The Iraq War – Worth It? To Whom?

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Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division rejoice in the convoy staging area before departing Camp Adder, now known as Imam Ali Base, Dec. 17, near Nasiriyah, Iraq. (MSNBC PhotoBlog)

The last U.S. soldiers left Iraq on Sunday, December 18, 2011.  At a press briefing in Ankara, Turkey on December 16, 2011, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commented on whether the Iraq war was “worth it.”  Donna Miles of the American Forces Press Service reported:

“There is no question that the United States was divided going into that war,” he said. “But I think the United States is united coming out of that war. We all recognize the tremendous price that has been paid in lives, in blood. And yet I think we also recognize that those lives were not lost in vain.”

The result, he said, has been establishment of a sovereign and independent Iraq that can govern and secure itself and become “an important, stabilizing factor in that region of the world.”

“As difficult as [the Iraq war] was,” and the cost in both American and Iraqi lives, “I think the price has been worth it, to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world,” he added. [1]

After all the years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and struggling virtually my entire life to comprehend America’s perceived role in the world, this carefully crafted statement left me weary and deflated.  I’m not sure what else he might have said – but “to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world”?  Is that really what this long, costly war was for?  Then how about establishing a stable, functional democracy here in the United States?  What would be a reasonable price tag for that?

Why do we initiate discretionary, offensive wars in places like Vietnam and Iraq?  Wearily, I ask this tired, trite question again, because an attempt must be made once again to answer it.  If the only answer we now have is to bestow upon people “stable” governments, to somehow leave them better off than they were before we rolled into their homelands with bombs exploding and guns blaring, the very idea is absurd.

In even asking the question “Was it worth it?” we betray an unwillingness to face up to the horror that is the reality of war; it’s an insensible question.  War is death and destruction, humanity reduced to its most desperate and malevolent impulses.  War kills people and destroys their culture, institutions and infrastructure, leaving the survivors to start all over again.  War can create neither positive change nor the gratitude of an invaded population.

Given the murderous and destabilizing destructiveness of modern warfare, to rationalize waging war on the basis of creating “stable” governments is more than sufficient to establish its barbarity and criminality.  In the case of the Iraq War, it would be a an especially hideous misrepresentation to offer a “stable government” rationale on behalf of the anti-government ideologues that initiated it in pursuit of laissez-faire capitalism.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of allied forces in Europe in what was decidedly not a discretionary war for America, a man who fully understood the horrors of war, said this in his Farewell Address to the nation of January 17, 1959:  

How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?  * * *

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Sadly, in the half-century since President Eisenhower spoke these words, his worst fears have been realized.  Even as he spoke them, the seeds of American plutocracy and moral decay were sprouting.

After WWII, the United States was the only superpower left standing, and it (too enthusiastically) inherited the mantel of the fallen British Empire.  In the Korean War (1950 – 1953), the United States supported South Korea in a conflict against a repressive North Korea.  That war “ended” with a ceasefire, but we still maintain troops there and around the world.  Meanwhile, while our nation decays, South Korea has rapidly grown from a backward, developing country to a developed nation whose people are now more prosperous than the bottom 99% of Americans. [2]


The Vietnam War (1961 – 1975), and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that made it official, were based on misunderstandings and falsehoods.  [3]  It’s fair to say that the Vietnam War sneaked up on the American people, taking us by surprise:

In 1962, public protest was nonexistent, despite the announcement that year that the Kennedy administration was sending the U.S. Air Force to bomb South Vietnam, as well as initiating plans to drive millions of people into what amounted to concentration camps and launching chemical warfare programs to destroy food crops and ground cover.  Protest did not reach any meaningful level until years later, after hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops had been dispatched, densely populated areas had been demolished by saturated bombing, and the aggression had spread to the rest of Indochina.  By the time protest became significant, the bitterly anticommunist military historian and Indochina specialist Bernard Fall had warned that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity . . . is threatened with extinction” as “the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.” [4]

When Americans began to focus on the rationale for the war, they were confronted with “the domino theory,” a notion touted by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, that “if one new country went communist in Asia then it would begin a chain reaction that would cause several more Southeast Asian countries becoming communist.”  [5]  That rationale simply never made sense.  It raised obvious, unanswered questions such as these:

Q – Whether or not they were “communist,” what would be the nature of the “security” threat posed by these little South East Asian countries to the United States?

Q – How and why would such a “chain reaction” occur?

Q – How would obliterating South Vietnam at a terrible cost, and somehow occupying it and controlling its future, and eventually subduing North Vietnam, enable the United States to minimize such a threat?

When Robert McNamara eventually abandoned the domino theory, it still came as something of a surprise:

In the spring of 1995, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said he now believed that the domino theory was wrong. “I think we were wrong. I do not believe that Vietnam was that important to the communists. I don’t believe that its loss would have led – it didn’t lead – to communist control of Asia.”

