During the past week, as President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, there was considerable media commentary focusing on the lies that had been utilized to build public support for the war. The two that received almost exclusive attention were the argument that Saddam had an active WMD program and the assertion, made most vigorously by Vice President Richard Cheney, that there were “proven links” connecting the Iraqi leadership to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Both were, of course, deliberate fabrications but both did play important roles in shaping public opinion and justifying the invasion of Iraq. But the propaganda effort to win support for the war involved much more.
As I note in my forthcoming book Arab Voices, proponents for the war, preying on the public’s lack of basic information about Iraq and its people, made exaggerated claims expressing confidence that the effort would be relatively painless. A former Pentagon official termed it a “cakewalk”. Cheney said “it’ll go… quickly. Weeks rather than months”. Paul Wolfowitz estimated the cost of the entire enterprise not to exceed one or two billion dollars, with Iraq’s oil revenues quickly kicking in to “finance its own reconstruction”. President Bush and others added that “we would be greeted as liberators” ushering in a new democracy that would be “a beacon for a new Middle East”.
Throughout the media universe, commentators echoed these boasts, regularly churning out outrageous claims on par with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s pre-Gulf War outrageous warning that that conflict would be the “mother of all battles.”
Before the invasion began, for example, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, wagered “the best dinner in the gaslight district of San Diego that military action will not last more than a week.” A similarly euphoric (and ultimately equally misleading) statement by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, soon followed: “There is a certain amount of pop psychology in America that the Shi’a can’t get along with the Sunni. . . . There’s almost no evidence of that at all.” Finally, journalist Fred Barnes, another Fox News host, chimed in, saying, “The war was the hard part. . . . And it gets easier. I mean, setting up a democracy is hard, but not as hard as winning a war.”
This endless and deadly “spinning” didn’t end with the invasion. One half year into the war, Zogby International conducted the first-ever nationwide poll in Iraq — showing that a disturbingly high percentage of Iraqis (including almost the entire Sunni population and strong majority of Shi’a) wanted the U.S. to leave their country, did not have a favorable view of the U.S. military’s behavior, and were not inclined to establish a democracy in Iraq. A few days after we released our findings, Cheney was on “Meet the Press” citing our poll as evidence of “very positive news” and then forcing the results to make his case that all was going well.
The same penchant for fabrication was in evidence in the hype surrounding the “surge” the Bush Administration implemented in early 2007. It is true that sectarian and intra-sect violence declined during this same period. But the reasons for this decline had more to do with the fact that the “ethnic cleansing” operations launched by sectarian groups had already left Baghdad’s neighborhoods purged and divided by barricades, and Sunni tribal groups had organized and armed themselves to fight against al Qaeda before the surge of U.S. troops began.
Despite all this, the same cast of characters who promoted the fabrications that led the U.S. into the war, had the temerity to upbraid President Obama for failing to give President Bush credit for successfully implementing measures that ended the war.
The U.S. combat forces have now been withdrawn, but this war is not over, it has not been a success, and U.S. responsibility has not ended. Iraq remains a fragile country, divided internally and surrounded by neighbors, some wary of the country’s instability and others eager to exploit its vulnerability. In addition to the 4,400 Americans who died, tens of thousands have been severely wounded and their continued care will remain a national priority. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis also perished and one fifth of that country’s population remain refugees (placing an enormous burden on Syria and Jordan — where most have taken refuge) or internally displaced persons, unable to return to their homes. Meanwhile, instead of a “beacon of democracy” we see a dysfunctional political order that cannot easily come to closure and implement the results of an election that took place more than one half year ago.
As the nation responsible for this calamity, America will continue to have a role in Iraq’s future. Vice President Joseph Biden was right when he noted that “American engagement with Iraq will continue” with a new mission to help the country through reconstruction and reconciliation.
And the story doesn’t end there. At some point in our history those who brought this disaster down on us all must be called to account for the fabrications, the embarrassment to our honor, and the death and waste of so many lives and resources. Until that occurs, the conclusion to this sad chapter will not have been written.