No one falls on his sword anymore: The ghosts of Iraq, again

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem

Hisham Melhem


By : Hisham Melhem


‘Finally, he [Brutus] spoke to Volumnius himself in Greek, reminding him of their student life, and begged him to grasp his sword with him and help him drive home the blow. And when Volumnius refused, and the rest likewise … grasping with both hands the hilt of his naked sword, he fell upon it and died.’

Plutarch

The ghosts of Iraq are haunting us again. In fact these ghosts have been hovering over us ever since that fateful violent encounter on March 19, 2003 when the American invasion of Iraq began. Millions of Iraqis are still experiencing the painful and chaotic reverberations of that transformative day, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have been scarred by a war that refuses to end. In the span of few days some of the participants in that in that invasion forced us to reflect once again on the folly of a war that was supposed to end all the wars that Iraq went through ever since Saddam Hussein blundered into the invasion of Iran in September 1980.

These ghosts have been hovering over us ever since that fateful violent encounter on March 19, 2003 when the American invasion of Iraq began

Hisham Melhem

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a pre-emptive and very qualified apology for ‘mistakes in planning’ the war, and former American President George Herbert Walker Bush lashed out at his son’s senior aides such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, accusing the former of pushing for a ‘very hard line’ and of being too eager to ‘use force to get our way’ in the Middle East and the latter of being an ‘arrogant fellow’ and full of ‘swagger’. In the interim came the news of the passing of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi opposition leader in exile, who exaggerated Iraq’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and was close to many U.S. lawmakers and the darling of the neo-conservatives in Washington who wanted him to lead a liberated, pro-American Iraq.

Insincere and very late ‘apology’

Blair’s apology was a pre-emptive spin designed to address in part the so-called Chilcot inquiry (named after Sir John Chilcot) into the British role in the Iraq war, and particularly Blair’s actions before the expected damning findings are published. The apology was hedged with qualifications; ‘I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong’ implying that the fault is that of U.S. Intelligence agencies only. But, according to U.S. officials then, Blair was a very enthusiastic warmonger. Blair also apologized for ‘our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed Saddam Hussein’. But, the smarmy unreconstructed Blair said ‘I find it hard to apologize for removing Saddam’. Blair dismissed calls that he should stand trial as a war criminal, implying that the judgement of history on ‘my crime’ will not be very harsh.

But Blair came closer to the truth when he admitted that ‘there are elements of truth’ that the invasion of Iraq had been the ‘principal cause’ of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). Blair’s insincere apology was many years late, and instead of addressing a sincere apology to the people of Iraq, who bore the brunt of it, and to the British people in whose name he participated in the invasion, he made his pro-forma gesture in an interview with CNN. Blair’s apology is a way of avoiding moral and legal responsibility for the invasion, and certainly not an attempt at atonement. Blair is not the kind of a man who would fall on his sword.

The rage of the Patriarch

In the twilight of a long life, the Patriarch of the Bush family former President George H. W. Bush raised implicitly the uncomfortable question as to who is responsible for the invasion of Iraq. The first President Bush, after directing his rage against his son’s lieutenants, also threw some gentle jabs at his son because of his ‘hot rhetoric’ like his infamous ‘axis of evil’ speech, and he pointedly said that final responsibility for the faulty views of Cheney and Rumsfeld rests with Bush the second. But the Patriarch Bush, who stated these assessments in a new biography, did not fault his son for the invasion which is still rattling the Bush dynasty, particularly the presidential campaign of the third Bush who would be President, Jeb Bush who is still dogged by a war he cannot denounce nor embrace.

Me saying Mea Culpa?

People are reluctant to apologize and own their mistakes. Harder still is for people to be held morally and legally accountable. For leaders to apologize publicly, to seek atonement or resign from their positions because they failed the institutions they represent is infinitely more difficult in part because of the legal and political ramifications of their apologies.

For a leader saying mea culpa is very hard to do. No American President ever apologized for the war in Vietnam or for the invasions of Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, no president or senior official was held legally accountable for using force overseas and very few resigned over principles. Former U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who was the architect of escalating the war in Vietnam, spent the last years of his life beating his chest and apologizing repeatedly for his errors of judgement during the war. The once powerful man was haunted by his bloody blunders ‘We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why’. But, McNamara also opted not to fall on his sword when he had the chance.

