The Speech President Obama Should Give About the Iraq War (But Won't)

Here is the speech that I wish President Obama would give about the Iraq War, but which neither he nor any other president ever will.

Fellow Americans, and Iraqis who are watching this speech, I have come here this evening not to declare a victory or to mourn a defeat on the battlefield, but to apologize from the bottom of my heart for a series of illegal actions and grossly incompetent policies pursued by the government of the United States of America, in defiance of domestic US law, international treaty obligations, and both American and Iraqi public opinion.

The United Nations was established in 1945 in the wake of a series of aggressive wars of conquest and the response to them, in which over 60 million people perished. Its purpose was to forbid such unjustified attacks, and its charter specified that in future wars could only be launched on two grounds. One is clear self-defense, when a country has been attacked. The other is with the authorization of the United Nations Security Council.

It was because the French, British and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 contravened these provisions of the United Nations Charter that President Dwight D. Eisenhower condemned that war and forced the belligerents to withdraw. When Israel looked as though it might try to hang on to its ill-gotten spoils, the Sinai Peninsula, President Eisenhower went on television on February 21, 1957 and addressed the nation. These words have largely been suppressed and forgotten in the United States of today, but they should ring through the decades and centuries:

"If the United Nations once admits that international dispute can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization, and our best hope of establishing a real world order. That would be a disaster for us all . . .

[Referring to Israeli demands that certain conditions be met before it relinquished the Sinai, the president said that he] "would be untrue to the standards of the high office to which you have chosen me if I were to lend the influence of the United States to the proposition that a nation which invades another should be permitted to exact conditions for withdrawal . . ."

"If it [the United Nations Security Council] does nothing, if it accepts the ignoring of its repeated resolutions calling for the withdrawal of the invading forces, then it will have admitted failure. That failure would be a blow to the authority and influence of the United Nations in the world and to the hopes which humanity has placed in the United Nations as the means of achieving peace with justice."

In March of 2003, it was the United States government itself that contravened the charter of the United Nations, aggressively invading a country that had not attacked it and against the will of the UN Security Council. The war was preceded by a summit in the Azores of the US, Britain, Spain and Portugal, for all the world as though it were the sixteenth century and a confusion between empire and piracy still prevailed.

No one denies that the government of Saddam Hussein was brutal. The one good thing that came out of this sad affair, and an achievement of which individual American servicemen and women may be justly proud, is the ending of a murderous tyranny. The American military fought valiantly and as it was ordered to by civilian politicians, most of whom had fled military service themselves. The military does not make policy and my critique of the war is not directed at it. To say all this is simply to acknowledge a complex reality, not to justify an illegal action. Nothing extraordinary had happened in Iraq in 2002 or 2003 to provoke an Anglo-American invasion. We learn in kindergarten that two wrongs do not make a right, and that the ends do not justify the means. Above all, international order is fragile and threats to that order increasingly menacing, and to toss away the achievement of the United Nations charter in favor of a war that was if not unilateral, certainly unilaterally decided upon, was a severe blow to the peace, prosperity and security of us all.

The cost of this unprovoked and foolhardy adventure to the United States has been profound. A country known for its efficiency and prowess was made to look like a band of bumbling fools. The world's best armed forces were mired in a quagmire that sapped its strength and attention, and permitted challenges to the US to go unanswered in the rest of the world. Iran was transformed from a minor annoyance - blocked by the Iraqi Republican Guards from a significant role in the Middle East - into a regional superpower with powerful influence in Baghdad, Beirut, Manama, Kuwait City, and Damascus. There is no doubt that more benefit accrued to Iran from the Iraq War than to the United States.

Over 35,000 Americans have been killed or wounded in the Iraq War from hostile causes, and some 40,000 were killed or hurt in incidents classified as "non-hostile," though likely many of these injuries actually occurred because of attacks. A generation of Americans will suffer brain damage, post-traumatic stress disorder, or physical disabilities because of this violent war, in which roadside bombs were deployed in the thousands against poorly armored vehicles that the Bush administration could not be bothered to replace with sturdier ones. The cost of the war so far, approaching a trillion dollars, is dwarfed by the cost of caring for the damaged veterans, and will likely mount to $5 trillion or more in coming decades. That sum is nearly half the entire current national debt.

The constitution, laws and traditions of the American Republic were also wounded by this war. High officials explicitly authorized torture. The United States government became among the chief purveyors in the world of sado-masochistic pornography, coming out of Abu Ghraib. The White House, shamefully, became a center of concerted propaganda so divorced from reality that its own press spokesmen privately and sometimes publicly admitted the dishonesty of their own discourse. The so-called PATRIOT Act contains provisions that clearly contravene the Bill of Rights and yet they have become so ingrained in the practices of the law enforcement community and so beloved by the enormous national security sector that even I have not dared touch them.

