashed by the U.S. invasion and occupation. Others died as a result of the collapse of the medical system—doctors fled the country in droves, since their colleagues were being killed or abducted. Childhood mortality and infant mortality in the country rose, and so did malnutrition and starvation. Millions of people were displaced, and a “generation of orphans” was created, hundreds of thousands of children having lost parents with many being left to wander the streets homeless. The country’s infrastructure collapsed, its libraries and museums were looted, and its university system was decimated, with professors being assassinated. For years, residents of Baghdad had to deal with suicide bombings as a daily feature of life, and of course, for every violent death, scores more people were left injured or traumatized for life. In 2007 the Red Cross said that there were “mothers appealing for someone to pick up the bodies on the street so their children will be spared the horror of looking at them on their way to school.” Acute malnutrition doubled within 20 months of the occupation of Iraq, to the level of Burundi, well above Haiti or Uganda, a figure that “translates to roughly 400,000 Iraqi children suffering from ‘wasting,’ a condition characterized by chronic diarrhea and dangerous deficiencies of protein.” The amount of death, misery, suffering, and trauma is almost inconceivable. In many places, the war created an almost literal hell on earth. 

Some of the war’s early proponents have gone quiet. Some have simply lied about the record. (“We were able to bring the war to a reasonably successful conclusion in 2008,” wrote neoconservative William Kristol in 2015.) 

Others have made public displays of their regret, but cast the war as a noble and idealistic mistake. It is hard, for instance, to find more extreme pro-war statements from 2002 and 2003 than those of Andrew Sullivan, who wrote that “we would fail in any conception of Christian duty if we failed to act after all this time, if we let evil succeed, if we lost confidence in our capacity to do what is morally right.” Sullivan was unequivocal: “This war is a just one. We didn’t start it. Saddam did—over twelve years ago.” (The United States, in this view, only ever takes defensive measures, thus Hussein is framed as having “started” the war, despite never having attacked the U.S.) Nor was there any time to lose: “To say that we are in a rush to war is an obscene fabrication, a statement of wilful amnesia, a simple denial of history.” In response to those who pointed out the criminality of the invasion, Sullivan insisted that “we have to abandon the U.N. as an instrument in world affairs.” In fact, he claimed, the lack of international approval only showed that the U.S. was one of the few morally serious countries in the world: 

“[B]y going in, we also stand a chance of seizing our own destiny and changing the equation in the Middle East toward values we actually believe in: the rule of law, the absence of wanton cruelty, the dignity of women, the right to self-determination for Arabs and Jews. We also have a chance to end an evil in its own right: the barbarous regime in Baghdad. We choose Iraq not just because it is uniquely dangerous but because the world has already decided that its weapons must be destroyed. We go in to defend ourselves and our freedoms but also the integrity of the countless U.N. resolutions that mandate Saddam’s disarmament. Our unilateralism, if that is what is eventually needed, will therefore not be a result of our impetuous flouting of global norms. It will be because only the U.S. and the U.K. and a few others are prepared to risk lives and limb to enforce global norms.”

By 2007, however, with the war having entirely destroyed the country it was supposed to “liberate,” Sullivan was professing to have been a duped innocent whose hatred of evil was so strong that it inhibited his rationality: 

“I was far too naive, and caught up in the desire to fight back against Islamist evil to recognize the callower, casual evil I was enabling in the Bush administration. When I hear of the thousands of innocents who have been killed, tortured and maimed in the Rumsfeld-created vortex, my rage at what this president did is overwhelmed by my shame at having done whatever I did to enable and even cheerlead it, before the blinders were ripped from my eyes. This war has destroyed the political integrity of Iraq. But it has also done profound damage to the moral integrity of America.”

Sullivan’s newfound concern for the killed, tortured, and maimed may be commendable (although massive human casualties were an entirely predictable consequence of the war which officials were warned about repeatedly). But Sullivan, like many others who realized the war was indefensible, retreated to the position that the war was another of the United States’ endless Well-Intentioned Blunders. He ultimately came to see that the “imprudent” war “was noble and defensible but that this administration was simply too incompetent and arrogant to carry it out effectively.” 

As in the case of Vietnam, many ostensible critics of the Iraq war were actually critics of its execution, not its intent. David Ignatius of the Washington Post, writing about Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, lamented that Wolfowitz’s admirable principled idealism was unfortunately a mismatch for human imperfection: 

“I find it impossible to fault on moral grounds the case for toppling Saddam Hussein last March, and for staying the course now. America did a good deed in liberating Iraqis from a tyrannical regime. But Hussein never posed the sort of imminent danger to America that administration rhetoric implied, and Wolfowitz must share the blame for exaggerating that threat… One lesson of this painful year is that too much moralizing is dangerous in statecraft. The idealism of a Wolfowitz must be tempered by some very hard-headed judgments about how to protect U.S. interests…His commitment to principle is admirable, but sound policy can’t be premised on the dream of human perfectibility, in Iraq or anywhere else. America’s problems in Iraq stem in large part from wishful thinking…” 

The Iraq War, Ignatius wrote, was “the most idealistic war fought in modern times,” fought solely to bring  democracy to Iraq and the region, and its very idealism doomed it to failure. 

Likewise, while Barack Obama felt the war was “ill-conceived” and a “strategic blunder,” he did not dispute the good intentions of those who began it. (The Obamas maintain warm relations with George W. Bush, with Michelle Obama telling the Today show, “I love him to death. He’s a wonderful man,” and “he is my partner in crime.”) Very few mainstream criticisms of the war call it what it was: a criminal act of aggression by a state seeking to exert regional control through the use of violence. A great deal of this criticism has focused on the costs of the war to the United States, with barely any attention paid to the cost to Iraq and the surrounding countries. 

Those who critique the execution are not actually opposing the crime of the war itself. When we apply to ourselves the standards that we apply to others, we see just how little principled opposition to the Iraq War there has actually been, and how little acknowledgement that the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral from the outset. 

If there is ever going to be accountability for this crime, we would first do well to understand what was done and why.  

A Consistent Approach to Saddam Hussein’s Regime

The United States’ attitude toward Saddam Hussein had been consistent since his ascent to power in the 1970s, and was the same as its attitude toward other despots. Hussein’s brutal rule was tolerable to the extent that he aided U.S. goals in the Middle East, and intolerable to the extent that he challenged those goals. The U.S. position varied over time, but it did not vary based on the threat Hussein posed to the safety of the people of the United States (which was nonexistent from the beginning of his rule to the end of it), nor based on the atrocities Hussein perpetrated (the U.S. happily armed and assisted Hussein during the worst of his crimes). Instead, in keeping with “Godfather” logic, the U.S. accepted Hussein when he followed our rules, and turned on him when he disobeyed. Hussein was ultimately deposed for the same reason as many other “regime change” operations have been carried out: his continued rule posed an obstacle to American power in the region, and his defiance needed to be ended, as a warning to others. 