McNamara now [1995] argues: “Today, it is clear to me that my memorandum pointed directly to the conclusion that, through either negotiation or direct action, we should have begun our withdrawal from South Vietnam. There was a high probability we could have done so on terms no less advantageous than those accepted nearly six years later–without any greater danger to U.S. national security and at much less human, political, and social cost to America and Vietnam.” [6]

It is a grudging admission, to be sure, but he could have been clearer in explaining why the theory had been wrong:  What did he mean by “advantageous terms”?  The security and safety of the American people back home was never an issue in this war, so what, exactly, had been the concern about “communism”?  The whole enterprise smelled of colonialism:  Only with corporate interests defining the “national” interest, and “communism” basically defined as threats to global corporate success, could this rationale even begin to make sense.  The word “communism,” then as now, was a euphemism for government for the benefit of the people, not controlled by corporations.

Of course, even in defeat what President Eisenhower described as the “military-industrial complex” benefited, profiting greatly as it always does from war.  Beyond that, however, no one benefited: An estimated 1-3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, 200,000-300,000 Cambodians, 20,000-200,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S. service members were killed. [7]  The economic cost to Americans is estimated at $662 billion in today’s dollars. [8]  That “direct” cost does not include the economic costs to other nations, and the continuing social and psychological costs to the U.S., its soldiers, and the world.

The Reagan Doctrine

These two driving elements of our “national interest” – corporate “neocolonialism” and war profiteering – have continued to dominate U.S. foreign policy.  The stakes were ratcheted up pursuant to the cold-war “Reagan Doctrine,” a time when lip service was paid to democracy while economic development and freedom were often murderously snuffed out around the world . [9]  Ostensibly committed to opposing Soviet influence, in regions like South and Central America, U.S. influence was instead designed to forcefully advance corporate interests:

The United States exemplified democracy and justice for about two hundred years.  Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution inspired freedom movements on every continent.  We led efforts to create global institutions that reflected our ideals. * * * [W]e were instrumental in establishing the Permanent Court of International Justice in the Hague, the Covenant of he League of Nations, the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and many U.N. conventions.

Since the end of World War II, however, our position as leader has eroded, the model we presented to the world undermined by a corporatocracy hell-bent on empire building.  * * * We claimed to defend democracy in places like Vietnam; at the same time we ousted and assassinated democratically elected presidents.  High school students throughout Latin America understood that the United States had overthrown Chile’s Allende, Iran’s Mossadegh, Guatemala’s Arbenz, Brazil’s Goulart, and Iraq’s Qasim – even if our own students were unaware of such things. * * *

One way the corporatocracy exerted control was by empowering autocratic governments in Latin America during the 1970s.  These governments experimented with economic policies that benefited U.S. investors and international corporations, and generally ended in failure for local economies.  Despite mounting opposition, Washington praised the corrupt leaders who were bankrupting their nations while amassing personal fortunes.  To make matters worse, the United States supported right-wing dictators and their death squads in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. [10]

War profiteering continued to reap huge profits for the military-industrial complex after Vietnam.  Even assuming the United States needed as much military might as the rest of the countries in the world combined, military spending was grossly excessive.  Government contracts for wasteful and poorly conceived projects, and poor cost control, has notoriously generated much wealth for military contractors.  Reporting on a successful whistleblower case, Amy Goodman recently wrote:

Two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler had it right 75 years ago when he said of war: “It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious [racket]. … It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives … It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.” [11]

The Reagan Administration, by maximizing military spending and drastically cutting the income tax burden of the wealthiest Americans and corporations, ran up nearly $3 trillion of national debt.  This resulted in a relentless transfer of wealth to the top 1% and the growth of income inequality.

As we now know, this was only the beginning.  The acceleration of wealth transfers and income inequality in the United States after 2000 has been documented in this blog.  With its invasion of Iraq , and further reduction of the income tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans to less than one-half the rate existing 20 years earlier, the Bush administration added about $6 trillion to the national debt, more than doubling it. [12]  The financial cost of the Iraq war, incredibly, was kept off the official books.

Justifying the Iraq War

In September of 2002, shortly before the invasion of Iraq (March 15 – May 1, 2003), the Bush administration announced its National Security Strategy [13] which, asserting that “our enemies” are “seeking weapons of mass destruction,” declared that “America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.”  This “Bush Doctrine,” as Chomsky put it, “declared the right to resort to force to eliminate any threat to U.S. hegemony, which is to be permanent.” [14]  It clearly meant that the U.S. intended, at its discretion, to initiate war without provocation.

