A Criminal President
Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: George W. Bush decided the fate of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Twenty years ago, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq with the stated aims of disarming Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, stopping his support for Al-Qaeda, and liberating the Iraqi people. The war turned out to be an epochal failure, as this magazine warned, Cassandra-like, at the time. So naturally, the warmaker-in-chief, George W. Bush, now basks in the media glow of a “responsible” wise man, while the antiwar Donald Trump is facing a criminal indictment.
Let us briefly recount the consequences of Bush’s war. Several thousand U.S. service members were killed, while Iraqi casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The war cost the American taxpayer $3 trillion, or about $9,000 per citizen. No WMD were found. And the Saddam-Al-Qaeda connection—“deep, long-lasting, and far-reaching,” according to Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, writing in The Weekly Standard—turned out to be fake news.
Failing to plan for the immediate aftermath, the Bush administration created conditions for an orgy of looting that ravaged, among many other things, Iraq’s priceless archaeological patrimony. Some 15,000 objects were taken from the national museum during 36 hours of looting in April 2003; more than half have yet to be recovered. “Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joked.
The same failure of leadership and oversight resulted in the meticulously documented sadism that took place at a U.S.-run prison in Abu Ghraib, outside Iraq. There, as the New York Times summarized in an editorial more than a decade after the fact, “detainees under American control were raped, beaten, shocked, stripped, starved of food and sleep, hung by their wrists, [and] threatened with death.” In one case brilliantly reported by Jane Mayer, a detainee was murdered.
Another enormous bungle came in the form of “de-Baathification,” the Bush administration’s systematic push to extirpate former members of Saddam’s ruling party from the civil service. The predictable result: an Iraqi state lacking governance capacity at a crucial juncture. Still more dangerous: the immiseration, and mounting resentment, of hundreds of thousands of mainly Sunni Iraqis who would go on to form the base of the future Islamic State.
In the final analysis, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria must be laid at the feet of the Bush administration. The Bushies shook up a region already riven by sensitive ethnic and sectarian fault lines and left ungoverned and ungovernable spaces in their wake. Among the consequences was a near-genocide of the Yazidi people, not to mention the decimation of Iraq’s Christian community, one of the world’s oldest, whose population has shrunk to 250,000, down from 1.5 million prewar. The instability roiling Iraq—and a regime-change-targeted Syria—also sent a million migrants to Europe, setting the stage for a decade of political topsy-turvy on the Continent.
America’s wounded warriors fared little better at Bush administration hands. At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a Washington Post exposé revealed veterans dealing with not only long wait times, but also cockroaches, rodents, and festering mold. The whole system, as the Post found, was seemingly designed to deny care to those most in need of it—men who, owing to missing records, were left unable to prove they had served in Iraq (and Afghanistan).
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The larger strategic ramifications are all too familiar. By removing a regional counterbalance, Washington ended up empowering Iran. Today, Tehran acts as the principal outside power in Iraq. Perhaps this is not such a terrible thing, if you believe in spheres of civilizational influence. But the outcome is a disaster according to the American hawks’ own logic. Iran, after all, wasn’t supposed to be one of the winners of the “War on Terror.” But that is how things turned out.
The president who set these events in train is today a celebrated media figure. He paints and publishes books of his artistic efforts to wide acclaim. He misspeaks about Putin’s “brutal invasion of Iraq” (he meant Ukraine), chuckling with the rest of us at his Freudian slip and then moving on, unphased. Meanwhile, his successor Trump turned out to be the first president in a good long while not to start a new war.
It is Trump—not Bush—who is facing a criminal indictment in Manhattan, one of dozens of investigations of his conduct launched by the same establishment that now celebrates the Bushes and the Cheneys. Should Trump be held criminally liable for paying hush money to a porn star? I don’t know, and I don’t care. Because whatever his alleged crimes, they are dwarfed by the “legal” crimes of George W. Bush.