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Last year I attended a commemoration near the White House for the fallen Iraqi protesters killed in 2019 by security forces and militias. The ceremony coincided with huge rallies in support of the Cuban people following the arrest of hundreds of activists in Havana. I was approached by a well-known American activist. She had spotted the Iraqi flag and asked me who the slain young men were, and I summarized the October protests for her. Her reaction was something within the lines of “any protest that does not outright denounce American interventionism is a protest I do not trust.” I wanted to say a lot but had neither the energy nor the desire to debate. As she walked to the larger Cuban crowds, I asked myself how many Cubans she would talk over by implying their protest is a color revolution. I got my answer four months later when she traveled to Havana to express solidarity with the Cuban government.
Her attitude belied a broader sentiment adopted by many anti-war activists and even parts of legacy media as a consequence of the trauma of the Iraq war: Instead of “My country, right or wrong,” it became, America is always in the wrong.
Many wars throughout history have been waged on the basis of bogus claims or exaggerated events. A vendetta over a slain camel led to the infamous 40-year “Basus war” between two tribes in the Arabian Peninsula in pre-Islamic times. In 20th-century Europe, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife triggered a series of events that led to World War I, killing an estimated 40 million between civilians and military personnel. The Vietnam War had different reasons but was primarily a symptom of the Cold War between the capitalist West represented by America and the communist East led by the then Soviet Union. Millions of Vietnamese civilians and more than 58,000 U.S. servicemen were killed.
As decades pass, the causes and rationale behind wars become less logical. With the exception of World War II, the cost of wars appeared to have outweighed the gains, and efforts of diplomacy and mediation soon replaced large-scale military intervention. Starting in the late 20th century, American public support for U.S. military intervention was split mostly along partisan lines. The majority of Republicans supported whatever efforts the military were involved in overseas, whereas most, but not all, Democrats opposed them. During the 1980s, the U.S. was involved in smaller military adventures in Latin America, Lebanon and elsewhere. Though none of those was remotely close to the scale of the Vietnam conflict, some still ended in tragedy for the U.S. military.
Nonetheless the somewhat linear approach and support for war was not affected. Desert Storm in the 1990s saw larger-scale military involvement but a relatively low fatality rate among U.S. servicemen. (The cost to Iraqis was extraordinary.) The anti-war voices were consistent in opposing all wars regardless of context, and there was slightly more opposition from the general public on the basis of America’s being continually at war since its conception. But that opposition was not strong enough to alter the course of military intervention or the discourse surrounding it. Similar discourse took place about the U.S. intervention in the Kosovo war in the 1990s. America had accepted, it appeared, that it would be the world’s policeman. As long as the fatalities were not high, that position could be maintained with little popular objection.
Then September 11 happened, and everything changed. In the immediate aftermath of the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the public panic demanded a strong military response. Afghanistan was targeted first with a full-scale military invasion to find and punish Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Bin Laden was not an easy hunt and without his being tracked down, the public was not satisfied. Someone had to pay, and that someone was Iraq. On completely bogus accusations that accused Iraq of arming itself with weapons of mass destruction that were ready to be launched at American targets at any moment, a military force invaded Iraq. Iraq had no connection to al Qaeda or the September 11 attacks. With the exception of a handful of Democrats and less than 30% of the population, America approved and supported the invasion. The media, both electronic and print, supported and advocated the invasion. The New York Times’s Judith Miller played an unforgettable role, one she has never apologized for, in convincing the American public that Iraq’s mass destruction arsenal was real and its danger imminent. Oprah Winfrey supported the war, and so did Britney Spears.
Not only were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, but the country spiraled into chaos that nobody has been held accountable for. The invasion revealed quickly that the claims of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal were made up. The Iraqi opposition scattered among Washington, Dearborn, London and Tehran had lied and manipulated facts for the sole purpose of obtaining power in the country that had expelled them decades earlier.
There is no dispute that Saddam Hussein’s regime was among the worst dictatorships in modern history, but ridding Iraq of its cruelty had not been the initial goal of the invasion. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was also one of the first wars in the age of high-speed internet and early social media outlets like chat groups and discussion forums. Details of the war and horrific scenes from Fallujah in addition to whistleblower leaks spread to the public fast. It was a failed intervention with catastrophic outcomes. At least 650,000 Iraqi civilians died as a direct or indirect consequence of the U.S. invasion from 2003 to 2013, and more than 5,000 U.S. servicemen were killed. During the eight-year occupation of Iraq, America faced domestic challenges of its own. Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, America’s infrastructure had begun faltering in big cities, and the economy hit a recession.
The public soon began decrying the war and an occupation that was costing America billions of dollars. Bad news from Iraq appeared almost daily. Al Qaeda, having previously not been present in Iraq, found first a foothold and then grew stronger and new terrorist organizations splintered from it, making the outcomes of the war or whatever positives it had achieved disappear from the discourse. Deployment of U.S. troops overseas no longer had popular support. Congress was witnessing, slowly but surely, agreement to oppose future military interference.
The media has since stepped back and on many occasions has overtly challenged not only large-scale military interventions but what is described as the “U.S. war machine” as a whole including high defense budgets, drone strikes, economic sanctions and escalating rhetoric toward adversaries. It is an important gain to question and challenge military adventures overseas. War should be the last resort, only considered if all other options are exhausted.
There is, unfortunately, a downside. To compensate for its unequivocal support for the invasion of Iraq, some legacy media have employed a U.S.-centric method of covering conflict overseas. America is always in the wrong even when some conflicts do not involve it whatsoever.
Beyond the media, debate in U.S. policy circles has followed a similar approach when discussing defense and foreign policy. Accountability and accurate, realistic assessments of conflict are vital. Acknowledging that U.S. intervention has, mostly, failed in achieving its stated goals is necessary. Denying other nations’ agency in their fight against authoritarianism, backing away from supporting basic human rights, and resorting to fatalism as adversaries like Russia and China continue to threaten the relative global stability of the past 70 years have all become increasingly indistinguishable from legitimate concerns regarding U.S. foreign policy.
The shadow of the Iraq War has formulated a rhetoric in which a complete lack of empathy toward nations in conflict is disguised as sane political realism. Honest activists who oppose the toll on humanity caused by wars are drowned out by the louder voices who decide which conflict victims deserve empathy based on the identity of the perpetrator. Mass murderers who shout “Death to America” have a pass to commit as many atrocities are required, while financial aid to a nation like Ukraine which is fighting an existential war is described as a provocation that is lengthening conflict and starving the American people.
When protests erupt in places like Iran or Iraq and the chants denounce the rulers and autocratic systems, America is again brought to the center of discussion and the demands, hopes and struggles of the protesters are written off, ignored or, even worse, described as being a mere CIA plot.