Unlike Vietnam, the intention of the United States to invade Iraq was well publicized in advance, and a substantial popular protest materialized in 2002 even before the invasion was launched. “We are no longer in the 1960’s,” wrote Chomsky (2003), “when the population would tolerate a murderous and destructive war for years without visible protest”:

By now, the only way to attack a much weaker enemy is to construct a propaganda offensive depicting it as an imminent threat or perhaps engaged in genocide, with confidence that the military campaign will scarcely resemble an actual war. [15]

Iraq was such a “much weaker enemy.”  By the time it was invaded, Iraq had been under strict (and in some ways brutal to the Iraqi people) U.N. trade sanctions for over a decade, and it was clear that Iraq would not be able to put up much resistance to the coming U.S. invasion.

On the day of the invasion, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asserted that the objectives of invading this much weaker enemy included defending America against Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), “ridding the Gulf country of such illegal weapons, liberating the Iraqi people, and ending the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.” [16]  No evidence of WMD stockpiles or programs was ever found, however, despite efforts by the Bush administration to produce such evidence.  Later, a rationale was floated that Iraq was complicit in 9/11 and a breeding ground for Al Qaeda and other terrorists.

Others saw a different agenda.  Naomi Klein, for example, puts the invasion of Iraq in the broader context of the well-documented, decades-long corporatist strategy she calls “disaster capitalism,” a program of reducing the power and role of government and privatizing formerly public functions in the power vacuums created by disasters, both man-made (e.g., Chile) and natural (e.g., Hurricane Katrina):

[I]n Iraq there was plenty to gain: not just the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves but territory that was one of the last remaining holdouts from the drive to build a global market based on [Milton] Friedman’s vision of unfettered capitalism.  After the crusade had conquered Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, the Arab world called out as its last frontier. [17]

The Arab world, she pointed out, was oil-rich, relatively debt free, and heavily state run.  Privatization here would require a more aggressive push: “Since the entire Arab world could not be conquered all at once,” Klein continued, “a single country needed to serve as the catalyst.” [18]  Thomas Friedman, who liked the boldness of the regional model concept but thought the Bush Administration would likely not be able to pull it off, commented:

[A]ttempting to transform the most dangerous Arab state — is a geopolitical game-changer. It could help nudge the whole Arab-Muslim world onto a more progressive track, something that coaxing simply will not do anymore. It’s something that can only be accomplished by building a different model in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. [19]

But what might that more “progressive” track be?  And what, exactly, was the “different model”?  Was the Bush administration really interested in trying to spread “democracy” through warfare?  Not according to Klein:

[F]ighting terrorism, spreading frontier capitalism and holding elections were bundled into a single unified project.  The Middle East would be “cleaned out” of terrorists and a giant free-trade zone would be created; then it would all be locked in with after-the-fact elections – a sort of three-for-one special.  George W. Bush later simplified this agenda to a single phrase: “spreading freedom to a troubled region,” and many mistook the sentiment as a starry-eyed commitment to democracy.  But it was always that other kind of freedom, the one offered to Chile in the seventies and to Russia in the nineties – the freedom for Western multinationals to feed off freshly privatized states – that was at the center of the model theory.  The president made that perfectly clear only eight days after declaring an end to major combat in Iraq when he announced plans for the “establishment of a U.S. – Middle East free trade area within a decade.”  Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz, a veteran of the Soviet shock therapy adventure, was put in charge of the project. [20]

The Invasion

The invasion began on March 15, 2003, under the banner of “Shock and Awe,” as illustrated by this picture of Baghdad under attack on March 28.

As CNN Student News Reported on March 22:

The U.S. and its allies launched a massive aerial assault against Iraq on Friday. At 12:15 p.m. EST, anti-aircraft fire could be seen rising in the skies above Baghdad. Within an hour, tremendous explosions began rocking the Iraqi capital, as the Pentagon announced “A-Day” was underway.

The campaign was intended to instill “shock and awe” among Iraq’s leaders, and it was directed at hundreds of targets in Iraq, officials said. Plumes of fire could be seen rising above targets in Baghdad at 1:05 p.m. EST. CNN Correspondent Wolf Blitzer reported that in his 30 years of experience, he had never seen anything on the scale of Friday’s attack on the Iraqi capital. [21]

“Shock and Awe” was more than just an expression, or even a strategy of overwhelming firepower.  Technically, it is a military strategy called “Rapid Dominance” which, according to its authors Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade is designed to “seize control of the environment and paralyze or so overload an adversary’s perceptions and understanding of events that the enemy would be incapable of resistance at the tactical and strategic levels.”  Rapid Dominance would “impose this overwhelming level of Shock and Awe against an adversary on an immediate or sufficiently timely basis to paralyze its will to carry on”:

