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TGIF: Obama’s Iraqi Fairy Tale

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I promised myself that I would no longer comment on what Barack Obama has to say, because it’s just not worth the time and effort. Obama’s public remarks are comprehensible only if you keep one thing in mind: he, like other politicians, thinks most people are morons.

I am so appalled by what Obama said in Europe the other day, however, that I must break my promise. In his speech he said, regarding events in Crimea, that

Russia has pointed to America’s decision to go into Iraq as an example of Western hypocrisy. Now, it is true that the Iraq War was a subject of vigorous debate not just around the world, but in the United States as well. I participated in that debate and I opposed our military intervention there. But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people and a fully sovereign Iraqi state that could make decisions about its own future.

It is hard to believe that a presidential speechwriter could manage to pack so many lies into so few sentences. But the speechwriter could only compose the sentences. Obama chose to deliver them, and for that, he should be indicted for gross deception with malice aforethought. (Need I say this is not unique to Obama? Virtually all politicians are demagogues. Obama’s distinguishing trait is his smoothness.)

Let us count the lies.

The Iraq War was a subject of vigorous debate not just around the world, but in the United States as well.

Note he did not say “honest debate,” for how honest can a debate be when the government fills the mostly willing media with lies about WMD and suggestions that Saddam Hussein was connected to the attacks on 9/11? Every top member of the Bush administration having anything to do with “national security” lied to the public at one time or another. People who questioned the “slam-dunk” intelligence were dismissed as pusillanimous or soft on Saddam. If that counts as open debate, then there is no difference between the Bush administration and any outright autocratic regime.

America sought to work within the international system.

Really? In terms of international law, Bush was not allowed to launch a war against Iraq, which had threatened no one, until he secured another resolution from the Security Council (the 18th or 2nd, depending on how you count). That resolution was proposed but then withdrawn when Bush realized it would be vetoed. So he ignored the UN rules, which prohibit launching a war unless it’s in self-defense or authorized by the Security Council, and invaded on his own say-so, after Congress rubberstamped his discretionary “authorization for the use of military force.” Yes, he dragged some other governments’ forces along for cover, the so-called Coalition of the Willing, 3 members of which — out of 48 — actually sent some troops. (The Bush administration was good at coming up with Orwellian names for things.)

We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain.

No, they didn’t, but in many respects the Bush administration sure tried. America’s savvy rulers long ago realized that old-style empire building was passé. Subjugated populations wouldn’t stand for it, and that raised the already considerable costs of empire maintenance. So a new, softer imperialism was born. No more annexations. No more UN mandates or protectorates. No more de jure colonies. But this says nothing about de facto control, which was the Bush regime’s objective in Iraq from Day One.

The presumptuous whiz-kid bureaucrats sent in after Saddam fell were armed with plans to remake Iraq right down to its traffic lights and flag. The oil resources were to be “privatized” and parceled out to crony American companies. (Remember the promises that oil revenues would pay for the costly war? Didn’t happen.)

Billions of dollars ostensibly spent to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by American bombers (beginning in 1991) ended up lining the pockets of contractors, subcontractors, and sub-subcontractors (ad infinitum) — with little to show for it. Iraqis to this day suffer from inadequate public services like water, electricity, sewerage, and medical care.

The Bush administration also expected to have some three dozen permanent military bases (with lots of American firms granted lucrative business concessions), and an embassy the size of the Vatican.

Few of these plans came to fruition — but only because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was Iran’s handpicked candidate for prime minister, wouldn’t permit it. To be sure, the U.S. government did not gain territory or grab resources — but not for lack of trying.

We ended our war and left Iraq to its people and a fully sovereign Iraqi state that could make decisions about its own future.

The war indeed ended in 2011. But let’s not forget that before (most of) the troops left, Obama begged al-Maliki to let U.S. forces stay beyond the deadline set in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Al-Maliki — who didn’t need the United States when he had Iran in his corner — demanded conditions so unacceptable to Obama that most forces were withdrawn as scheduled. (SOFA was signed by Bush, but that doesn’t stop Obama from claiming credit for “ending the war.”) The U.S. government continues to finance, arm, and train al-Maliki’s military, which represses the minority Sunni population.

What was left to Iraq’s people was a catastrophe, as already indicated. Peter Van Buren, a State Department officer who oversaw reconstruction in two eastern Iraqi provinces, calls the Iraq War “the single worst foreign policy decision in American history.” There can hardly be a better example of blind ambition. Take the deadly siege of Fallujah in 2004. Journalist Dahr Jamail writes,

According to the Bush administration at the time, the siege of Fallujah was carried out in the name of fighting something called “terrorism” and yet, from the point of view of the Iraqis I was observing at such close quarters, the terror was strictly American. In fact, it was the Americans who first began the spiraling cycle of violence in Fallujah when U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division killed 17 unarmed demonstrators on April 28th of the previous year outside a school they had occupied and turned into a combat outpost. The protesters had simply wanted the school vacated by the Americans, so their children could use it. But then, as now, those who respond to government-sanctioned violence are regularly written off as “terrorists.” Governments are rarely referred to in the same terms.

The architects of the catastrophe had a plan, and the welfare of Iraqis would not be allowed to get in their way. As Van Buren points out,

All that was needed [the Americans thought] was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn’t imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.

The invasion unleashed a conflagration of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiites, unseen during Saddam’s tenure and consciously facilitated by the U.S. government. Most Sunnis were cleansed from Baghdad. Countless were killed and maimed; millions more became refugees. The fire burns out of control to this day, fueled by the oppression and corruption of al-Maliki, who’s earned the moniker “the Shia Saddam.” Van Buren writes,

As part of the breakdown, desperate men [in the Bush administration], blindsided by history, turned up the volume on desperate measures: torture, secret gulags, rendition, drone killings, extra-constitutional actions at home. The sleaziest of deals were cut to try to salvage something….

The mind boggles at the sheer evil the Americans, who expected gratitude, did there. The result? Van Buren notes:

Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that US citizens “remain at risk for kidnapping … [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active” and notes that “State Department guidance to US businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details.”

That is what has been left to the Iraqi people by the benevolent power of the United States of America. As for the U.S. government’s respect for Iraq’s sovereignty, the Obama administration is pressuring al-Maliki to stop allowing Iraq’s ally Iran to fly through Iraqi airspace to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his civil war. So much for Iraqi sovereignty.

This highlights just one of the many absurd features of U.S. policy (if you can call it that): while Obama helps al-Maliki fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, the United States also helps al-Qaeda affiliates fight Assad in Syria. (For the record, al-Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq before Bush invaded.) Again, the mind boggles.

The upshot is that one need not condone Vladimir Putin’s ham-handedness to see that Obama has no leg to stand on when he contrasts Russia’s essentially bloodless and provoked annexation of Crimea with America’s unprovoked war of aggression against Iraq. Unfortunately, the Americans who committed this cold-blooded mass murder and societal destruction are less likely to face justice than Putin is for his crimes in, say, Chechnya.

(Thanks to Scott Horton for his helpful suggestions.)

This post was written by:

Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.