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Wednesday, 28 February 2018 07:04

While Many Liberals May Have Forgotten George W. Bush's Legacy of War, the Real Resistance Hasn't

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BushBomb 0228wrp opt(Photo: duncan c / Flickr)Fifteen years ago this March, President George W. Bush addressed the nation to announce his invasion of Iraq. It was not the first act in Bush's global war on terror, but it soon became the centerpiece. Bush's secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, had been pushing for war on Iraq for several years. He predicted that such a war "certainly" would not last more than five months and that it would cost less than $50 billion. He was wildly wrong on both counts, almost instantaneously.

Both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney also told the American people that, despite the conclusions of UN weapons inspectors, there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein's regime had an active program to develop weapons of mass destruction. They claimed 100 percent certainty -- and, like Rumsfeld, they were wrong.

Whether their errors were incompetence, dishonesty or both is an open question. Whatever was in their hearts when they told those lies, the more tangible consequences of their actions remain. In the war on terror, nearly 7,000 US soldiers (and roughly as many contractors) have been killed, and more than 100 times as many US veterans -- close to 1 million -- suffer from disabilities.

Civilian deaths in the US's many conflict zones, meanwhile, are estimated at between 1 and 2 million -- more than 200,000 of which are believed to be from direct violence. For Iraq alone, the Pentagon's tally from 2004 to 2009 (notably not counting the first year of the occupation) includes roughly 100,000 violent deaths -- more than 66,000 of them civilians. In the broader region, US interventions are also believed to have displaced as many as 10 million people from their homes. The civilian death toll from US bombings continues to rise -- and has accelerated under the Trump administration.

Also ever-rising is the tab for the American taxpayers of both the present and the future. According to a recent Brown University study, the price tag for the war on terror since 2001 has reached $5.6 trillion (and growing).

Where that money went is another issue, but imagine if instead it had built a 21st century United States with universal health care, free college tuition and state-of-the-art infrastructure -- or, if you prefer, one in which the country simply paid off its national debt, which was only about $5.7 trillion when Bush took office.

Such utopian reflection is not far outside of the political mainstream. Periodic fear mongering and saber-rattling aside, revulsion at these wars has created a rare bipartisan consensus, at least among politicians hoping to appeal to national audiences.

During a 2012 presidential debate, Republican Mitt Romney tried to redeem his party's brand, agreeing with former President Barack Obama that, "We don't want another Iraq. We don't want another Afghanistan." Four years later, presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed (and tried desperately to prove) that he had been "loud and strong" in his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, though the public record says otherwise. In any case, Trump's judgment was, at the time, the mere opinion of a celebrity. By contrast, presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton's 2002 vote was of much more consequence, and it rightly continued to dog her, both during the 2008 primary and the 2016 election, when she called her support for the war "my mistake."

Hindsight has allowed the nation's political elites to regret, refine or reframe their positions on mass-scale carnage, but not everyone got it wrong in the first place. While Senators Clinton, John McCain and John Kerry voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, several other members of Congress, notably Sen. Bernie Sanders, did not. An enormous global peace movement also voiced its opposition to the Iraq War -- and in terms much louder and much stronger than Donald Trump's.

A month before the US invasion, an estimated 8 to 12 million people in as many as 60 countries hit the streets in what is widely considered one of the largest political protests in human history. During one February 2003 weekend alone, there were demonstrations opposing the impending war in perhaps 150 US cities and towns.

Antiwar protesters were arrested "by the busload," and President Bush dismissed them as a "focus group." Dusting off the tired language of the Cold War, the invasion's cheerleaders also disparaged protesters as "un-American," as "commies" and as "hippies," and they carried pro-war signs reading, "Bomb Iraq" and "Protester Equals Terrorist." Many who dared to defy the Bush administration publicly -- the Dixie Chicks, Cindy Sheehan and countless others -- received death threats.

When returning veterans organized "Winter Soldier" events to tell the American people what they had witnessed overseas, they were largely ignored. When veterans joined the peace movement, war supporters called them "traitors." They were blocked from participating in various Veterans Day events, and at one parade, attendees literally turned their backs on them. The "Support Our Troops" ribbon magnets that sold by the millions during the period apparently only applied to the silent ones.

A year after the US invasion of Iraq, President Bush confidently offered that history could judge him for his wars. His legacy in the "reality-based community" that his administration so despised, however, is uncomplicated and largely settled. Bush and those who blindly backed his misadventures were wrong. The "hippies" and "commies" who acted on their consciences by blocking traffic, holding sit-ins in congressional offices and marching through the streets in defiance, were right.

Posterity may be kind to Bush. In the uncertainty of our current moment, many Americans already reflect on his era, inaccurately, as simpler and less vitriolic. It is difficult to imagine, though, that more time will change where thinking people will land on the deaths of more than a million civilians, trillions of dollars in debt, a generation of ailing US veterans and unprecedented new levels of government surveillance on the American people. It is difficult to imagine redemption for a president who, presumably with a straight face, announced just months after invading Iraq, "Free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don't attack each other. Free nations don't develop weapons of mass destruction."

More pressing than the judgment of future generations, though, is whether the current one can find the courage and organization to disprove another Bush administration prediction, Dick Cheney's musing that the world war he helped nurture "may never end."

US wars rage on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria (not to mention Pakistan, Yemen, Niger and dozens of other countries around the world), and President Trump has increased US troop levels in those countries, while also escalating tensions with the governments of North Korea and Iran.

The burden of ending current wars and preventing the next one -- of building and sustaining a mass movement for peace -- rests squarely on our shoulders. After all, free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don't attack each other.


Dawson Barrett is assistant professor of US History at Del Mar College and the author of The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal America, due out in May from New York University Press.