After Saddam Hussein assumed full control of Iraq in 1979, he soon proved useful to the United States. In 1980, he launched a war on Iran that would ultimately kill 500,000 people. The United States, eager for the punishment of post-revolutionary Iran, fully supported Hussein’s war of aggression. In 1982, the Reagan administration, realizing that Iraq was “the only thing standing between revolutionary Iran and the Persian Gulf oil fields,” removed Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terror. The U.S. provided logistical support, intelligence support, and over $500 million worth of equipment for Hussein’s blatantly illegal war. The CDC sent Hussein samples of the germs that cause anthrax, West Nile virus disease, and botulism, which he proceeded to use for biological weapons development, and in 1988 the Dow chemical company “sold $1.5m-worth…of pesticides to Iraq despite suspicions they would be used for chemical warfare.” The U.S. even directly participated in the war, blowing up Iranian oil platforms and boats to (in Ronald Reagan’s words) “make certain the Iranians have no illusions about the cost of irresponsible behavior.” (The International Court of Justice ultimately found that the acts “cannot be justified as measures necessary to protect the essential security interests of the United States of America.”) The U.S. also attacked an Iranian civilian airliner, killing all 290 people aboard, including 66 infants and children. When given the opportunity to express contrition for the calamity, George H.W. Bush said instead: “I will never apologize for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are… I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”2

Iraq’s warfare methods shocked the world. Hussein’s army used chemical weapons to inflict horrific suffering on their Iranian opponents. Iraq began, according to its own official history, using chemical weapons in 1981, and, as Robert Fisk wrote, “not since the gas attacks of the 1914–18 war had chemical weapons been used on such a scale.” In 1984, with the facts of Iraq’s brutality already well-known, the U.S. formally restored diplomatic relations with Iraq (sending future defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a negotiator). The Guardian’s Julian Borger notes that in 1983, “the secretary of state, George Shultz, was passed intelligence reports of ‘almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons]’ by Iraq,” but just weeks later, “Ronald Reagan signed a secret order instructing the administration to do ‘whatever was necessary and legal’ to prevent Iraq losing the war.” When the U.N. Security Council tried to condemn Iraq’s use of mustard gas, the U.S. blocked the measure. Even in cases where it knew Iraq would use chemical weapons, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was “secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for airstrikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq.” Foreign Policy confirmed in 2013 that in 1988, “the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses,” and “U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.” In fact, the CIA concealed evidence that Iraq was using chemical weapons, hoping Iran would not be able to produce such evidence itself. Foreign Policy notes that “senior U.S. officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks,” and internal documents reveal what is “tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.”

A senior DIA official confirmed that “the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern” (strategic concerns being the only admissible concerns, moral and legal concerns irrelevant). In fact, these weapons’ “use against military objectives was seen as inevitable in the Iraqi struggle for survival” and chemical weapons “were integrated into their fire plan for any large operation.” One veteran involved with the program shrugged that “it was just another way of killing people—whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn’t make any difference.” In 2003, Iraq’s use of gas in the Iran-Iraq war would be “repeatedly cited by President Bush…as justification for ‘regime change’ in Iraq,” with Bush noting on the anniversary of the Halabja massacre that it proved that Saddam Hussein, having “killed thousands of men and women and children, without mercy or shame, was “capable of any crime.” Bush did not discuss U.S. complicity in these crimes, nor did he show any interest in holding to account the officials in his father’s administration who had aided and covered up those crimes. 

Saddam Hussein destroyed his country, building a nightmarish totalitarian state. Stories from those who fell victim are of the most disturbing kind imaginable. He did it, however, with U.S. protection and support. The U.S. continued to make friendly overtures to Hussein until just before the invasion of Kuwait. In 1990, the Bush I administration resisted strongly when the U.S. Congress “cut off $700 million in United States loan guarantees that the Baghdad Government uses to purchase American wheat, rice, lumber and cattle as well as commercial goods like tires and machinery.” One Republican senator commented: “I can’t believe any farmer in this nation would want to send his products, under subsidized sales, to a country that has used chemical weapons and a country that has tortured and executed its children.” Perhaps no farmer would. But the Bush administration said that ending the loan guarantees  would not help “in achieving the goals we want to achieve in our relationship with Iraq.” After a Voice of America editorial condemned Hussein’s human rights abuses, the Bush administration expressed “regret” for the criticism and still viewed him as a “force for moderation in the region.”

But shortly afterward, Hussein made a critical error. Having acted with impunity thus far, Hussein crossed a U.S. red line by invading Kuwait. (It is not clear whether Hussein knew the U.S. would object to the invasion, as he was told by the U.S. ambassador that “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,” and “the issue is not associated with America…All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly.”) CIA intelligence analyst Kenneth Pollack claimed the invasion “represented a serious threat to America’s principal objectives in the Persian Gulf region, to ensure the free flow of oil and prevent an inimical power from establishing hegemony over the region.” 

Critics pointed out at the time that the Bush administration appeared set on responding with threats of war, and ignoring diplomatic options. As the U.S. prepared to use force, the New York Times reported that Hussein was considering options to “pull out of all but a fraction of Kuwaiti territory, or to pull out much later than the deadline specified by the Security Council.” For the Bush administration, the Times said, such concessions by Hussein would be a “nightmare scenario” (the words of an administration official) because it would put the U.S. “into a position where the stakes seem too petty to fight over.” Bush I, the paper said, wanted to convince Hussein that a partial withdrawal was “not worth trying.” The U.S. was worried that some European and Arab coalition partners would “remain reluctant about fighting…and concessions by Mr. Hussein would look appealing to them.” Diplomacy was a nightmare not just because it might leave Hussein with ill-gotten gains, but because it would make “the United States look like a paper tiger that roars and roars but never bites.” If we do not “bite” (here being used as a euphemism for killing), we lack credibility. 

Bush I repeatedly compared Hussein to Hitler, and justified the lack of interest in diplomacy with the usual “Munich” comparisons. Hussein made multiple proposals that would involve withdrawal from Kuwait (all while pointing out that the U.S. itself had recently invaded Panama). All were ignored by the U.S., including one proposing that “all cases of occupation” in the region “be resolved simultaneously,” meaning that Israel should be held to the same standard as Iraq. Although the Arab League had passed a resolution warning against outside intervention in the conflict while condemning the invasion of Kuwait, Bush I was set on teaching Hussein a lesson through the use of force, to show that, in Bush’s words, “what we say goes.” An Italian Catholic weekly, Il Sabato, concluded that Bush deserved the “Nobel War Prize” for his insistence on force over negotiation. In February of 1990, the Times of India described Bush’s dismissals of Iraq’s withdrawal proposals as a “horrible mistake” that showed the West sought a world order “where the powerful nations agree among themselves to a share of Arab spoils”: 

“[The West’s] conduct throughout this one month has revealed the seamiest sides of Western civilisation: its unrestricted appetite for dominance, its morbid fascination for hi-tech military might, its insensitivity to ‘alien’ cultures, its appalling jingoism…” 

The Bush I administration also used propaganda to drum up public support. A PR firm pushed a false story that Iraqi soldiers had ripped babies out of incubators in a Kuwait hospital and thrown them on the floor to die. (Atrocity tales are a core component of establishing an enemy as the New Hitler.) The Bush I administration turned on a dime and condemned Hussein as a butcher and madman for the very kinds of atrocities that we had long been supporting.3

“At this moment, America, the finest, most loving nation on Earth, is at war, at war against the oldest enemy of the human spirit: evil that threatens world peace…the triumph of the moral order is the vision that compels us…We pray for God’s protection in all we undertake, for God’s love to fill all hearts, and for God’s peace to be the moral North Star that guides us.” —George H.W. Bush, Radio Address to the Nation on the National Day of Prayer, Feb. 2, 1991

The Gulf War itself was a horror. Bush I, having promised that Hussein would “get his ass kicked” in any conflict with the U.S., unleashed massive firepower against Iraq. Middle East Watch’s investigation found that “the reassuring words of allied military briefers and Bush Administration spokesmen about successful pinpoint strikes did not match the often-bloody results of allied bombing in populated areas.” The U.S. was responsible for several major atrocities. First, it killed 400 civilians in an attack on a Baghdad air raid shelter, with women and children being burned beyond recognition. Then, it trapped and ferociously bombed retreating Iraqi soldiers on the so-called “Highway of Death,” named because of the endless charred vehicles and corpses that were left along the roadside after the U.S. attack. Soldiers were told to kill “anything that moved,”4 even attacking turnip trucks, because General Norman Schwarzkopf reasoned that the Iraqi Army was full of “thugs and rapists” rather than “innocent people.” The Bush administration committed numerous acts of terrorism in Iraq by intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure. Here is a Washington Post report from 1991

“Some targets, especially late in the war, were bombed primarily to create postwar leverage over Iraq, not to influence the course of the conflict itself. Planners now say their intent was to destroy or damage valuable facilities that Baghdad could not repair without foreign assistance. … Because of these goals, damage to civilian structures and interests, invariably described by briefers during the war as ‘collateral’ and unintended, was sometimes neither.”

Attacking immobilized retreating soldiers, air raid shelters, and electricity-generating and water-treatment facilities, and doing so in a war waged under false pretenses, might be thought wrong, even criminal. But the Gulf War was painted in the U.S. press as a moral triumph. Bush I was thrilled with the outcome because it meant that “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” (The Vietnam syndrome being the reluctance to use violent force that had emerged after the war on Vietnam.) The U.S., he said, “has a new credibility.” 

Once the U.S. had accomplished its objectives in the Gulf, Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to go further, telling them they should rise up and overthrow Hussein altogether. “The Iraqi people should put [Hussein] aside,” he said, to “facilitate the acceptance of Iraq back into the family of peace-loving nations.” (It is implicit that the United States, a country almost continuously at war since its founding, is the patriarch of said family.) This began to happen, as civilian uprisings took place in Basra, Karbala, and Najaf. Delegates from “two dozen Iraqi opposition groups appealed to the United States for help.” They received none, because the Bush administration had in fact quietly decided that it actually preferred a weakened Hussein to an unknown alternative. Not that the Bush administration wanted Hussein specifically. As New York Times chief diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman put it, the “best of all worlds” for Washington was “an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein,” who would rule the country the same “iron fist” as Hussein had. The uprising, however, might have left the country in the hands of the wrong people. Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that “the administration got nervous because we didn’t know who would take over.” Thus, while knowing that Iraqi rebels had assumed they could count on U.S. support5, the administration stood by as Hussein “used napalm, cluster bombs and Scud missiles to defeat the rebels, and Shiite mosques, cemeteries and religious schools were targeted for destruction.” As Colin Powell explained, “our practical intention was to leave Baghdad enough power to survive as a threat to an Iran that remained bitterly hostile to the United States.” Washington and its allies held the “strikingly unanimous view [that] whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for his country’s stability than did those who have suffered his repression,” reported Alan Cowell in the New York Times.6 Retaining Hussein was preferable to “instability,” aka the risk of democracy producing unfavorable outcomes.

 Hussein’s suppression of the revolt caused tens of thousands of deaths. Thus: not only were Saddam’s worst crimes committed when he was a favored U.S. ally and trading partner, but immediately after he was driven from Kuwait, the U.S. watched quietly while he turned to the slaughter of rebelling Iraqis, even refusing to allow the anti-Saddam rebels access to captured Iraqi arms. Idealism in action. 

 “Such a tragedy shocked me to such an extent I lost my tears. I am crying without tears. I wish I could show my eyes and express my severe and painful suffering to every American and British [citizen]. I wish I could tell my story to those sitting in the American Administration, the UN, and at Number 10 Downing Street…Please convey my story to all those whom you think can still see the truth in their eyes and can hear this this tragic story with their ears.” — Dr. Mohammed Al-Obaidi, who lost his mother, his sister-in-law, and her three children in Clinton’s 1998 bombing of Iraq. Al-Obaidi had already seen his father and brother killed by Saddam Hussein. Quoted in Howard Zinn, “One Iraqi’s Story,” in Iraq Under Siege. 

Throughout the remainder of the 1990s, Iraq was kept in check through a mixture of sanctions and bombing. The deadly sanctions destroyed the society. By the mid-’90s, the devastation of the sanctions led the United Nations to institute an “Oil for Food” program to alleviate their effects, magnanimously allowing Iraq to use some oil revenue for social purposes. Denis Halliday, the distinguished diplomat who directed the program, resigned in protest after two years, charging that the sanctions were genocidal and a “form of state terrorism.” Hans von Sponeck, who replaced him, also retired on the grounds that the sanctions violated the genocide convention, protesting “the continuation of a sanction regime in Iraq despite overwhelming evidence that the fabric of Iraqi society is swiftly eroding and an international awareness that the approach chosen so clearly punishes the wrong party.”7

Stanford political scientist Lisa Blaydes, in State of Repression: Iraq Under Saddam Hussein, notes that they were “among the most stringent financial and trade restrictions ever inflicted on a developing country” and, combined with the effects of the Gulf War, created a “humanitarian disaster for the Iraqi people.” Iraq was reduced to “pre-industrial” levels of development. Joy Gordon, in Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, says the sanctions caused the “systematic impoverishment of the entire nation,” with a result “far greater than the physical damage that could have been done by simply bombing,” and ultimately created an effect similar to that of an ongoing “war or natural disaster that continued nonstop for fifteen years.”

Gordon elaborates on the U.S. role and the impact:

The role of the United States in this process was sometimes criticized, particularly with regard to incidents such as its refusal in 2001 to allow Iraq to import child vaccines. But in general, the U.S. role in the sanctions is not widely known…While there was from the beginning a process to allow for humanitarian exemptions, the politics of the process were such that humanitarian imports were badly compromised throughout the thirteen years of the sanctions regime. The United States held a central role in this: lobbying aggressively for procedural rules that gave the United States the power to unilaterally block Iraq from importing humanitarian goods; maneuvering to discredit the reports on the humanitarian situation submitted by UN agencies, maneuvering to exclude external legal opinions that might influence the committee to grant access to humanitarian goods; delaying urgent goods, sometimes for years at a time; and changing the criteria for approval or flatly refusing to state what criteria the United States used in granting or denying approval. As the humanitarian situation worsened and public pressure increased, there were demands for reform. The United States, often accompanied by Britain and occasionally by other nations, found ways to ensure that each of those reforms was compromised in turn.

Throughout the sanctions regime, reports poured in from UN agencies and international organizations documenting the dramatic increase in child mortality, water-borne diseases, and malnutrition. Both within and outside the UN there were accusations that the sanctions were themselves human rights violations, and arguably genocidal…[The UN Commission on Human Rights] passed a resolution condemning the economic situation in Iraq as a human rights violation…Despite all of this, it was the consistent policy of all three U.S. administrations, from 1990 to 2003, to inflict the most extreme economic damage possible on Iraq. This was true even though each administration insisted that it was committed to the well-being of the Iraqi population…[The] truth was that in implementing the policy on sanctions, the human damage was never a factor in U.S. policy, except insofar as it presented a political liability for U.S. administrations.

Nevertheless, as Blaydes notes, the sanctions in some ways strengthened Hussein’s power. Since “Hussein was able to implement a system of food rationing and associated political patronage that became a lifeline for ordinary Iraqis, his citizenry came to simultaneously depend upon and fear him.”

Now all Iraqis can taste liberty in their native land.” — John Ashcroft, U.S. Attorney General

They don’t want us here, and we don’t want to be here. — U.S. soldier, 2005

In March of 2003, the most awesome military force in human history attacked a much weaker country—one that turned out not only to lack weapons of mass destruction, but to lack a military capable of sustaining any defense. The Iraqi forces crumbled within weeks, and U.S. media gleefully mocked the increasingly implausible assurances of Iraq’s press spokesman that the invaders were being held at bay. The U.S. succeeded in part through the aggressive use of extreme violence. The invasion and occupation were brutal and clumsy. Human Rights Watch condemned the “widespread use of cluster munitions, especially by U.S. and U.K. ground forces,” and noted that refusing to use the weapons “could have prevented hundreds of civilian injuries or deaths during the war.”  HRW reported that “American and British ground forces fired almost 13,000 cluster munitions, which spread nearly two million smaller bombs,” leaving unexploded munitions “littering the landscape, waiting for people to trip over them.” (Cluster munitions cause extensive collateral casualties by releasing many different “bomblets,” some of which do not explode immediately and kill innocents who happen upon them later on. Because they are inherently inhumane, they are banned by the international Convention on Cluster Munitions, to which the U.S. is not a signatory.8 “The crueler it is, the sooner it’s over,” one colonel told the New York Times. “It’s over for us when the last guy who wants to fight for Saddam has flies crawling across his eyeballs.” 