Introducing the doctrine in a report to the United States’ National Defense University in 1996, Ullman and Wade describe it as an attempt to develop a post-Cold War military doctrine for the United States. [22]

With its spine-tingling jargon, this “doctrine” seems to describe what the Germans in WWII called “blitzkrieg,” but featuring the delivery of an overwhelming psychological assault, with icy overtones of showy intimidation.  As Klein aptly puts it, this is “war as mass torture,” with “clear echoes of the CIA’s interrogation manuals.” [23]

It wasn’t just Iraq’s troops and leaders that experienced shock and awe, it was the entire population.  As with any major urban war, the bombings and the attacks took place in population centers, exactly where the people, mostly non-combatants, were located.  As Klein reports, “the residents of Baghdad were subjected to sensory deprivation on a mass scale,” and “the ears were the first to go.” [24]  The ministry of communications and four Baghdad telephone exchanges were destroyed, cutting off millions of phones, and television and radio transmitters:

Next to go were the eyes. “There was no audible explosion, no discernible change in the early evening bombardments, but in an instant, an entire city of 5 million people was plunged into an awful endless night,”  The Guardian reported on April 4.  Darkness was “relieved only by the headlights of passing cars.” Trapped in their homes, Baghdad’s residents could not speak to each other or see outside.  Like a prisoner destined for a CIA black site, the entire city was shackled and hooded.  Next it was stripped. [25]

Although the bombing caused much destruction and death, there was also substantial looting, unchecked by occupying troops, that continued for weeks.  This included the pillaging of  the records of the first human society from the National Museum of Iraq.  “Iraqis went through this unmaking process collectively, as they watched their most important institutions  desecrated, their history loaded onto trucks and disappeared.”  [26]

Rumsfeld had said that this invasion was about finding WMD, and “ending the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.”  But compare this all-out assault on Baghdad and other Iraqi population centers with Obama’s surgical targeting of Osama bin Laden.  Saddam Hussein was not captured by U.S. forces until December 14, 2003, when they found him hiding in the bottom of a hole at a farmhouse near Tikrit; and there is no indication of more than incidental findings of left-over chemical WMD as the occupation progressed.

This war was not about bringing Hussein to justice or about finding WMD.  It was about something else entirely, the creation of a new “model” Iraq:

The Iraq invasion marked the ferocious  return to the early techniques of the free-market crusade – the use of ultimate shock to forcibly wipe out and erase all obstacles to the construction of model corporatist states free from all interference. [27]

The carnage that followed was sadly, and incredibly, unanticipated by the architects of this plan.  Iraq is a nation with its own Arab nationalism, and a culture as old as civilization itself.  “Iraq was not an empty space on a map,” Klein observes. “If ‘nation creating’ was going to happen in Iraq, what exactly was supposed to become of the nation that was already there?” [28]

The Occupation

A Marine runs to avoid sniper fire Jan. 17, 2007 during an operation in Ramadi in Anbar province, Iraq .

The above photo was taken shortly before Pentagon officials told a senate committee in February 2007 that the U.S. would need to add 28,000 to its total of about 140,000 combat troops already in Iraq, as part of a planned “surge.” [29]  What a contrast this escalation was, almost four years after President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech, [30] with the general confidence and euphoria that prevailed shortly after the invasion.

Indeed, within a few short weeks of the invasion back in 2003, a few e-mails had arrived in my office in-tray, before e-mail lists for such invitations became more refined, enthusiastically announcing trade-show-like conferences in midwestern cities like St. Louis and Chicago, to explore opportunities for investing in Iraqi oil.  I remember marveling at how quickly the commercial response was developing.  But I also thought: What about the Iraqis?   It was bizarre: We had just bombed the hell out of Iraq and invaded it, yet foreign investment in Iraq was presented in an everyday, business-as-usual manner.  It was as if the Iraq War didn’t even exist. [31]

Similarly, but with more information and direct experience at her disposal, Naomi Klein reported on this strange development.  She tells of being criticized by her host upon arrival in Iraq in March 2004 for focusing on U.S. privatization plans while Iraqis were still intensely focused on the war, and “worried about bombs going off in their mosques or finding a cousin who had disappeared into the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison”:

I defended myself as best I could, pointing out that selling this country off to Bechtel and Exxon/Mobil wasn’t an idea I had dreamed up – it was already in its early stages, spearheaded by the White House’s top envoy to Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III.  For months I had been reporting on the auctioning off of Iraq’s state assets from trade shows in hotel ballrooms, surreal events where body armor salesmen terrified businessmen with stories of severed limbs while U.S. trade officials assured everyone that it really wasn’t as bad as it seemed on TV.  [32]

