Many liberals were shocked this past week when Barack Obama dismissed accusations of American hypocrisy on Crimea by defending the war in Iraq. Responding to accusations that the 2003 invasion has robbed the US of moral authority when it comes to condemning violations of international law, the President declared that Russia’s actions in Crimea are worse than the War in Iraq. The liberal reaction to Obama’s whitewashing of recent history was swift. CommonDreams cited “Anger [and] Disbelief as Obama Defends US Invasion of Iraq.” Huffington Post said “Obama’s Iraq War defense [was] met with surprise.” Slate.com asked “Why did Obama just defend the Iraq War?”
Surprise! Disbelief! Why? Many liberals are stunned that Obama would undertake what amounts to a whitewash of the Iraq War, given that the President was elected largely on a platform of opposition to the invasion. It’s a testament to the President’s rhetorical prowess and charisma that, six years into his term, he can still manage to “surprise” his liberal base like this. On the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion, Obama has been remarkably consistent. Obama’s 2014 defense of the Iraq War should be no surprise, because he has been whitewashing the War since before it even started.
Since Obama has shocked many by saying the Iraq War wasn’t as bad as the invasion of Crimea, it’s essential to consider how bad Iraq actually was (and continues to be). The Iraq invasion, which in 2007 Alan Greenspan said was “largely” about oil, was initiated against a country against which it didn’t pose an imminent threat. A war not waged in self-defense constitutes a war of aggression, which is illegal and, under the Nuremberg Standard, the “supreme international crime.”
Even if all wildest dreams the invader’s architects were projecting had come true—if we had been greeted with flowers, if it had only cost $60 billion, if a Jeffersonian Democracy had flourished—it would still have been a criminal war of aggression. However, none of that happened. Instead, the US fomented ethnic hatreds, then armed sectarian death squads when full-blown Civil War broke out. Since the invasion, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died and millions have been forced to flee the country. Following two American sieges to punish the city, Fallujah has been poisoned, with residual effects that are “worse than Hiroshima.” Though Americans have long since forgotten about Iraq, violence continues to plague the country—the UN estimates that 400,000 Iraqis have been displaced in 2014 alone. As far as bringing democracy to Iraq went, US-backed President Nouri al-Maliki is referred to by many as the “Shia Saddam.” As Iraqi journalist Ali Fadhil told a hostile Charlie Rose in 2008, “We had a whole nation called Iraq—now it’s wiped out.”
In contrast to a few Democrats like Russ Feingold or Dennis Kucinich, who gave countless speeches opposing the war, the then-State Senator from Illinois gave one speech in 2002 which he used to build his reputation as the “antiwar” candidate. The 2002 speech against the Iraq invasion began with stirring encomia to the Civil War and World War II, and an invocation of 9/11. Calling Iraq a “dumb war,” Obama repeated “I don’t oppose all wars,” a refrain that signaled his commitment to being the most capable steward of American imperial power. Invading Iraq, rather than being a criminal war, was merely “dumb.”
In 2007, having been elected to the Senate and already being buzzed about in connection with a future Presidential run, Obama was asked about possible impeachment for Bush administration crimes. Though he wrung his hands over “loose ethical standards, secrecy, and incompetence,” the Senator absolutely refused to consider impeachment, stipulating that such a drastic measure was reserved for “grave breaches, and intentional breaches, of the president’s authority.” Five years after he had reduced Iraq to a “dumb” mistake, Obama was clear that he didn’t consider the Iraq War (or torture or warrantless wiretapping or Guantánamo or…) to be “a grave breach.” Unleashing a war that immiserated hundreds of thousands was a less serious crime in Obama’s formulation than “loose standards.”
Having given an anti-war speech that was against a “dumb” invasion and for invasions elsewhere, Obama ran for president in 2008 in much the same way. Obama criticized fellow candidates Hillary Clinton and Jon Edwards for their support of the Iraq invasion while staking out more bellicose positions than them on wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No matter what he said, though, Obama’s branding as the “antiwar” candidate was as tough as Teflon.
That people could think Obama was an antiwar candidate despite his actual policies speaks to the powerful difference between his rhetoric and specifics. Obama’s power as an orator has always been that people can read whatever they want into his speeches, if they want to. The same dynamic existed in the public reception of his war policies as it did in other arenas. On the economy, Obama promised to “renew” the economy and put the interests of “main street [over] Wall Street.” While the rhetoric was optimistic and anodyne, in 2008 the Democrats received more in Wall Street money than did the Republicans for the first time. While Obama’s rhetoric promised to end “the era of Scooter Libby justice,” Obama reneged on his pledge to filibuster immunity for lawbreaking telecoms, instead supporting the 2008 FISA Act. After 8 years of Bush, many people simply weren’t interested in looking at what Obama was doing on the campaign trail, and what signals he was sending about whose interests he would be protecting. Being spoken to with thoughtful appeals to universally beloved ideas like “hope” was enough to not ask substantive questions.
AntiWar.com called the president’s comments “perhaps the most asinine thing the president has said in the entirety of his presidency.” This could very well be true, and the anger at his comments is deserved. However, after six years of the Obama administration, the surprise and dismay that Obama could whitewash a crime of historic proportions like the Iraq War is unwarranted. One the same trip, Obama whitewashed the horrors of World War I. In 2012, Obama began a campaign of whitewashing the Vietnam War, spreading reactionary myths about the war itself and repeating urban legends about liberal treachery. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama whitewashed the “Wilsonian” Pax Americana that overthrew countless governments during the Cold War and installed US-backed butchers throughout the global South.
To react to Obama’s comments with shock—the kind of shock that affects the conscience—is appropriate. Anyone should treat attempts to minimize the horrors America unleashed on Iraq with scorn and criticism. No one should be surprised, though. Anyone surprised by Obama’s whitewashing of the Iraq War, whether in 2008 or 2014, was never really listening to him, but rather hearing what they wanted to hear.