Having shattered the Iraqi state with ease, thereby exposing the story of Iraq’s “threat” to the U.S. as entirely hollow, the U.S. proceeded to establish a neocolonial regime that immediately squandered whatever goodwill some Iraqis might have had after the removal of the dictator. Bush appointed J. Paul Bremer, a Harvard MBA with no knowledge whatsoever of the country, to rule over the country like an imperial viceroy. Bremer immediately moved to eliminate “Saddamism” by disbanding the country’s armed forces and police, plunging the country into anarchy, and barring Ba’ath party members from government service, thereby ensuring that every competent official was unable to continue performing their job.

The Bush administration staffed its “Coalition Provisional Authority” with Republican party loyalists with little knowledge of the country. (Most had never even been outside the U.S., having “gotten their first passport in order to travel to Iraq.”) U.S. forces were not trained to deal with Iraqis as human beings. They solved problems with violence, and had little understanding of the culture. Houses were ransacked or destroyed in searches, people were shot for making sudden movements. Testimonies from Iraq Veterans Against The War’s “Winter Soldier” interviews offer a disturbing look at how casual the dehumanization and violence toward Iraqis was: 

  • “I remember one woman walking by. She was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading toward us, so we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was full of groceries. She had been trying to bring us food, and we blew her to pieces.” — Jason Washburn, a corporal in the U.S. Marines who served three tours in Iraq. 
  • “By the time we got to Baghdad… I was explicitly told by my chain of command that I could shoot anyone who came closer to me than I felt comfortable with, if that person did not immediately move when I ordered them to do so, keeping in mind I don’t speak Arabic. My chain of command’s general attitude was ‘better them than us,’ and we were given guidance that reinforced that attitude across the ranks. I watched that attitude intensify throughout my three tours… [At one point our commander] ordered that everyone on the streets was an enemy combatant. I can remember one instance that afternoon when we came around a corner and an unarmed Iraqi man stepped out of a doorway. I remember the marine directly in front of me raising his rifle and aiming at the unarmed man. Then I think, due to some psychological reason, my brain blocked out the actual shots, because the next thing I remember is stepping over the dead man’s body to clear the room that he came out of. It was a storage room and it was full of some Arabic version of Cheetos. There weren’t any weapons in the area except ours. The commander told us a couple of weeks later that over a hundred enemy “had been killed,” and to the best of my knowledge that number includes the people who were shot for simply walking down the street in their own city.  — Jason Wayne Lemieux, sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps
  • “One time they said to fire on all taxi cabs because the enemy was using them for transportation. In Iraq, any car can be a taxi cab; you just paint it white and orange. One of the snipers replied back, “Excuse me? Did I hear that right? Fire on all taxi cabs?” The lieutenant colonel responded, “You heard me, trooper, fire on all taxi cabs.” After that, the town lit up, with all the units firing on cars. This was my first experience with war, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the deployment.” — Hart Viges, U.S. Army Infantry specialist, 82nd Airborne

Crimes against the people of Iraq were widespread. The U.S. took over Hussein’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison, where U.S. soldiers physically and sexually abused, tortured, and even murdered prisoners (“detainees”). The Bush administration initially buried the evidence of torture,9 then tried to blame low-level soldiers for the abuses, although it eventually emerged that authorization for “enhanced interrogation techniques” had come straight from the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. 

As in Vietnam, many atrocities occurred because U.S. soldiers were young, heavily armed, terrified, knew nothing about the country they were in, and could not tell civilians from insurgents (and didn’t put in much effort to try). Dexter Filkins reports encountering two young soldiers returning from a firefight and confessing “We were just mowing people down. We were just whacking people.” When the insurgents mixed in with civilians, “we just shot the civilians too.” The soldier recounted shooting a woman after an insurgent stepped behind her, commenting, “the chick got in the way.” “He wasn’t especially troubled by it,” Filkins recounted. 

NPR reporter Anne Garrels recalls how U.S. treatment of Iraqis contributed to generating the insurgency:

“[In the early months Iraqis were] feeling increasingly that Americans didn’t care about their lives—[in neighborhood after neighborhood] American patrols would go in to do a search, and the searches would go wrong, and the next thing, there would be huge gunfights…You saw this again and again: raids that went awry unnecessarily, a complete lack of cultural understanding by the troops…the electricity poles blow [out] from the heat every now and then, and it sounds like a gunshot when it explodes, and [in one incident] the troops turned around and thought they were under attack, and they started shooting. An innocent car was driving by at the same time with a couple and three children, and they were massacred…[T]here was just incident after incident like this, and you saw Iraqis who were fence-sitters at best just turning against the Americans…There was no attempt to try to tell the Iraqis why the Americans were there, what they were there for…[You] didn’t know how far or close you could get to an American convoy—the only way you learned was when you got shot…It was so mismanaged on the ground, it was staggering.”

Jason Burke, in The 9/11 Wars, gives a similar account of the “counterproductive behavior” of the occupiers: “Anyone accompanying [American] troops on raids could see the impact their tactics had on local populations.” When searching for insurgents they “blasted the doors of the suspects’ homes off their hinges with explosives, ransacked rooms, and forced scores of men to squat with bags over their heads for hours in the sun waiting to be ‘processed.’” 

2004’s assault on Fallujah was particularly heinous. Afterwards, Iraqi doctor Ali Fadhil said he found the city “completely devastated,” looking like a “city of ghosts.” Fadhil saw few dead bodies of Iraqi fighters in the streets; they had been ordered to abandon the city before the assault began. Doctors reported that the entire medical staff had been locked into the main hospital when the U.S. attack began, “tied up” under U.S. orders: “Nobody could get to the main hospital…and people were bleeding to death in the city.” The attitudes of the invaders were summarized by a message written in lipstick on the mirror of a ruined home: “Fuck Iraq and every Iraqi in it.” (To quite literally add insult to injury, 20 years after the atrocity, the U.S. named a naval ship the “USS Fallujah.”)

Half a year later came perhaps the first visit by an international observer, Joe Carr of the Christian Peacemakers Team in Baghdad, whose previous experience had been in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Arriving on May 28, he found painful similarities: many hours of waiting at the few entry points, more for harassment than for security; regular destruction of produce in the devastated remains of the city where “food prices have dramatically increased because of the checkpoints”; blocking of ambulances transporting people for medical treatment; and other forms of random brutality. The ruins of Fallujah, he wrote, are even worse than Rafah in the Gaza Strip, which had been virtually destroyed by U.S.-backed Israeli terror. The United States “has leveled entire neighborhoods, and about every third building is destroyed or damaged.”

There has never been, and will likely never be, a full meaningful accounting of what was done to Iraq. Such information as we do have has often come from illegal leaks, such as Chelsea Manning’s heroic disclosure of 2007 footage showing U.S. helicopter pilots laughing while firing at (and killing) civilians including two Reuters correspondents. Some of the tragedies were accidents, albeit accidents of the kind that are inevitable when heavy firepower is used by those with little regard for civilian losses.10 Some were deliberate. But the war itself was the ultimate crime. 

Five-year-old Samar Hassan screams after her parents were killed by U.S. soldiers, Tal Afar, 2005. Soldiers opened fire on the family car when it approached them unwittingly at night. Samar’s family had been taking her brother to the hospital at the time. He was paralyzed in the shooting and killed three years later in an attack by insurgents. The New York Times reported in 2011 that whenever Samar remembers the accident, “it’s like they just died,” and because Iraq’s “health care system has almost no ability to treat the psychological aspects of trauma, thousands of Iraqis are left alone with their torment.” The Times also noted that this image was one of the few glimpses of Iraqi suffering to be seen by Americans. The military set “strict rules for embedded journalists that kept many graphic images from the public eye,” and the journalist who shot this photograph was forced “to leave his embed assignment after he shot the pictures of Samar.” Those haunted by this image should perhaps pause to reflect on the portions of reality they have been shielded from thanks to such policies.

Stated Justifications and Real-World Explanations

“Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with U.S. interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond. It would demonstrate what U.S. policy is all about.”Donald Rumsfeld

 “In his speeches, in his national security strategy, and in the doctrine named after him, President Bush not only demands that the United States dissuade potential adversaries from seeking to compete with the military might of the United States. The president also speaks bluntly of exporting the American creed ‘in keeping with our heritage and principles,’ which will in turn ‘create a balance of power that favors human freedom.’ By enshrining in official policy the tactic of military preemption, the objective of regime change and a vision of American power that is fully engaged and never apologetic, the Bush administration hopes to accomplish this happy end. We think it can. In the aftermath of September 11, we think it must…The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there. Were the United States to retreat after victory into complacency and self-absorption, as it did the last time it went to war in Iraq, new dangers would soon arise. Preventing this outcome will be a burden, of which war in Iraq represents but the first installment. But America cannot escape its responsibility for maintaining a decent world order. The answer to this challenge is the American idea itself, and behind it the unparalleled military and economic strength of its custodian. Duly armed, the United States can act to secure its safety and to advance the cause of liberty—in Baghdad and beyond.” Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol, The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission

The Bush administration’s stated justifications for the war were based on falsehoods, repeated endlessly by both officials and the press. The administration terrified the American public into thinking that if Iraq was not immediately invaded, there would soon be a “mushroom cloud” in New York City. Outrageous lies were told over and over, such as Dick Cheney’s claim that there was “no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction” and “no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” In fact, as Cheney well knew, there was not only doubt, but there was no good reason to believe the claim. Some with firsthand knowledge of the intelligence were aghast at this egregious misstatement of the facts. General Anthony Zinni recalled: “It was a total shock. I couldn’t believe the vice president was saying this, you know? In doing work with the CIA on Iraq WMD, through all the briefings I heard at Langley, I never saw one piece of credible evidence that there was an ongoing program.” The “facts were being fixed around the policy,” as the head of Britain’s MI6 observed in an infamous memo. Richard Clarke, the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism coordinator, said that “all along it seemed inevitable that we would invade…It was an idée fixe, a rigid belief, received wisdom, a decision already made and one that no fact or event could derail.” 

There were multiple misrepresentations of the known facts about Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.11 For instance, Bush publicly asserted that “a report came out of the…IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], that they [Iraqis] were six months away from developing a weapon. I don’t know what more evidence we need.” There was no such report, as the IAEA itself confirmed.12 Colin Powell had said just the year  before that Hussein had “not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction” and was “unable to project conventional power against his neighbors,” and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in July of 2001 that “we are able to keep his arms from him. His military forces have not been rebuilt.” A CIA report from 2000 concluded: “We do not have any direct evidence that Iraq has used the period since Desert Fox to reconstitute its WMD programs…”13

Hundreds of false statements were made by Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rice and others as they attempted to sell the public on the necessity of the war. One Congressional report counts 237 “misleading” statements that departed from facts known at the time. To preclude careful assessment of the facts, they insisted that the threat was of such “unique urgency” that there could be no time for deliberation. The country posed a “grave threat” to the United States, in fact a “threat to any American.” All of this was calculated to create fear and panic among the American public, and to cast anyone who questioned the administration’s push to war as dangerous and unpatriotic. Any pause to investigate the administration’s claim would mean gambling irresponsibly with human lives. Rumsfeld talked of a possible “September 11th with weapons of mass destruction.” In November of 2002, he warned

“Transport yourself forward a year, two years, or a week, or a month, and if Saddam Hussein were to take his weapons of mass destruction and transfer them, either use them himself, or transfer them to the Al-Qaeda, and somehow the Al-Qaeda were to engage in an attack on the United States, or an attack on U.S. forces overseas, with a weapon of mass destruction you’re not talking about 300, or 3,000 people potentially being killed, but 30,000, or 100,000 . . . human beings.”

Knowing full well that Iraq was not involved in the 9/11 attacks, Bush and others nevertheless tried to convince the American public to believe in an Al-Qaeda-Hussein nexus, in the hopes that this would increase support for a war that lacked a credible justification. Administration officials were constantly putting the names “Al Qaeda” and “Saddam Hussein” together in speech, although taking care never to directly claim that Hussein had actually planned the 9/11 attacks (since this was known for a fact to be untrue). The Department of Defense even manufactured “alternative intelligence assessment[s]” to contradict the consensus of the intelligence community that there was no Hussein-Al Qaeda link. Vice President Cheney insisted: “there’s overwhelming evidence that there was a connection between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi government.” In fact, there was overwhelming evidence of the opposite.14 

Bush later objected when it was pointed out that he had tried to make Americans channel their anger at the 9/11 attacks toward Saddam Hussein: “I didn’t say that there was a direct connection between September the 11th and Saddam Hussein.” Indeed, Bush only heavily implied it, over and over again. In requesting authorization for the use of force against Iraq, Bush told Congress that “the use of armed force against Iraq is consistent with the United States and other countries continuing to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”  Bush also said in declaring victory in Iraq—the “Mission Accomplished” speech—that he had “removed an ally of Al Qaeda” as part of a “war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001.” 

The more honest hawks admitted outright that this was pure deceit. Kenneth Pollack, in his 2002 pro-war manifesto The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, discouraged readers from thinking the case for invasion should was related to stopping Al-Qaeda:

“As best we can tell, Iraq was not involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. American intelligence officials have repeatedly affirmed that they can’t connect Baghdad to the attacks despite Herculean labors to do so. ‘There’s not a drop of evidence’ linking Iraq to the attacks, one senior intelligence official told the Los Angeles Times…Saddam generally saw bin Laden as a wild card he could not control and so mostly shied away from al-Qa’eda for fear that a relationship could drag him into a war with the United States that was not of his making.”

Again, this is from before the war, and was known to anyone who cared to check. The “ties to Al-Qaeda” justification is further called into question by the fact that Bush II began planning for war against Iraq before the Sept. 11 attacks, during the time when his administration could not have cared less about Al-Qaeda (a negligence that facilitated the 9/11 attacks). Paul O’Neill, who served as Treasury Secretary, confirmed that in early 2001 cabinet meetings, the administration was discussing invading Iraq and deposing Hussein: “It was all about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this.’” O’Neill revealed documents from before 9/11 like a “Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq” and a Pentagon document titled “Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.” Indeed, in 1998 many future members of Bush’s administration had declared their belief that the U.S. should “[implement] a strategy for removing Saddam’s regime from power.”

Once the invasion began, the idea of Saddam Hussein as a threat to the United States quickly came to seem ridiculous.15 His army having melted away, a fleeing Hussein soon resorted to hiding in a tiny “spider hole” on a farm. The idea of Iraq as having been a threat to the U.S. was as comical as when Ronald Reagan described Nicaragua as a threat to U.S. national security. In fact, it was an impoverished country falling apart at the seams. But history teaches that there is no situation so bad that U.S. intervention cannot make it worse. 

With the pretext at the core of the argument for war having been exposed as ludicrous, the justification was switched. Suddenly, the administration discovered that their reason for invading had not been to find weapons of mass destruction (even though Hussein’s disarmament had been called the “single question” at issue) but rather our fervent wish to bring the blessings of democracy to Iraq.16 As Middle East scholar Augustus Richard Norton wrote, “As fantasies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were unmasked, the Bush administration increasingly stressed the democratic transformation of Iraq, and scholars jumped on the democratization bandwagon.” 

Iraqis themselves were not buying it. A Gallup poll found that only 5 percent thought the goal of the invasion was “to assist the Iraqi people,” with most assuming the goal was to take control of Iraq’s resources and reorder the Middle East to serve U.S. and Israeli interests. By 2004, huge majorities saw U.S. forces as “occupiers” rather than “liberators.” Iraqis of all sects and backgrounds made it clear from early on that they did not want to be occupied—public opinion polling consistently showed that the majority wanted the U.S. to leave. (In a sign of how much the U.S. respects Iraqi democracy, when the Iraqi parliament voted to expel U.S. troops in 2020, Donald Trump responded by threatening the country with sanctions.)  

