Where is the accountability on Iraq?

June 17

Can someone explain to me why the media still solicit advice about the crisis in Iraq from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)? Or Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)? How many times does the Beltway hawk caucus get to be wrong before we recognize that maybe, just maybe, its members don’t know what they’re talking about?

Certainly Politico could have found someone with more credibility than Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration and one of the architects of the Iraq war, to comment on how the White House might react to the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Iraq today. Certainly New York Times columnist David Brooks knows what folly it is to equate President Obama’s 2011 troop removal with Bush’s 2003 invasion, as he did during a discussion with me last Friday on NPR?

Just a reminder of what that 2003 invasion led to: Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes authoritatively priced Bush’s war at more than $3 trillion. About 320,000 U.S. veterans suffer from brain injury as a result of their service. Between 500,000 and 655,000 Iraqis died, as well as more than 4,000 U.S. military members.

Yet as Brooks’s words reveal, the prevailing mindset in today’s media is to treat the 2003 invasion as if its prosecution were an act of God — like Hurricane Katrina, an inevitability that could not have been avoided. Seen this way, policymakers can ignore the idiocy of the decision to invade in the first place and can instead direct all of their critical attention to how to deal with the aftermath. It’s almost as though the mainstream media have demoted themselves from a corps of physicians, eager and able to diagnose, prognosticate and prescribe, to one of EMTs, charged instead with triaging, cleaning and cauterizing a catastrophe without investigating its underlying cause.

Since so many liberal hawks reached the same conclusion as did Bush et al., this notion of the 2003 invasion’s inevitability can falsely seem to have some credence (which is, perhaps why, as Frank Rich points out in New York magazine, so many erstwhile hawks, especially so-called liberal ones, feel no need to acknowledge their erroneous judgments of a decade ago).

But if so many were wrong about Iraq in 2003, why are they still being invited (and trotting themselves out) on Sunday morning talk shows and op-ed pages as authorities on U.S.-Iraq policy? Where is the accountability for the politicians’ and pundits’ warmongering of 11 years ago? James Fallows — who was “right” on Iraq in a 2002 Atlantic cover storytweeted Friday, “Working hypothesis: no one who stumped for original Iraq invasion gets to give ‘advice’ about disaster now. Or should get listened to.” Amen.

In the current cacophony of Washington, we must remember that there is no equivalence to be drawn between Bush’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq and Obama’s 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. troops. Bush’s invasion, after all, was not just a mistake. At best a fool’s errand, at worst a criminal act, this great blunder helped set the stage for Iraq’s chaos today. The increased sectarian violence stems not from the 2011 withdrawal; rather, it is the fruit of the 2003 invasion, subsequent occupation and much-vaunted “surge” of 2007–08.

McCain and Graham insist that airstrikes are the only way forward in today’s Iraq. But what we need now are not armchair warriors calling for military strikes or sending weapons. (As an aside, I will say that, should members of the neoconservative movement feel so motivated, we would wholeheartedly respect their decision to enlist in the Iraqi army.) Obama, himself “right” on Iraq during the war’s run-up, is also right today to resist calls for direct U.S. military action — including airstrikes — in Iraq. The U.S. misadventure in Iraq ended in 2011; we do not need another. Experience and history have (clearly) taught us that there is no military solution in Iraq. Only a political reconciliation can quell the unrest, and this requires more than bellicose calls for violence from 5,000 miles away. To find a solution, we must commit to regional and international diplomacy.

We learned in 2003 that when we move in with guns blazing, we tend to spark a lot more fires than we extinguish. In 2014, we cannot afford to learn this same lesson. Regardless of how many are too blind (or proud or foolish) to realize it, we need to write a new scenario for 2014, so that 11 years from now, we can look back and ponder how, this time, we did things right.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

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