“Surreal,” in fact, best describes the whole paradigm of “disaster capitalism,” the core method behind what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine.”  As we consider the mounting evidence, nonetheless, it becomes clear that only the practice of disaster capitalism can explain policies stretching all the way from the Chilean experiment in the 1970s to the novel approach to deconstruction and privatization taken by the U.S. in Iraq and, most recently, within the United States itself. [33]

Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld, and then-Vice-President and former Halliburton exec Dick Cheney, it must be noted, are among those Bush administration officials whose careers trace all the way back to the Ford administration.  They were veterans of privatization campaigns all over the world.  However, unlike a 1970s-style CIA-backed or instigated coup to overthrow a popular Latin American government and install a cooperative dictator, Iraq was an act of preemptive war against a sovereign nation, overthrowing an unpopular and repressive dictator with the objective of replacing his government with something new.  Surely these veteran architects of laissez-faire capitalism appreciated the difference.  Hence, the introduction of “shock and awe”: It would be necessary for Iraq to accept America’s privatization model before it woke up and came to its senses.  But Iraq never fell asleep, and the occupiers overreached.

Bremer assumed control of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in May 2003, [34]  amidst the looting and disorder, and quickly took control:  Two weeks after he arrived he declared Iraq “open for business” to unrestricted imports (a move that Mohamed Tofiq, Iraq’s interim industry minister, told Klein had “dramatically worsened the lives” of the Iraqi people);  the month after he arrived, he announced that the two hundred state-owned firms including its national oil company would be privatized immediately; he announced new economic laws favorable to foreign investors, including lowering Iraq’s corporate tax rate from about 45% to 15%, allowing investors to take 100% of profits made in Iraq out of the country, and stipulating that contracts and leases signed by investors (except for oil) would be binding on Iraq for up to 40 years. [35]

In September, more than $70 billion ($38 billion from the U.S.) was provided for reconstruction.  Bush compared this financial commitment to the Marshall Plan which helped Europe recover after WW II.  However, Klein observed, unlike the Marshall Plan, which created self-sufficient markets, local jobs and tax bases, the Bush plan undermined Iraq’s already badly weakened industrial sector and sent Iraqi unemployment soaring.  And while the Marshall Plan had barred foreign investment, “this scheme did everything possible to entice corporate America (with a few bones tossed to corporations based in countries that joined the ‘Coalition of the Willing’)”:

It was this theft of Iraq’s reconstruction funds from Iraqis * * * that doomed the project from the start.  None of the money went to Iraqi factories so they could reopen and form the foundation of a sustainable economy, create local jobs, and fund a social safety net.  * * * Even Iraqis’ low-wage labor wasn’t required . . . because the major U.S. contractors such as Halliburton, Bechtel, and the California-based engineering giant Parsons preferred to import foreign workers whom they felt confident they could control. * * * [T]he role for government employees – even U.S. government employees – was cut to the bone.  Bremer’s staff was a mere fifteen hundred people to govern a sprawling country of 25 million.  By contrast, Halliburton had fifty thousand workers in the region. [36]

In undertaking to create a “robust” corporate and a “hollow” government presence, as Klein put it, the CPA left Iraqi citizens out in the cold.  “Even the job of building ‘local democracy’ was privatized”; and “[a]s these foreign corporations descended on the country, the machinery in Iraq’s two hundred state firms stood still, frozen by chronic power blackouts.” [37]  Iraqis could be excused if they did not think the recovery was really about them.

Klein’s 2007 summary was in accord with an earlier report, in the fall of 2004, by State Department careerist Bathsheba Crocker:

Prior to the U.S. transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 28, 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) implemented some major regulatory and legal reforms that could lay the foundation for a transition to a market economy and present a welcome climate for business in Iraq within the next several years. Yet, the long-term impact of those reforms remains uncertain for three reasons. First, security problems and political instability in Iraq will continue to hamper economic reconstruction efforts, delaying rebuilding efforts and discouraging foreign investment. Second, because the CPA was an occupying power, the status of its legal reforms after June 28 is uncertain.  Third—and related to the second—the CPA pursued its economic program with minimal Iraqi input, calling into question whether an Iraqi government, particularly a representative one, will continue to pursue the CPA’s goals and policies. Moreover, even if an Iraqi government respected the CPA’s laws on paper, Iraq’s institutions and enforcement mechanisms might not be strong enough to ensure their survival in practice in a country and region traditionally hostile to some of the changes the CPA imposed, such as allowing foreign ownership of Iraqi assets.  Ultimately, it will not be the CPA’s legal and regulatory reforms but rather what Iraq’s new interim government and the transitional government to be elected next January do to usher in a market economy in the coming years that will be the real determinant of the future of Iraq’s economy. [38]

In short: The Iraqis were shut out of the reconstruction effort and resisted U.S. efforts to transform Iraq, so they might very well abandon CPA’s “reforms” when they resumed governance of their nation.