The damage to the United States and to international order and law is deep and our nation and our allies will not soon heal from its wounds. That damage is dwarfed, however, by the world-historical catastrophe that our invasion unleashed upon Iraq. The overthrow of the government with no plan for what might replace it; the dissolution of the Iraqi army; the willful neglect and destruction of the Iraqi public sector; and the animus against the Sunni Arab population mandated by the United States destroyed the foundations of order and economic activity in Iraq. The refusal of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to properly garrison Iraq after its conquest left it without sufficient US troops to guarantee security. Instead of seeking reconciliation and an equitable new order, the Bush administration installed partisan conspirators in power and allowed them to adopt punitive policies toward the former ruling group. These policies were largely responsible for provoking a Sunni Arab insurgency of enormous proportions, which continues to fight and to seek the destabilization of the new Iraq even today.

The United States essentially conducted an ethnic revolution from the outside in Iraq, installing fundamentalist Shiites and separatist Kurds in power in Baghdad. This policy could have been foreseen to lead to a sanguinary civil war, which it did. In summer of 2006, as many as 2500 civilians were showing up dead in the country's alleyways every month, showing signs of torture - drilling, chemical burns, and disfigurement. Only when the advancing Shiite militias had ethnically cleansed much of Baghdad and environs of its Sunni Arabs did the violence begin to subside. How many Iraqis were killed in all this violence is controversial. It should be remembered that hundreds of thousands also died because of dirty water and lack of medical care, since many physicians and nurses fled the constant clashes. Surely the total death toll attributable to the US invasion and occupation, and the Iraqi reaction to them, is in the hundreds of thousands. Millions have been wounded. Some 4 million Iraqis were displaced, some 2.7 million of them inside the country, and most remain homeless. Iraq is a country of widows and orphans, of the unemployed and the displaced.

The insistence of the United States on shaping the new Iraqi constitution, in defiance of the demands of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that it be indigenous, and Washington's continual meddling in Iraqi politics have produced a continually paralyzed government and, in recent months, no government at all. The likelihood that democracy can survive in this land rendered violent, with its foreign-imposed charter and laws and its deep ethnic and sectarian grievances and disputes, is frankly low. War boosters continually confuse elections with democracy, and deadlocked government with good governance, and American intervention with moderation and balance.

The United States is now gradually leaving Iraq militarily. Although this withdrawal is stage-wise and gradual, have no doubt that it is real and enduring. The United States will honor its agreement with the Iraqi parliament to withdraw, just as it honored the wishes of the Philipinnes' legislature when it closed its naval bases there in the 1990s. But it must be acknowledged that we leave Iraq a wounded nation. Most of the billions the US Congress voted for reconstruction in Iraq was wasted, stolen or frittered away on poorly thought-out projects. The new government has found it impossible to deliver basic services, provoking significant popular demonstrations in recent months.

Iraq is, however, a resilient society with its own natural resources. After a decade and a half of crippling American economic sanctions followed by shock and awe and military occupation, it is for the best that we leave the Iraqis to settle their affairs among themselves. Our overbearing presence and biased policies have in themselves helped provoke governmental gridlock on the one hand and a prolonged ethno-sectarian conflict on the other.

We have irrevocably harmed ourselves, and been responsible for inflicting or provoking a calamity that has gripped virtually every Iraqi by the jugular. We have left the world less secure and more uncertain, and have created a baleful example that other nations may yet invoke in pursuing their own aggressive adventures. We can best make amends by ensuring that there is no American imperialism in Iraq, and no neo-imperialism. Iraqis are our friends and we will offer them as much training, technical help and advice as they ask for. But we will not be like the colonial powers of the last century, which granted pro forma independence to their former colonies but went on attempting to rule from behind the scenes.

This war was fought to open up Iraqi petroleum to development and export to the world market. No one would have needed to fight a war for oil if the United States government had put sufficient resources into developing and implementing green energy. Portugal is now generating 45 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and hydro-electric sources. A new generation of electric vehicles can be powered without petroleum. A green America, and a green world, is likely to be a much more peaceful world, in which resource wars will be less likely. Solar and wind power are everywhere and need no soldiers to guard them or to take them from others.

We cannot undo what has been done. We cannot pretend that the United States did not violate the United Nations charter and the Geneva Conventions. But we can make amends. We can seek redemption as a nation. And our salvation lies in forswearing permanent war, aggressive war, undeclared war, and police actions as a way of life. A new century beckons. Some sought to make it a new American century. It will inevitably, however, be an Asian century, a century marking the emergence on the world stage of China and India. The United States will be among the smaller of the powers in this new geopolitical framework and it may not have the biggest or the most dynamic economy. The best guarantee of the peace and security of Americans is not international anarchy and aggressive warfare, but world order and the international rule of law. We shall seek our redemption by redoubling our support of the United Nations and our commitment to collective security and human rights. We shall return to the ideals enunciated by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, to the ideals of the man who actually led the defeat of fascism and who knew right from wrong, unlike our latter-day politicians.

We shall inscribe in our hearts and exemplify in our lives these words of his:

"If the United Nations once admits that international dispute can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization, and our best hope of establishing a real world order. That would be a disaster for us all . . .

© 2023 Juan Cole