It didn’t take long this week for the architects of the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq to apply their makeup and jump before the cable news television cameras. The militia group known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has swept across Iraq, conquering city after city and stopping short of Baghdad in what has been described as a “lightning advance,” summarily executing people in its wake. ISIS emerged from the festering civil war in Syria, and has exploited the instability in that country, along with the weak and famously corrupt central Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. With just several thousand armed troops, ISIS has managed to rout the Iraqi army with its hundreds of thousands of soldiers trained and equipped by the U.S. occupying forces at U.S. taxpayer expense.
Cronies of George W. Bush, like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and Paul Bremer, have been given airtime on the networks and space in the opinion pages to lambast President Barack Obama for the current crisis in Iraq. These pundits and politicians are no less wrong today than they were when selling the Iraq War back in 2003.
One person who knows something about the region, and who is heard far too little in the U.S. media, is Lakhdar Brahimi. He recently stepped down as the United Nations-Arab League special envoy for Syria. He worked for two years in that position, overseeing the Geneva talks aimed at bringing peace to Syria. He resigned after recognizing the abject failure of the peace process.
When interviewed this week on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, he repeated a warning he has been voicing: “The situation in Syria is like an infected wound: If it is not treated properly, it will spread. And this is what is happening.” At 80 years of age, Brahimi is a man with wide experience. An Algerian freedom fighter against the French occupation, he would later become Algeria’s foreign minister, then a U.N. envoy in numerous conflict areas, including Haiti, South Africa and Afghanistan. He is a member of “The Elders,” a group of retired diplomats recruited by Nelson Mandela to work globally for peace. I asked Brahimi what he felt was the greatest mistake made by the U.S. in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Using the careful language of a career diplomat, he said: “The biggest mistake was to invade Iraq. Having invaded Iraq, I would be probably very, very unfair, but I am tempted to say that every time there was a choice between something right and something wrong, not very often the right option was taken.”
Brahimi echoes many critics who say the Bush administration erred in dissolving the Iraqi army after the government of Saddam Hussein was toppled. In the decade that has followed, tens of billions of dollars in weapons and military hardware have been sold, leased or given to the Iraqi government from the United States alone. Public notices of the arms deals are scattered across U.S. government websites, but include a rush shipment of 300 Hellfire missiles, along with existing deals for small arms and ammunition, up-armored Humvees, Apache attack helicopters and Iraq’s first shipment of F-16 fighter jets. All these weapons are en route to the Maliki government, which is widely condemned for alienating the Sunni population in Iraq, sowing sectarianism and conflict.
President Obama has ordered the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier and two guided-missile destroyers into the Persian Gulf. While he initially stated that there would be no U.S. military “boots on the ground,” at least 275 military personnel were deployed to protect the sprawling U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone, as well as up to 100 special operations troops. The Maliki government has called on Obama to launch airstrikes against ISIS forces.
Sami Rasouli is another of those voices not heard in the U.S. media. He is an Iraqi, but came to the United States in the 1970s and became a beloved restaurateur in the Twin Cities of Minnesota for decades. As the occupation descended into chaos in 2004, he sold his restaurant and returned to Iraq full time, founding the group Muslim Peacemaker Teams to help rebuild his country. Speaking from Najaf, Iraq, about the U.S. military, he told me: “I think they should leave the area, not to intervene ... and pull out their forces, and let the Arabs and the countries of the area solve their problem. But it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take some time, but eventually they will figure out a way.”
The voices of Iraqis on the ground and peace activists here at home teach us important lessons. In 2001, it was Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who stood alone on the floor of Congress in opposition to war in retaliation for the attacks of Sept. 11. This week, she tweeted: “Let’s be clear: US is war weary. There is no military solution to sectarian conflict in Iraq.” Then there are the new voices. Her colleague, Hawaii congressmember Colleen Hanabusa, a Buddhist, introduced an amendment to prevent combat operations in Iraq, saying, “I have opposed U.S. involvement in Iraq since 2002, and believe that further military involvement lacks an effective objective or a solid endgame.”
President Obama himself opposed the war in Iraq. He should remember that today.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.