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The Iraq War Was a Crime, So Why Don’t We Treat It As One?

If preventive war against Iraq had been more thoroughly discredited years ago, perhaps there might not be as much support for preventive wars against Iran and North Korea today.
The Honorable Donald H. Rumsfeld, left U.S. Secretary of Defense, talks to U.S. President George W. Bush, center, and U.S. Vice President Richard B. Cheney, during his farewell parade at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., on Dec. 15, 2006. (DoD photo by Cherie A. Thurlby) (Released)

Sinan Antoon wrote a powerful op-ed about the effects of the Iraq war for The New York Times. Here is his conclusion:

No one knows for certain how many Iraqis have died as a result of the invasion 15 years ago. Some credible estimates put the number at more than one million. You can read that sentence again. The invasion of Iraq is often spoken of in the United States as a “blunder,” or even a “colossal mistake.” It was a crime. Those who perpetrated it are still at large. Some of them have even been rehabilitated thanks to the horrors of Trumpism and a mostly amnesiac citizenry. (A year ago, I watched Mr. Bush on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” dancing and talking about his paintings.) The pundits and “experts” who sold us the war still go on doing what they do. I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.

U.S. foreign policy debates rarely pay attention to the views of the people from the countries harmed by our interventions. Interventionists frequently pretend to speak on behalf of the inhabitants of other countries, but this is almost always projection of their preferences on people who want nothing to do with the policies they support. Opponents of intervention often focus on the risks and dangers to the U.S. instead of emphasizing the harm that will be done to the people in the targeted country. We tend to focus only on the costs that our wars of choice inflict on our country, and that usually means that the damage done to the countries we have supposedly “helped” gets pushed to the side or ignored all together. Antoon’s op-ed is a valuable corrective to our bad habits, and our debates would benefit from including more perspectives like this one. It is often taken for granted in Washington that U.S. interventions leave the affected country better off than it was before, and that is why it is so crucial that we pay attention to witnesses from the country in question when they say that it isn’t so.

I have often called the Iraq war a blunder, and I have sometimes called it an enormous crime, and it was both. It was a crime against international law and the people of Iraq, and it was a grievous blunder for American interests. Antoon is absolutely right that describing the war as a crime is almost never been used in arguments about the war here in the U.S. over the last fifteen years, and that is simply a failure to grapple with what our government did in our name. We don’t call the Iraq war a crime because we don’t like to think that our government does things like that, but when we fail to confront it once it is more likely to keep happening. If preventive war against Iraq had been more thoroughly discredited years ago, perhaps there might not be as much support for preventive wars against Iran and North Korea today.

Iraq war opponents often complain that there is no accountability for supporters of the war, and this complaint is a legitimate one. It is frustrating that the pundits, analysts, and politicians that backed the worst foreign policy decision of the last generation have paid almost no price for getting the biggest question in decades completely wrong. The bigger problem is that the architects of an illegal war have been allowed to get away with it without any penalty. The failure to define the invasion of Iraq as the crime that it was not only lets the people responsible for it off the hook for what they did, but it makes it easier for later administrations to do likewise without having to fear any consequences.