The drive to war was fueled by partisanship and served as an accelerant to the extremism that led to Trump and the Capitol riot
Twenty years ago, Lt Col Karen Kwiatkowski was working as a desk officer in the Pentagon, when she became aware of a secretive new department called the Office of Special Plans.
The OSP had been set up to produce the kind of intelligence that the Bush administration wanted to hear, about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Kwiatkowski, then age 42, saw first-hand how the disastrous war was confected.
“I had this huge faith in my superiors, that they must be there for a reason, they must be wise and strong and all of these fairytale type things, but I came to find out there are very incompetent people in very high positions,” she said.
Kwiatkowski, who became a Pentagon whistleblower over the war, is now a farmer, part-time college professor, and occasional political candidate on the libertarian end of the Republican party in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She says she was somewhat cynical about war and politics even before she was seconded to the Pentagon’s Near East and South Asia department in 2002. But seeing America’s governance subverted up close dramatically deepened her disillusion.
“There’s a crisis of faith in this country,” Kwiatkowski said. “As always, when you have these crises of faith you see populist leaders, and the emergence of Trump certainly was a response to a crisis in faith. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next, because Americans have a lot less to be proud of than we think.”
On the whole, she believes the experience of the Iraq war has imbued Americans with a healthy scepticism about what they are being told by the establishment – but not nearly enough.
“I could go into the Walmart right now and ask everybody about WMD in Iraq and probably three out ten people, maybe more, will swear that it’s all true,” she said. “Our public propaganda in this country is supremely good.”
Polling figures over the past two decades suggest that overall attitudes towards foreign policy are fairly stable. When the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans whether “it will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs or if we stay out of world affairs”, 71% supported activism in 2002 and 64% still supported it in 2021.
More generally, the Iraq invasion coincided with a collapse in public trust in government which had very briefly recovered from its post-Vietnam slump after the 9/11 attacks. Data from surveys by the Pew Research Centre, show the post-Iraq malaise is deeper and more enduring.
“It said first and foremost to young people that the government can’t be trusted,” John Zogby, another US pollster, said. “It also said that the American military may be the strongest in the world but it has serious limits, and it can’t impose its will, even on smaller countries.”
He added: “Americans will go to war, but they want their wars to be short, and they want them to make a positive difference.”
There are still US soldiers on counter-terrorist missions in Iraq and Syria. The Authorisation to Use Military Force that Congress first granted to the Bush administration in the run-up to the 2003 invasion has yet to be repealed by the Senate, and has been cited by the Obama and Trump administrations in justifying operations in the region.
Coleen Rowley, an FBI whistleblower who exposed security lapses leading to the 9/11 attacks, wrote an open letter to the FBI director in March 2003, warning of a “flood of terrorism” resulting from the Iraq invasion. She says now that two decades on, nobody has been held accountable for the fatal mistakes.
“I think the real danger is that their propaganda was very successful, and people like Bush and Cheney have now been rehabilitated,” Rowley said. “Even the liberals have embraced Bush and Cheney.”
The terrible mistakes made leading to and during the Iraq war forced no resignations and neither George W Bush nor his vice-president, Dick Cheney – nor any other senior official who made the case the war and then oversaw a disastrous occupation – have ever been held to account by any form of commission or tribunal.
However, the taint of Iraq arguably altered the course of US politics by hobbling those who supported it.
“In some ways you can argue Iraq is what led to Obama being president as opposed to Hillary Clinton,” said Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher school of law and diplomacy at Tufts University. “I don’t think Obama wins the 2008 Democratic primary if Hillary hadn’t supported the war.”
The war also opened a schism in the Republican party, strengthening an anti-intervention faction that eventually triumphed with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.
George W Bush and his former vice-president have drawn some positive liberal press for their low-key opposition to some of the excesses of the Trump era, but Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East and military expert at the American Enterprise Institute, they paid a political price by becoming marginalised within their own party.
“The system has punished those people. If you were a Bushie, if you were a neocon, you’re no longer welcome to the party,” Pollack said. “I would say there has been a lot of accountability, but it’s been accountability in a traditionally American way.”
Those excluded included traditional conservatives with less extreme domestic social positions than Maga Republicans. The drive to war was fueled by partisanship – the Bush administration was contemptuous of Democrats and all opposition – but it also served as an accelerant to the extremism that led to Trump and the 6 January insurrection.
“It’s very hard to say how much Iraq was responsible for that, but it does seem to me that it was an important element in making our partisanship worse,” Pollack said.
Pollack is a former CIA analyst and a Democrat who backed the invasion, believing the evidence on Saddam Hussein’s WMD and supporting the humanitarian argument for ousting a dictator.
Pollack jokes that he is the only person to have since apologised. It is not entirely true as a few other pundits, like the conservative commentator, Max Boot, have also been contrite, but there have been no public expressions of remorse from former senior officials who took the fateful decisions. It is one of the important ways in which the US has still not had a proper reckoning for the war.
Pollack, who has stayed in touch with several of the Bush team for a forthcoming book on the US and Iraq, said that some express private regret for specific decisions and choices, but others remain unrepentant.
“I’ve heard it said to my face that: ‘Nope, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d do everything all over again the exact same way’, which I find shocking,” he said. “I don’t see how you look at American behaviour during this period and not have regrets.”
Source: The Guardian