Losing the Peace

Four years after the controversial “surge” in 2007, now that President Obama has kept the promise he made two years ago to have all of our troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, there is a “Who lost Iraq?” debate:

Two weeks after President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of next month, a familiar clutch of neo-conservative hawks and prominent Republicans are blaming the president for “losing” the Middle Eastern country to its neighbour and long-time Washington nemesis, Iran.

“Iran has just defeated the United States in Iraq,” declared Fred and Kimberly Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute for the Study of War, respectively, immediately after Obama’s announcement in what soon became a mantra of mainly Republican hawks.

“I think it’s an absolute disaster,” Gen. Jack Keane (ret.), one of the architects, along with the Kagans, of the U.S. 2007-08 “surge” of more than 30,000 U.S. reinforcements into Iraq, told the Washington Times. “We won the war in Iraq, and we’re now losing the peace.” [39]  

These people are seriously out of touch: How does one “lose” peace?  If peace is the absence of war, then you lose it by going to war.  Otherwise we are simply in a perpetual state of hostility, with the difference between peace and war being only a matter of degree.  This is no academic distinction: By now the human race should have developed the ability to coexist with people from different tribes.

The idea that somehow the U.S. has “lost” Iraq to Iran is a case in point:  Recall that Iraq fought a war with Iran back during the Reagan administration.  [40]  These two tribes might fight again, or they might become friends.  Why should attempting to prevent either result be our problem, and how could keeping a few troops in Iraq make a material difference?   Whatever happens between those two tribes, we’d better make up our minds to live with it.  If our preemptive war against Iraq has taught us anything, it should be the inability of humans to “win” anything in wars, and the extreme cost of forgetting that lesson.

The main point of invading Iraq, for a “strategic” foothold in the Middle East, was its oil.  The U.S., however, could  not just waltz in and take it:  Iraqis stiffly resisted the U.S. attempt to transform their country and extract their oil for the profit of U.S.-based multi-nationals.  In 2008, Iraq signed its first major oil deal … with China.  “The state-run China National Petroleum Corporation will be paid $3 billion over the next twenty-two years to develop and operate an oil field southeast of Baghdad,” Barry Lynn reports:

In and of itself, this is not a big deal.  What makes it a big deal is what happened ten days later to a collection of similar service contracts that Iraq had been set to sign with ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, and France’s Total.  On September 11, 2008, the Iraqi government canceled negotiations, at least temporarily, after Iraqi parliamentarians protested the deals. 

Let’s make sure that we understand the symbolism of these two decisions.  The Bush Administration invested the lives of four thousand (and still counting) American men and women and nearly $1 trillion to grab control of Iraq’s oil and, supposedly, to “free” the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship.  The Iraqi regime created by this action then awards its first major oil service contract to a nation – China – that had been happy to deal with that dictator.  The new Iraqi regime then topped this off by all but promising China far bigger prizes in the years to come.  [41]

China’s “pragmatic approach,” Lynn points out, greatly out-performed the success of its Western competitors: “In 2007, PetroChina surpassed ExxonMobil as the world’s largest energy company, as measured by market capitalization,” which “mainly reflects the number of long-term drilling concessions that an oil firm has under contract.” [42]

The U.S. had “invested” in Iraq the way Blackbeard invested in Spanish galleons – and it didn’t work out.  In June and December of 2009 more oil contracts were awarded, [43] and as TimeWorld reported on December 19, 2009:

Not a single U.S. company secured a deal in the auction of contracts that will shape the Iraqi oil industry for the next couple of decades. Two of the most lucrative of the multi-billion-dollar oil contracts went to two countries which bitterly opposed the U.S. invasion — Russia and China — while even Total Oil of France, which led the charge to deny international approval for the war at the U.N. Security Council in 2003, won a bigger stake than the Americans in the most recent auction. * * *

Rather than giving foreign oil companies control over Iraqi reserves, as the U.S. had hoped to do with the Oil Law it failed to get the Iraqi parliament to pass, the oil companies were awarded service contracts lasting 20 years for seven of the 10 oil fields on offer — the oil will remain the property of the Iraqi state, and the foreign companies will pump it for a fixed price per barrel. [44]

Estimating the Cost of the Iraq War

The U.S. military-industrial complex has profited, as it always does from war; Halliburton says it still has work in Iraq.  Such profits, of course, are costs to citizens.

The total costs of the Iraq War are beyond calculation.  Direct U.S. military costs include DOD expenditures put at about $760 billion, but over $1 trillion including complementary costs at home. [45]  U.S. military casualties in Iraq, as tracked by, include 4,484 deaths (3,531 in combat).  Officially, 33,186 U.S. military personnel have been wounded, but estimates range over 100,000.  [46]  The toll on civilians is greater:

In human terms, 224,000 to 258,000 people have died directly from (post-9/11) warfare, including 125,000 civilians in Iraq. Many more have died indirectly, from the loss of clean drinking water, healthcare, and nutrition. An additional 365,000 have been wounded and 7.8 million people — equal to the combined population of Connecticut and Kentucky — have been displaced. [47]

But let’s not get lost in the numbers, which are clearly enormous.  There are other costs incurred by the wagers of war.  War consists of people going out and shooting other people and blowing things up, and these pursuits take a terrible toll. What soldiers encounter in the field is awful, [48] and it creates serious pathological and psychological damage.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers return home with concussions and other brain damage.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) creates horrendous personal and social dysfunction, and vast (and vastly expensive) medical care needs.

There is a suicide epidemic among American veterans today.  According to Veterans for Common Sense, “In the last two years more of our service members completed suicide than were killed by the enemy.  An average of 18 veterans from all wars complete suicide every day.” [49]  Themselves victimized by “the war on terror” and its culture of torture, military personnel commit acts of atrocity and torture on the war fields and in military prisons like Abu Ghraib; and not just upon enemy combatants, but also upon innocent civilians and even their fellow soldiers. [50]


The Iraq War was an outgrowth of what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine,” another episode in the crusade of “disaster capitalism” designed to destroy governments everywhere and consolidate ultimate power in the hands of a few wealthy people.  Hopefully, it will mark the beginning of the decline and fall of disaster capitalism, a sickness that is impoverishing the world.  It took a terrible toll on everyone involved, except perhaps for Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and many of the other American officials that initiated it.

Iraqi tenacity prevailed in the face of the American invasion.  The Iraq war should teach us these two very important lessons: (1) People of good will and their governments can, and do, cooperate among themselves and achieve progress in this world; (2) The pursuit of self-interest by rogue billionaires in orgies of laissez-faire capitalism simply creates evil, unjust, anti-social and inhumane consequences.

I’ve seen estimates of the total loss of wealth by the bottom 99% in America’s class warfare as high as an unimaginable $23 trillion.  I believe the figure is closer to $16 trillion.  Regardless, in addition to causing the loss of at least $16 trillion by the bottom 99%, the disaster capitalists have run up over $12.4 trillion of federal debt, pushing it to nearly $15 trillion, all but bankrupting America.  Many of those borrowed trillions, as we have seen, have been wastefully squandered in warfare.

“The world is a messy place,” Condoleeza Rice allegedly said in support of invading Iraq (fn31), “and someone has to clean it up.”  It’s clear who the mess-makers are, and although they left an awful mess in Iraq, there is an equally tragic mess here at home and around the world.

Shall we try to clean it up?  As the world attempted to do after WW I, we need to renounce warfare, declaring it wholly immoral, and illegal.  The United States must join the civilized world in reaffirming the illegality of the practices of torture, rendition, and other human abuses.   We should declare an end to “the war on terror” and abandon the self-righteous and domineering posture we have maintained in the world since WW II.  We must rise above and reject the tribalism that drives our basest emotions:  As Chris Hedges recently wrote, after 9/11 “we became terrorists too.” [51]

We need to redirect the resources purloined by capitalist pirates to the welfare of the people and the planet, and reestablish “conservatism” as a philosophy of legitimate and sensible restraint in that process.  We must reaffirm our commitment to the teachings and practice of science, and acknowledge the escalating dangers to human beings and all other life on this planet that are posed by the unconstrained growth of the human population.

Can we start doing all these things, together?  I ask again, as President Eisenhower did on January 17, 1959: 

How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?

We have gone as far as we can.  Let us go no further.

JMH – 12/23/2011


[1] Panetta: Campaign to Establish Sovereign Iraq Was ‘Worth It’, by Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service, Department of Defense News, December 16, 2011.

[2] See, e.g.: Prosperity of South Korea, Human Science, Wikia; Economy of South Korea, Wikipedia

[3] See, e.g.:   Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Wikipedia; Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Wikipedia;   30-year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War, by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Fair, Media Beat, July 24, 1994.

[4] Noam Chomsky, “Hegemony or Survival,” Henry Holt & Co., First Holt Paperbacks Edition, 2004, pp. 38-39.

[5] The Domino Theory,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Vietnam War, Wikipedia

[8] War on Terror More Expensive Than Vietnam, by Yassin Musharbash, Spiegel Online International, January 16, 2007

[9] Reagan Doctrine, Wikipedia

[10] John Perkins, “The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth About Global Corruption,” Dutton, 2007, pp. 105-106.  See also, generally, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” by John Perkins, and “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” by Naomi Klein.