There were good reasons to be suspicious of this sudden discovery of an altruistic purpose. First, and most obviously, the United States has never cared about liberating people from tyrannies, and in fact strongly supports tyrannies when they are friendly to the U.S., as it had with Hussein. The U.S. record is of supporting rather than opposing dictatorial governments, with the relevant question being whether they serve our “interests in the region” rather than whether they are internally repressive. Iraq’s crimes against Kurds and Iranians were committed during the period of U.S. support. There was no explanation offered as to why, after enabling these atrocities, the U.S. had developed a sudden concern for punishing Iraq, nor any talk of holding to account the U.S. officials who had helped Hussein commit mass murder. If Hussein had remained compliant, his brutality would have been treated the same way as the brutality of others, like the Saudi royal family, Suharto, Pinochet, the Shah, Israel—meaning that occasionally the U.S. might have mentioned official disapproval of the country’s human rights abuses, all while continuing to extend support that would enable  the continuation of those abuses. 

In fact, we can resolve the question of whether the Bush administration had any humanitarian motives by looking at its attitude toward dictators who were compliant. Take the case of Uzbekistan. The New York Times reported in 2005 that while Uzbekistan was ruled by an appalling Hussein-like dictator, he was warmly embraced: 

“Seven months before Sept. 11, 2001, the State Department issued a human rights report on Uzbekistan. It was a litany of horrors. The police repeatedly tortured prisoners, State Department officials wrote, noting that the most common techniques were ‘beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask.’ Separately, international human rights groups had reported that torture in Uzbek jails included boiling of body parts, using electroshock on genitals and plucking off fingernails and toenails with pliers. Two prisoners were boiled to death, the groups reported. The February 2001 State Department report stated bluntly, ‘Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state with limited civil rights.’ Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, however, the Bush administration turned to Uzbekistan as a partner in fighting global terrorism. The nation, a former Soviet republic in Central Asia, granted the United States the use of a military base for fighting the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan. President Bush welcomed President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan to the White House, and the United States has given Uzbekistan more than $500 million for border control and other security measures. Now there is growing evidence that the United States has sent terror suspects to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation, even as Uzbekistan’s treatment of its own prisoners continues to earn it admonishments from around the world, including from the State Department.”

No thought was given to invading Uzbekistan, despite the comparable human rights record. 

If the interests of Iraqis had been foremost (or anywhere) in the minds of U.S. war planners, more attention would also have been given to the dire warnings that were being issued before the war. With the Iraqi people at the edge of survival after a decade of destructive sanctions, international aid and medical agencies warned that a war might lead to a serious humanitarian catastrophe. In 2003, just before the war, the Swiss government hosted a meeting of thirty countries to prepare for what might lie ahead. The U.S. alone refused to attend. Participants, including the other four permanent Security Council members, “warned of devastating humanitarian consequences of a war.” Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Kenneth Bacon, head of the Washington-based Refugees International, predicted that “a war will generate huge flows of refugees and a public health crisis.” Meanwhile, U.S. plans for humanitarian relief in a postwar Iraq were criticized by international aid agencies as “short on detail, woefully lacking in money, and overly controlled by the military.” U.N. officials complained, “There is a studied lack of interest [in Washington] in a warning call we are trying to deliver to the people planning for war, about what its consequences might be.”

A final indication that the U.S. did not seriously care about bringing democracy to Iraq is that it consistently attempted to keep democracy from coming to Iraq. The U.S. in fact resisted transferring sovereignty of Iraq to Iraqis. Powell, in rejecting the idea of U.N. governance for Iraq, said: “We didn’t take on this huge burden with our coalition partners not to be able to have a significant dominating control over how it unfolds in the future…” (Bush himself said that when Iraq was eventually allowed to elect its own leaders, he wanted “someone who’s willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq.”) The New York Times reported in June 2003 that Bremer had canceled the first municipal election in Iraq, on the grounds that “rejectionists” and “extremists” were likely to win, i.e., those who opposed the ongoing occupation of their country. Marines then “stormed the offices of an obscure local political party here, arrested four members and jailed them for four days,” due to the party members’ “violation of a new edict by Mr. Bremer that makes it illegal to incite violence against forces occupying Iraq.” Democracy is not for those who advocate violent resistance to an occupying army. The Times reported that hundreds of Iraqis came out to protest the cancellation of the election, and quoted the man who was “expected to win the election” saying that without elections, the Americans could expect more violent resistance. (“If they don’t give us freedom, what will we do?”) 

If all of the official justifications were obvious propaganda, transparently false even at the time of invasion (there was no evidence of WMD, no serious analyst thought Iraq was connected to Al-Qaeda, and benevolent efforts to liberate people from dictators have never been U.S. policy), one might ask what the “real” motivations for the war were. 

Many Iraqis certainly thought that the war was about oil, and it is hardly a conspiratorial notion. Oil is a leading cause of war around the world, and U.S. policymakers make no secret of their strong interest in avoiding ceding control of the world’s oil supply to rival powers. The State Department, in 1945, described Middle East oil as a “stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” Control of energy sources fuels U.S. economic and military might, and “strategic power” translates to a lever of world control. This was the rationale behind Jimmy Carter’s “Carter Doctrine”:“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”17

In explaining the first Gulf War, George H.W. Bush did not shy away from invoking oil as a justification: “Our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom, and the freedom of friendly countries around the world would all suffer if control of the world’s great oil reserves fell into the hands of Saddam Hussein.” Bush I vowed: “We cannot permit a resource so vital to be dominated by one so ruthless. And we won’t.”18 Former CENTCOM commander John Abizaid, discussing U.S. involvement in the Middle East generally, said: “Of course it’s about oil. It’s very much about oil, and we can’t really deny that.” Indeed, if Iraq’s main exports had been tomatoes and asparagus, Saddam Hussein’s power within the region would have been of much less concern to the U.S. Richard Haass, Director of Policy Planning in the State Department under Bush II, wrote that “the principal reason the region matters as much as it does stems from its [oil and gas] resources and their relevance to the world economy… absent oil and oil’s importance the region would count for much less.” 

Pollack, in his case for invading Iraq, is also remarkably open about the role of oil in U.S. Middle East policy. After World War II, “the world needed Persian Gulf oil, and because of its power and its interest in seeing a stable, prosperous world, the United States had to take a hand in ensuring that the oil continued to flow freely.” But the U.S. “could not keep large forces in the Gulf” and thus had to use “other methods to secure the region” such as helping the Shah “overthrow his socialist prime minister…whom Washington and London feared would nationalize the Iranian oil industry and cast Iran’s lot in with Moscow.” (Remember, this is the characterization of a CIA official and leading war proponent.) 

Some Bush II officials have denied that they shared Bush I’s stated concern with securing control over energy supplies. Rumsfeld said the war had “literally nothing to do with oil” and Bush speechwriter David Frum was emphatic that “the United States is not fighting for oil in Iraq.” (However, Frum also recounted seeing Ahmed Chalabi and Dick Cheney spend “long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to U.S. dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia.”) But Pollack explained that one of the crucial reasons why Hussein couldn’t be permitted to wield weapons of mass destruction was that he would:

“…use this power to advance Iraq’s political interests, even to the detriment of its economic interests and the world’s… If Saddam Hussein were ever to control the Persian Gulf oil resources, his past record suggests that he would be willing to cut or even halt oil exports altogether whenever it suited him to force concessions from his fellow Arabs, Europe, the United States, or the world as a whole. And even if he failed, he could still wreak considerable havoc on the region and world oil supplies.”

As Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and a number of other neoconservatives wrote in their 1998 letter to president Clinton demanding regime change in Iraq: “if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction…the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will all be put at hazard.” Republican senator Chuck Hagel, who became Secretary of Defense under Obama, said of the Iraq War in 2007: “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.” Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said similarly “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” Richard Clarke said that having observed the administration from the inside, while he believed multiple motivations were at work, among them were “to improve Israel’s strategic position by eliminating a large, hostile military” and “to create another friendly source of oil for the U.S. market and reduce dependency upon oil from Saudi Arabia…” Yet, as Glenn Greenwald noted in a 2013 column, at the time the war started, those who dared to raise the possibility that material interests might be as important as principles were widely denounced as unserious conspiracy theorists.

The idea that the invasion of Iraq was just “for oil” is nevertheless simplistic. For Bush, there were many attractive reasons to depose Hussein, including his antagonistic stance toward Israel. Personal motivations can also always be bound up with geopolitical ones (see, e.g., Lyndon Johnson’s fear of emasculation if he went soft in Vietnam). Bush II said before the invasion that:

“One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief. My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of [Kuwait] and he wasted it. If I have a chance to invade Iraq, if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

Bush II may well have thought that the key to a successful presidency is a successful war. His former press secretary wrote that he had heard Bush say that “only a wartime president is likely to achieve greatness.” 

There were multiple perfectly rational reasons Bush II had for invading Iraq, none of which had anything to do with the stated justifications. Wars distract from the domestic agenda, and the Republican Party’s domestic policy platform has usually been deeply unpopular. Even the lack of U.N. support for the war was an asset rather than a drawback, because by violating international law without consequence, the Bush administration could diminish the authority of the only institution theoretically entrusted with constraining U.S. use of force. As Richard Perle wrote in the Guardian, a positive side effect of the downfall of Hussein is that he “will take the UN down with him” and “what will die is the fantasy of the UN as the foundation of a new world order.” The invasion would put an end to the “liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions.” Those institutions would be shown to be powerless to stop the United States. What is needed is a war with an “exemplary quality,” Harvard Middle East historian Roger Owen pointed out, discussing the reasons for the attack on Iraq. The exemplary action teaches a lesson that others must heed, or else. 

General Anthony Zinni, former chief of CENTCOM, in his personal opinion on the motives of the neoconservatives in pushing for war, gives an explanation consistent with the facts: 

“[T]he neocons didn’t really give a shit what happened in Iraq and the aftermath…I don’t think they thought it would be this bad. But they said… ‘Look, if it works out, let’s say we get [Ahmed] Chalabi in, he’s our boy, great. [But if] we don’t and maybe there’s some half-ass government in there, maybe some strongman emerges, [Iraq] fractures, and there’s basically a loose federation and there’s really a Kurdish state. Who cares? There’s some bloodshed, and it’s messy. Who cares? I mean, we’ve taken out Saddam. We’ve asserted our strength in the Middle East. We’re changing the dynamic. We’re now off the peace process as the centerpiece and we’re not putting any pressure on Israel.”

Not too much “idealism” here. Just pure mafioso thinking. The lives of Iraqis are meaningless (“who cares?”) The question is whether we have successfully asserted American power. As Richard Haass describes the motivation, “[Bush] and others wanted to send a message to the world that the United States was not, to borrow Richard Nixon’s phrase, a pitiful helpless giant.”

In fact, the invasion of Iraq makes complete sense on the assumption that Godfather-logic tends to prevail. Saddam Hussein had ambitions of being a regional power player. He thumbed his nose at the United States and would not play ball. He posed no threat to U.S. safety, but the existence of successful defiance poses a significant threat to U.S. hegemony. It is helpful to consider a mobster incensed by the insubordinate defiance of an upstart rival. The mobster may be obsessed with not tolerating a slight, and so fearful of the erosion of his capacity to strike fear into rivals (his “credibility”), that he does not consider the violent territorial dispute that will erupt in the power vacuum. 

Those who consider the mafioso model will have no difficulty understanding U.S. behavior across a wide range of cases. Without such a model, one may continue to be puzzled by the disjunction between stated U.S. values and the behavior of the U.S. state, particularly as bloody well-intentioned “mistakes” continue to pile up. These “mistakes” present no such difficulty for those who understand a simple truth: even the Godfather thinks of himself as a good man, and continues to do so even when the consequence of his behavior is to strike terror into the neighborhood, sow suspicion, and fuel mutually destructive violence that is in the interest of nobody. The Godfather may consider himself a benefactor whose unquestioned power, backed by violent force, creates stability and order. The worst of history’s criminals have sincerely believed themselves to be among humankind’s greatest heroes. This sobering fact should remain in mind every time we read a pious pronouncement about the moral necessity of U.S. global power. 

“The American and European news stations don’t show the dying Iraqis … they don’t show the women and children bandaged and bleeding—the mother looking for some sign of her son in the middle of a puddle of blood and dismembered arms and legs … they don’t show you the hospitals overflowing with the dead and dying because they don’t want to hurt American feelings … but people should see it. You should see the price of your war and occupation—it’s unfair that the Americans are fighting a war thousands of kilometers from home. They get their dead in neat, tidy caskets draped with a flag and we have to gather and scrape our dead off of the floors and hope the American shrapnel and bullets left enough to make a definite identification …”anonymous Iraqi blogger (April 9, 2004)

“I look back on Bush with a degree of nostalgia, with some affection, which I never thought I would do.” Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) 

Iraq was devastated by the U.S. invasion, which incited ethnic conflict that tore apart both the country and the region. Out of the wreckage emerged the nightmarish Islamic State, which almost succeeded in taking over the country. The war, though pitched as part of a “global war on terrorism,” in fact made Western countries more vulnerable than ever to terrorism. The cost was staggering, in both human lives and resources. 

But those responsible for the worst crime of the century have never been indicted or prosecuted. The idea is never even mentioned in U.S. discourse. In fact, a 2021 Washington Post Style profile said that Bush “presents as harmless and affable,” and is seen in public “sharing hard candies with Michelle Obama or hanging out at a Cowboys game with Ellen DeGeneres.” Bush also took up painting in his retirement, and his portraits of soldiers have been collected into a coffee-table book (Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors) that attracted favorable notice in the New Yorker, which described his work as “surprisingly likable,” “honestly observed,”  and of “astonishingly high quality.” 

It says something disturbing about our media that a man can cause well over 500,000 deaths and then have his paintings flatteringly profiled, with the deaths unmentioned. George W. Bush intentionally offered false justifications for a war, destroyed an entire country, and committed an international crime. He tortured people, sometimes to death. Yet his public image is now that of a goofy grandpa, for whom even Democrats are nostalgic. 

Bush’s victims, of course, feel somewhat differently. Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in the war, and who waged an admirable campaign against the war, told the Post “I don’t think he deserves people like Ellen DeGeneres sitting next to him and giving him legitimacy like he’s just some nice guy. I don’t think he deserves the rehabilitation or softening of his image. I think he belongs in prison.”19 Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, said he did so “to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people.” 

The chief architects of the war have lived prosperous and comfortable lives. Donald Rumsfeld, after leaving government service in 2007, “created the Rumsfeld Foundation to encourage public service with study fellowships and grants to support the growth of free political and economic systems abroad.” Colin Powell “served as the chairman of the board of visitors of the School for Civic and Global Leadership.” Paul Bremer became a skiing instructor in Vermont. Dick Cheney received a warm welcome from Democrats when he visited the Capitol on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 uprising. And George W. Bush, of course, paints pictures of foreign leaders, soldiers, and puppies. 

No mainstream effort has been made to enforce international law against those who violated it. While the practice of torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and CIA black sites was eventually exposed to the public, Barack Obama made it clear when he came into office that there would be complete impunity for misconduct. As Karen Greenberg of the NYU Center on Law and Security noted, Obama “refused to clamp down on [torture] in a way that would make it hard for people in the future to do it.” Obama said that he wanted to “look forward, not backward” (a bizarre phrase that would sound laughable applied to any other serious crime). The victims, of course, trapped in the past by the trauma of losing family and friends, may keep sourly “looking backward,” but the United States has moved on.

This essay is adapted from Chomsky and Robinson’s forthcoming book The Myth of American Idealism: How U.S. Foreign Policy Endangers The World.

