By Malcolm Harris
September 10, 2014
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, although I joined the millions of anti-war protesters around the world, I still had a hard time shaking the idea that those in charge knew better. Surely the Joint Chiefs were aware of all the simple objections we were making. Surely the rabble of teenagers, hippies and sectarian leftists couldn’t possibly be more informed than the greatest intelligence network ever assembled in the history of man. Surely they knew things we didn’t.
More than a decade later, it is clear that we outraged masses did, in fact, know better. And now that the United States is expanding the fight against a new enemy in Iraq, it’s about time we learned that lesson.
For the moment, the rise of the Islamic State (IS) appears to be the most pressing consequence of the Iraq War. It has been less than three years since President Barack Obama announced the full withdrawal of American troops, but we’re already ordering daily airstrikes against IS targets, and by the time this column is published, it’s possible that the U.S. offensive will have spread to Syrian territory. Meanwhile, IS militants present themselves to the exiled neoconservatives like phantoms from a Paul Wolfowitz fever dream, waving around confiscated U.S. hardware, beheading journalists and expanding their self-declared caliphate. This is not the peaceful, democratic Iraq they promised, but somehow it demands a redoubling of their prescriptions. As U.S. policymakers sketch out new drone flight paths, we should look back to see who got it right at the time.
If the media relied solely on commentators accountable for what they predicted for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Michael Klare would be one of the country’s foremost authorities on the war. Less than two months before coalition boots hit the ground there, Klare wrote a short piece, “Bogus Reasons for War on Iraq,” in which he dismissed the three main rationales for the invasion: weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and democracy. There were no weapons of mass destruction, the war would create opportunities for extremist Islamic groups, and it would not produce a stable democracy. A decade later, the analysis seems incredibly prescient. How did Klare know that then–Secretary of State Colin Powell was going to mislead the U.N. Security Council when Powell himself didn’t know that yet? What kind of access did this man have?
Klare, as it turns out, isn’t some retired Defense Department official or intelligence officer turned academic; he’s a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. He wrote the 2004 book “Blood and Oil” and is the kind of hippie peacenik that respectable commentators rejected out of hand. “Bogus Reasons” was published at Alternet.org, where the left-wing choir goes to practice preaching to one another. Outlets such as Alternet and people like Klare are considered by the mainstream media to be outside the realm of respectable opinion. Meanwhile, a week after Klare’s piece, The New York Times editorial board applauded Powell’s “powerful case” and “convincing evidence” as he made his presentation on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations. President George W. Bush, by sending Powell to the U.N., showed a “wise concern” for international opinion.
The best example of this wise, concerned warmongering came from Bill Keller, just months before he took over as the Times’ executive editor. In “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk-Club,” Keller described a line that many members of the “East Coast liberal media cabal” (including “op-ed regulars at [the Times] and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek”) had adopted on Iraq. What he sketches out is a very convenient posture: He and other “reluctant hawks” were for the war but against the consequences. An international coalition and Democratic Party support eased their ambivalence, and they in turn provided intellectual cover for the Bush administration. Unfortunately, once these media liberals realized they were wrong, they faced no consequences, and we’re still stuck with them. In a May 2013 piece, Keller described his Iraq mistake as “a humbling error of judgment” that left him “gun shy.” Mind you, this was in the same piece in which he called for the U.S. to induce regime change in Syria by funneling weapons to the rebel Supreme Military Council. This June the council disbanded amid corruption allegations.
The IS is a lesson in U.S. intervention that Americans, thanks to our media thought leaders, refuse to learn. Journalists have tracked the flow of U.S. weapons and training as it runs from elements of the discordant Syrian opposition to the IS. “Sometimes I joke around and say that I am a fighter made by America,” one man who planned to join IS told The Washington Post’s Souad Mekhennet. Once again, the reluctant hawks are ready to be dragged to war, this time against their own creation. In an editorial (“A Necessary Response to ISIS,” using another name for the militant group), the Times called for an international coalition to join U.S. airstrikes, lest IS fighters hop on flights and attack us at home. “Mr. Obama is also considering strikes against ISIS in Syria,” the Times board notes, without any expression of concern.
When it comes to the U.S. war machine, knee-jerk doves know some things reluctant hawks never will, principally that the use of force is almost never worth the long-term costs and the government typically lies to justify it. But Keller’s liberal media cabal can’t forget this fast enough. Nuance shouldn’t be a shield for hacks, and the tree of credibility must be refreshed from time to time with the resignations of fools. It’s not as though we’re short on replacements: Keller and his ilk are less qualified to opine on U.S. military intervention than approximately 36 million people who clogged the world’s streets to protest our invasion of Iraq. I don’t have the answer to U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but I think we’d all be a lot better off if the warmongers who were wrong last time found something else to do or were flatly ignored.
Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.