[11] War Is A Racket by Amy Goodman, Truthdig, July 26, 2011 ; See “War Is a Racket,” 1935, by the late Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler

[12] See Who Ran Up the Federal Debt?

[13] Full Text: Bush’s National Security Strategy, New York Times, September 20, 2002.

[14] Chomsky, supra, pp. 2-3.

[15] Id. at 39-40.

[16] ‘Shock and awe’ campaign underway in Iraq,  CNN Student News, March 22, 2003

[17] Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” Picador, 2007 p. 413.  (Iraq, generally, pp. 409 – 484).

[18] Id. at 415.

[19] The Long Bomb, by Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times, March 2, 2003

[20]  Klein, supra, at 415-16.

[21] ‘Shock and awe’ campaign underway in Iraq, supra.

[22] Shock and awe, Wikipedia

[23] Klein, supra, at 419, 421.

[24] Id. at 423.

[25] Id. at 424, citing “War in the Gulf: In an Instant We Were Plunged into Endless Night,” by Suzanne Goldenberg,  Guardian (London), April 4, 2003.

[26] Klein, supra at 425.

[27] Id. at 438-9.

[28] Id. at 417.

[29]  DoD: Surge needs up to 7,000 more troops, by Tom Vanden Brook – USA Today, Marine Corps Times, March 2, 2007.

[30]   Mission Accomplished Speech, May 1, 2003,  Wikipedia

[31] Over time I have come to realize there is a blind spot in the “ultra-conservative” mindset that simply refuses to acknowledge the reality of pain and destruction, and the soulless, horrifying effects their policies can have on other people.  Hence, war can be seen as a legitimate instrument of foreign policy, torture and unconstitutional detention can be seen as legitimate approaches to security, and so on.  I suggest that this psychology of denial reflects,  for want of a better word, “paranoia.”  It echoes in the remark Condoleeza Rice reportedly made at a Georgetown restaurant in September 2002 about the need to invade Iraq: “The world is a messy place, and someone has to clean it up.” (Klein, supra at 431, 645).  This is a topic Skip and I intend to pursue.

[32] Klein, supra at 413.

[33] The practice of disaster capitalism arrived in 2011 within the United States itself, when Michigan’s new governor Rick Snyder began a process of privatizing (eliminating) “fiscally stressed” local governments in communities from Benton Harbor to Detroit.   Michigan Bills To Rein In Local Government, by Caitlin Devitt, The Bond Buyer, March 10, 2011: “The new law would allow emergency managers to terminate labor contracts, strip local ordinances, hold millage elections, dissolve a government with the governor’s approval, and merge school districts.”

[34] See Coalition Provisional Authority,  Wikipedia.  The  CPA was established in April 2003 and L. Paul Bremer became the CEO of CPA in May 2003, also assuming the title of U.S. Presidential Envoy and Administrator in Iraq.  There was no independent Iraqi government at that time.

[35] Klein, supra at 429-436.

[36] Id. at 439.

[37] Id. at 441.

[38] Reconstructing Iraq’s Economy, by Bathsheba Crocker, The Washington Quarterly, Autumn 2004.

[39]  “Who Lost Iraq” Debate Fails to Get Traction, by Jim Lobe, Nation of Change, Nov.  20, 2011

[40] The Iran-Iraq War (1979-1988), Jewish Virtual Library

[41] Barry C. Lynn, “Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction,” Wiley, 2010, pp. 210-211.

[42] Id.  at 211.

[43] Oil Reserves in Iraq, Wikipedia

[44] U.S. Companies Shut Out as Iraq Auctions Its Oil Fields, by Vivienne Walt, Time World, December 19, 2009;  See also,  Iraq oil development rights contracts awarded, BBC Mobile, December 11, 2009.

[45] Financial cost of the Iraq War, Wikipedia.  In the broader context of all post-9/11 wars, including combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates $4 trillion in U.S. spending and total loss of 225,000 lives.

[46] Casualties in Iraq,

[47] Cost of war at least $3.7 trillion and counting, by Daniel Trotta, Reuters, June 29, 2011, citing the Costs of War Project cited above.

[48]  See, e.g., These Are the Consequences of War, by Aaron Glantz,, September 23, 2008

[49] Suicide Remains Sad Legacy of 9/11, by Veterans for Common Sense, Nation of Change, September 6, 2011.

[50] Consider this recent sickening account, as related by his father, of a whistle-blowing soldier who complained of atrocities in the field only to be persecuted and tortured by fellow soldiers.  New Documents Released of 2007 Iraq Atrocity by Troops, by David Swanson,, Truthout, December 17, 2011.

[51] A Decade After 9/11: We Are What W Loathe, by Chris Hedges, Truthdig, Nation of Change, September 11, 2011.

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