Iraq War Bloodthirst Was Manufactured—and It Could Happen Again

Iraq War Bloodthirst Was Manufactured—and It Could Happen Again

Twenty years after Biden’s role in the Iraq mythology, his team has presented its own “axis of evil”—an existential struggle between democracies and autocracies. America can ill afford another ideological crusade.

March 19 will represent the 20th anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, and already, many complicit in its bloodshed are attempting to rewrite history. From comfortable positions at the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, and more, senior Bush administration officials have laundered testimony through mainstream media outlets on how they could not have predicted their project’s failure, or that it was never a failure at all.

For all the attention these efforts to revise the war’s legacy have gotten, they pale in comparison to the precise and concerted effort to mold the perceptions of the American people that occurred before the war. And Iraq War mania can happen again. If we don’t learn from it, a reprise of the febrile atmosphere of 2002–2003 could bring us into crisis with nuclear powers like Russia and China.

A decade of violence set the stage for the invasion. Following the heavy bombardment of Iraqi civilian infrastructure in the 1991 war, American policy toward Iraq in the 1990s focused on aggressive sanctions which immiserated the Iraqi people. Throughout the decade, the threat of American firepower loomed with ongoing combat operations like the no-fly zones and Operation Desert Fox.

Oceans away, the American public soaked in an entertainment-driven narrative through the twenty-four-hour war coverage of the 1991 Gulf War. Playing off this excitement, media baron Rupert Murdoch financed neoconservative Reagan/Bush official Bill Kristol in the creation of The Weekly Standard in 1995. This magazine would provide a loud public voice to the political movement to invade Iraq.

Under Kristol’s leadership, The Weekly Standard would publish cover stories like “Saddam Must Go: A How-To Guide” in 1997 and articles like “Saddam’s Impending Victory” in 1998, all comparing the isolated Iraqi regime to Hitler’s Third Reich. All this well-coordinated political pressure led to the 1998 passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, which declared America’s ultimate intention to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

The catalyst for the invasion was the September 2001 terrorist attack. While George W. Bush was officially focused on combating Al Qaeda directly through the Global War on Terror and subsequent toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, by September 14, just three days after the attack, Bush was rumored to have spoken about “hitting” Iraq. The facts did not support a connection between the 9/11 terrorist attack and Iraq. Nevertheless, with its monopoly on sensitive military intelligence, the federal government worked relentlessly to manufacture new facts.

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans dealt in an effort to collect and circulate intelligence purporting to link Saddam to Al Qaeda, earning him the title of “Architect of the Iraq War.” The administration tasked the TV darling of the Gulf War, Secretary of State Colin Powell, with advocating for an invasion at the United Nations. Mainstream media outlets relished this straightforward path to war in the wake of 9/11.

Neoconservative Max Boot wrote an article in The Weekly Standard called “The Case for American Empire,” in which he compared the American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Allied triumph over Nazi Germany. Reporting from The New York Times leaned heavily on the inaccurate testimony of Iraqi exiles who strongly supported regime change. The Washington Post editorial board penned a piece entitled “Irrefutable,” referring to the administration’s claims of an Iraq-Al-Qaeda axis and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Former Bush speechwriter David Frum branded right-wing opponents of the war “Unpatriotic Conservatives” in a feature for National Review. All opposition to the war was systemically marginalized.

With print media covered, “talking heads” populated the airwaves in pushing for, and later defending, the invasion of Iraq. Founding fathers of the Iraq effort like Kristol and Stephen F. Hayes appeared frequently on channels like Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and C-SPAN. Neoconservative pundits and Bush administration officials were even sought by MTV.

Powerful Democrats and center-left public intellectuals also share complicity in the push to war. Left-wing media institutions like The New Republic backed the invasion. Ahmed Chalabi ally Entifadh Qanbar appeared on both NPR and Oprah. Then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joe Biden ignored concerns from fellow Democrats about the war. MSNBC host Phil Donahue was fired over concerns over his resistance to the war, as the network prepared for “24/7 war coverage.” Powerful figures did not merely endorse being pro-war—they mandated it.

Contemporary media continues to credential the Iraq War’s loudest cheerleaders as respected voices in U.S. foreign policy, and they employ many of the same suggestions that failed so clearly two decades earlier. Anne Applebaum brands anything short of regime change in nuclear power Russia “appeasement.” Those who led us into conflict in 2003 over nonexistent WMDs now lecture a more cautious public that if they fear nuclear war with Russia, they are apologists for Vladimir Putin.

Perhaps the most dangerous opinion-shaping regards China. Prominent public intellectuals and elected officials are attempting to define a war with China over Taiwan as an inevitability and an obligation. But more Americans are projected to die per day in the first three weeks of a Taiwan conflict than in any prior conflict save World War II. That figure is even optimistic given that it assumes the war won’t go nuclear. Such grim prospects demand a more sober debate than we had before Iraq.

And twenty years after Biden’s role in the Iraq mythology, his team has presented its own “axis of evil”—an existential struggle between democracies and autocracies. While many have addressed the hypocrisy in this, given our reliance on autocracies like Saudi Arabia, the dangerous reality is that these overheated narratives can make democracies behave like autocracies: stifling the open debate that helps democracies avoid disaster.

While autocracies kill or jail dissenting voices, democracies can quietly humiliate and marginalize the opposition, intimidating them into silence and creating a false sense of consensus. The resulting war fever can be widespread—some 76 percent of Americans backed the Iraq invasion. But when the fever broke and the delirium faded, we found ourselves standing in Iraq’s wreckage with no clear way forward. Two decades later, we’re still picking up the pieces.

As a new generation rises, one with no memory of the race to war in Iraq, we must not forget the madness that preceded this terrible blunder. It happened before, and it can happen again.

Patrick Fox is a Program Assistant at the John Quincy Adams Society and the Assistant Editor for Realist Review.

A.J. Manuzzi is a Program Assistant at the John Quincy Adams Society.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr.