“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Bush and Cheney spent more than $870 billion of our tax dollars to fund their Iraq War; the stated objective of which was to make America safer by toppling an evil dictator with a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, and one who was harboring and providing material support to Al-Qaeda. Of the total spent, about $41 billion was spent on reconstruction and foreign aid, and a staggering $28 billion on local security (source: “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” prepared by the Congressional Research Service). Also, consider that in addition countless American lives were lost training and equipping the very same Iraqi army that recently ran with its tail tucked between its legs at the first sign of trouble.
If the latest developments in Iraq were not so worrying and potentially dangerous, within an already volatile region, we could laugh at the irony that neither Al-Qaeda nor any other terrorist organisation had operated or been given safe haven inside Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime. In fact, it was not until a year and a half after the US invasion that Al-Qaeda officially formed in Iraq. Even so, Bush and Cheney had told us on numerous occasions in the lead-up to their invasion that their primary objective was to break the very dangerous nexus between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda before he gave them access to weapons of mass destruction. The truth is that the sectarian chaos and power vacuum created by the overthrow of Saddam gave Al-Qaeda the perfect breeding ground for recruitment and for establishing their very first base of operations in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), the terrorist group that has overrun major cities and now controls large swaths of the country, was formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
“We know that Iraq and Al-Qaeda have had high level contacts that go back a decade…We've learned that Iraq has trained Al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses."
-President Bush, Speech in Cincinnati, 7th October, 2002*
“We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the 90’s, that it involved training, for example, on BW and CW, that Al-Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on systems that are involved.”
-Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, 14th September, 2003*
(*source: United States Congressional Serial Set, Serial No. 14876, Senate Report No 301).
As for Cheney and Bush’s smoking gun, independent reviews of the millions of documents seized from across Iraq all reached the same conclusion: “The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency had by 2006 translated 34 million pages of documents from Hussein's Iraq and found there was nothing to substantiate a "partnership" between Hussein and Al-Qaeda (source: “Bush's toxic legacy in Iraq” CNN). In fact, the same report stated that there was “no ‘smoking gun’ (i.e. direct connection) and that “the predominant targets of Iraqi state sponsored terror were Iraqi citizens, both inside and outside Iraq.” [source: Institute for Defense Analyses – ‘Iraqi Perspectives Project. Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents’, Volume 1 (Redacted)].
While we can sit here and argue about the justification for the US invasion of Iraq and never agree on it, what cannot be refuted is that the US never established a single credible link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda or produced a shred of evidence that Saddam possessed any weapons of mass destruction; and Al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before the invasion. Another dangerous unintended consequence has been that Iran is now the most dominant power in the region with Iraq no longer being able to serve as strong counter-balance. So in sum total, not only did Cheney and Bush’s war make the region less safe than it was in 2003, but it has also spawned a totally new and deadly terrorist organisation called ISIS; one that Al-Qaeda officially broke ties with, for being too brutal.
Conveniently, the Republicans are now trying to blame Obama for the mess Cheney and Bush are responsible for creating. If one were to examine the facts, we should start with the much maligned Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). It is the document which dictated the timing for full US military withdrawal from Iraq. SOFA was negotiated and signed by George W. Bush in 2008 and not Barrack Obama, as many Republicans will have us believe. Bush agreed to all of Nouri al-Maliki demands, which included getting all US forces out of Iraq by December 31, 2011, and leaving no permanent military presence or bases in the country. Turns out that Bush’s ‘liberating’ forces were so unpopular that no Iraqi leader was willing to risk having them stay on with “… several rounds of upcoming elections and an intensely strong popular Iraqi hostility to the U.S. occupation under any name.” (source: ‘Bush's finest moment on Iraq: SOFA, not the surge’ – Foreign Policy). Republicans are now blaming him for not trying hard enough to re-negotiate the terms Bush agreed to; the same Republicans who - at the time it was signed - were proclaiming victory in Iraq.
The truth is that Iraq has been and remains a big mess ever since the illegal US invasion, which left both a major power vacuum in the center and a government without civil institutions or strong leadership. Another lie that Republicans are good at spreading has to do with General Petraeus’ surge; which was responsible for preventing the total disintegration of Iraq, and cleaning up Rumsfeld and Cheney’s unmitigated disaster and a lack of plan for Iraq, post invasion. Listening to Republicans, one would believe that it was the additional boots on the ground that led to the success of the surge. This is totally untrue, as Petraeus himself has repeatedly made clear. The cornerstone of Petraeus’ success and surge strategy was based on facilitating peace between the Sunni and Shia factions, which in turn led to a disarming of the powerful Shiite militia. It was this peace he helped broker that was also responsible for removing Al-Qaeda’s key weapon: fanning sectarian flames in Iraq. In addition, Petraeus forced the government to focus on developing local institutions, employment programs and on improving the daily life of Iraqi citizens. The final part of his strategy involved a dramatic surge in the boots on the ground, deployed to the most troubled parts of the country in order to dramatically enhance the presence and perception of security. So it is totally disingenuous to say that if Obama had tried harder to find a way to re-negotiate Bush’s SOFA, which never included immunity from prosecution for troops, and left behind a few hundred US troops, that this would have prevented the rise of ISIS in Iraq.
There are many things I am critical of when it comes to Barack Obama’s leadership, but his stance on Iraq it absolutely right. Obama understands what Bush and Cheney never will: that democracy is a grass roots movement that must be started by the people, who must also be willing to fight and die for their freedom. It is always bloody and it is always messy, and the hard work always begins once the freedom has been won. It takes a few generations for democratic values and institutions to take root; the country needs to build civil institutions, infrastructure, write laws, agree on a constitution, etc. Where there are long-running sectarian divides, blood will be spilled before wounds can be healed and a country unite. Inevitably, the early leaders are also corrupt and tyrannical, from having grown up without the benefit of ever experiencing liberty or democratic freedoms themselves. The current crisis is not something that has happened overnight;. it is a direct result of the sectarian Pandora’s Box opened by the illegal US invasion. One that left no power structure in the center and a weak and divided nation that is open to manipulation by its various Sunni and Shiite neighbours that include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.
This crisis also has a lot to do with Nouri al-Maliki wanting to consolidate his corrupt hold on power by creating a Shiite-dominated government and country. He has been slowly and systematically replacing the competent army generals, commanders and police officers (trained by the US), as well as other government officials and filling these posts with incompetent Shiite cronies who would never threaten him. He has made no effort to form a unity government that is inclusive of the Sunni minority or the Kurds, which was central to how Petraeus won the peace. Instead, Al-Maliki has helped re-ignite the old sectarian divides, and as a result allowed ISIS to slowly and systematically re-build their presence and base in Iraq by recruiting from within an excluded and disenfranchised Sunni community.
So while there is no question that the Bush and Cheney invasion is single-handedly responsible for creating the massive void that will leave a weak Iraq in turmoil for many decades to come, it is equally true that the only path out is for Iraqis to figure out how to get along, by pursuing the true tenets of democracy; which are reconciliation and inclusiveness. No amount of US intervention on the ground or from the air can help fix this fundamental problem; and I doubt US taxpayers have the appetite for yet another misguided and fruitless effort at nation building. So even though America created this mess, only Iraq has the ability to fix it. Until Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds come together and realise that their real enemies are the terrorists, the world will have to wait and remain a much less safe place. This is Bush's and Cheney’s Iraq legacy.