  1. Iraqi civilians were commonly killed after failing to stop their cars and being mistaken for suicide bombers. A similar account, from the earliest weeks of the war, was reported in the New York Times in April of 2003: “The plan was for marine snipers along the road to fire warning shots several hundred yards up the road at any approaching vehicles. As the half-dozen vehicles approached, some shots were fired at the ground in front of the cars; others were fired, with great precision, at their tires or their engine blocks…But some of the vehicles weren’t fully disabled by the snipers, and they continued to move forward. When that happened, the marines riddled the vehicles with bullets until they ground to a halt. There would be no car bombs taking out members of the Third Battalion. The vehicles, it only later became clear, were full of Iraqi civilians. These Iraqis were apparently trying to escape the American bombs that were landing behind them, farther down the road, and to escape Baghdad itself; the road they were on is a key route out of the city. The civilians probably couldn’t see the marines, who were wearing camouflage fatigues and had taken up ground and rooftop positions that were intended to be difficult for approaching fighters to spot. What the civilians probably saw in front of them was an open road…One by one, civilians were killed. Several hundred yards from the forward marine positions, a blue minivan was fired on; three people were killed. An old man, walking with a cane on the side of the road, was shot and killed…Several other vehicles were fired on; over a stretch of about 600 yards nearly a half dozen vehicles were stopped by gunfire. When the firing stopped, there were nearly a dozen corpses, all but two of which had no apparent military clothing or weapons… [Two] journalists said that a squad leader, after the shooting stopped, shouted: ”My men showed no mercy. Outstanding.” 

  2. Though virtually forgotten in the U.S., the shootdown “remains one of the moments the Iranian government points to in its decades-long distrust of America.” Further inflaming Iranian anger, the U.S. gave the captain who shot down the airliner a “Legion of Merit” award. An Iranian professor told NBC news in 2020 (after two U.S. fighter jets had a near-miss encounter with another Iranian passenger jet) that the 1988 shootdown has contributed to a widespread impression among Iranians that “the United States does not care for the lives of innocent people.” 

  3. As a 1990 op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel put it: “For a decade, the United States has watched Saddam Hussein’s aggression and atrocities – and, by deliberate policy, fed him, lent him money, ignored his attacks on U.S. ships and protected his cash flow. It is hard, therefore, to swallow President Bush’s explanation that we have gone to war in the Persian Gulf because we suddenly object, as a matter of principle, to Iraq’s aggression, or because we are suddenly horrified by his atrocities, or because we want ‘to serve the cause of justice and freedom.’” 

  4. The phrase, familiar to us from the Vietnam context and Kissinger’s infamous remark, should be understood as a genocidal call to ignore ordinary rules of engagement. 

  5. Carole O’Leary of American University, who studies Iraqi opposition groups, claims Bush effectively told the rebels: “you do it and we’re going to help you.” 

  6. Note that atrocities become mere “sins” when they are being discussed as the drawback to our support for a dictator, because to say however numerous his atrocities, he was the best hope for stability would make the U.S. position sound reprehensible. Once the term “stability” is also translated into English—in this case, it means “subordination to U.S. interests,” the correct interpretation of the sentence is: No amount of horror and repression could persuade Washington to consider the human rights of Iraqis over the self-interest of Washington. 

  7. Reports of the sanctions’ effects on child mortality specifically were later disputed as having been based on manipulated statistics. However, at the time, without contesting the claim that 500,000 Iraqi children may have died as a result, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said such a “price” was “worth it.” One’s relief that the deaths of children were overestimated should not diminish one’s horror that a high U.S. official rationalized policies that she had full reason to believe were causing the widespread deaths of children. 

  8. HRW points out that “the US has a terrible history of using cluster munitions around [the] world.” The Institute for Policy Studies notes that as a global consensus against the use of cluster bombs has developed, the U.S.—the largest manufacturer and user of them—has defended them as a valid tool of warfare. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called them “legitimate weapons with clear military utility” while Richard Kidd, the director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. State Department, said “cluster munitions are available for use by every combat aircraft in the U.S. inventory; they are integral to every Army or Marine maneuver element and in some cases constitute up to 50 percent of tactical indirect fire support.’” 

  9. While the Bush administration tried to deny or downplay the abuse, some on the American right forthrightly defended the practices, with Rush Limbaugh saying that soldiers who were “being fired at every day” deserved to “have a good time” for “emotional release,” and Michael Savage saying that he wished the abuse had been worse: “I would have liked to have seen dynamite put in their orifices…We need more of the humiliation tactics, not less. 

  10. In 2003, for instance, a U.S. tank opened fire on the Baghdad hotel where all of the international press were staying, killing two journalists. 

  11. Importantly, while it is often said that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, this is not strictly true. A number of abandoned stockpiles of chemical weapons from before 1991 were uncovered. The Bush administration actually worked to conceal the discovery, because these “filthy, rusty, or corroded” weapons were clearly “long-abandoned.” However, they did cause serious injuries to U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police, and the U.S. “lost track of chemical weapons that its troops found, left large caches unsecured, and did not warn people—Iraqis and foreign troops alike—as it hastily exploded chemical ordnance in the open air.” Secrecy about the discoveries “prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.” One reason the Bush administration did not wish to publicize the discoveries was that in “five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.” 

  12. The only report making such an allegation had been released in the early 1990s, and concerned a nuclear weapons program that was known to have been subsequently destroyed. In fact, the IAEA’s conclusion at the time was that there was “no indication of resumed nuclear activities…nor any indication of nuclear-related prohibited activities. The IAEA spokesman said in 2002: “There’s never been a report like that issued from this agency…If anybody tells you they know the nuclear situation in Iraq right now, in the absence of four years of inspections, I would say that they’re misleading you because there isn’t solid evidence out there.” 

  13. There was little discussion of why, even if a dictatorial ruler did possess weapons of mass destruction, this justified inflicting misery on the citizenry through war. There was certainly no public debate on the question of why Hussein had no right to possess WMDs, but the United States (a country that has used them repeatedly against civilian populations, including chemical weapons in Vietnam and nuclear weapons in Japan) does. Interestingly, in 2003,  Bush said the following: “Year after year, Saddam Hussein had gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction. But why? The only possible explanation, the only possible use he could have for those weapons, is to dominate, intimidate, or attack.” If the only possible explanation for the possession of such weapons is domination, intimidation, and attack, one might wonder why the United States possesses them in vastly greater quantities than Hussein ever did. Not a question that will ever get an airing in the U.S. press. 

  14. A classified President’s Daily Brief on Sept. 21, 2001, told Bush “there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda.” Nevertheless, he proceeded to spend the next year and a half repeating the exact opposite, knowing that the public would not see the content of his intelligence reports. 

  15. Despite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Bush simply lied and insisted the opposite had happened: “We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.” Nevertheless, Bush would later participate in a skit at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in which he joked about the failure to find WMDs. The skit featured Bush wandering around the White House and making comments like “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere” or “Maybe under here.” Given the number of people who died horrific violent deaths as a result of the deception, the skit was deemed by some to be “tasteless and ill-judged.” 

  16. Once the justifications were switched from preventing a threat to performing a service for Iraqis, Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch gave a detailed explanation of why the war did not, even assuming this was not a dishonest pretext, meet the standards necessary for a military action to be considered “humanitarian.” 

  17. A balanced discussion of the role of oil in the U.S. decision to go to war can be found in John S. Duffield, “Oil and the Decision to Invade Iraq” 

  18. Bush said that in addition to matters of principle, “Vital economic interests are at risk as well. Iraq itself controls some 10 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. Iraq plus Kuwait controls twice that. An Iraq permitted to swallow Kuwait would have the economic and military power, as well as the arrogance, to intimidate and coerce its neighbors—neighbors who control the lion’s share of the world’s remaining oil reserves.” 

  19. Sheehan, a principled opponent of war, was equally critical of Barack Obama, whom she called “that war criminal in the White House.” 

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