There were two significant resignations in protest of the war in Vietnam during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson’s first secretary of health, education and welfare, John Gardner resigned because of his moral opposition to the war; he even told Johnson that he could not support his re-election. The second official to resign was deputy secretary of defense Cyrus Vance, who initially supported the war, before he realized that it could not be won. But Vance is known more for his second resignation over a principle. Vance served as President Jimmy Carter’s first secretary of State. When the principled statesman who strongly believed in diplomacy realized that President Carter decided to accept the recommendation of his rival the National security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to use force to rescue the American diplomats held hostage in Iran in 1980, he quietly submitted his resignation. Several days after the rescue mission failed tragically the resignation was made public. Vance was the second secretary of state to resign his position over a principled opposition to force in the twentieth century after William Jennings Bryan who opposed America’s entry into the First World War in 1915.

Vance was the last senior American official to resign over a principled opposition to the use of military force. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, it was believed that former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage had suggested to his friend and boss former secretary of state Colin Powell that they should resign, given Powell’s initial skepticism about the claims of WMD in Iraq, but that Powell, after mulling the idea for few days decided against it. His argument was that if they had resigned, things could have degenerated further. Powell also chose not to fall on his sword when it became clear that his testimony at the United Nations about Iraq’s WMD program was bogus.

Apologies have become meaningless

In recent years a strange culture of qualified apologies appeared. American officials, public figures and chairmen of powerful corporations, when they give up their initial resistance to issue apologies for mistakes of judgements, turn and issue apologies that are laced with many qualifications that they lose their meanings. Most of them use the preferred form of neutral apology; ‘mistakes were made’. Rarely these apologies carry legal ramification. There is also the redemptive and cathartic aspect of apologies. When the financial or sexual transgressions of a prominent politician, a major CEO, or a head of a church are exposed, they perform an impressive amount of breast-beating asking for redemption and forgiveness, hoping to reach the next stage of ‘moving on’. Americans like public catharsis, and are willing to give the sinners a second chance. In most cases these public rituals of seeking redemption work.

In recent years some American presidents were forced to issue public apologies for their failings, and the return of these apologies were impressive. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the ill-fated of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He famously said ‘there is an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.’ He assured the American people that he will not conceal his responsibility ‘because I am the responsible officer of the government’. Kennedy’s popularity after his mea culpa in fact soared. After the Iran-Contra scandal rocked his administration, President Ronald Reagan took responsibility for his government’s illegal schemes. He said: ‘now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: you take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then move on. That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem…’ Reagan fully succeeded in ‘moving on’ beyond the scandal. President Bill Clinton’s apology over his sexual tryst with the intern Monica Lewinsky allowed him to dampen the frenzy of those seeking his head, and like Kennedy and Reagan, his popularity remained high until the end of his tenure.

No one falls on his sword anymore

The George W. Bush administration which launched the two longest wars in American history is infamous for living in denial of the human and material wreckage it left behind in Afghanistan and Iraq. No official had the moral courage to fall on his or her sword and resign or to seriously apologize to those Iraqis and Americans who suffered mightily because of the war, and no one showed genuine remorse, for the deceptions and the horrors visited on many including those tortured in detention camps. The pro-forma apologies over the abomination of Abu Ghraib torture, do not count, because those who were held legally accountable were not high on the totem pole. Almost every senior official, from President Bush on down published his or her memoirs, made money, and toured the country peddling their accounts of what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq; they claimed the high moral ground, while passing the buck implicitly or explicitly to other officials. It is still murky as to the decision making process that led Paul Bremer, America’s civilian ‘Viceroy’ in charge of Iraq after the fall of the Baathist regime to issue his infamous and destructive Provisional Authority Order Number 1 to ban the Baath party, and the more self-defeating Order Number 2 which disbanded the Iraqi army.

In his memoir as well as in interviews and speeches Bush would acknowledge that he continues to have that ‘sickening feeling’ about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but that does not negate the fact that toppling the Iraqi regime was the right thing the former President would insists. President Bush would only admit that Abu Ghraib was a mistake in addition to other minor ones like his strong rhetoric and braggadocio in phrases like ’bring them on’ or ‘dead or alive’. In his biography of his father, which was published last year, President Bush wrote: ’ one thing is certain: the Iraqi people, the United States and the world are better off without Saddam Hussein in power’. Bush added ‘I believe the decision that Dad made in 1991 was correct – -and I believe the same is true of the decision I made a dozen years later.’

Saddam Hussein was a war criminal; he victimized and brutalized his own people before he terrorized the Iranians and Kuwaitis. But Iraq today is a broken country as a result of the invasion and the early decisions of the Bush administration, as well as the depredations of Iraq’s sectarian and corrupt rulers.

Twelve years after the invasion and the horrendous number of Iraqi and American casualties, Baghdad is firmly in the grip of Iran, while large swath of Iraqi ( and Syrian) territories are under the barbaric rule of ISIS, which emerged from the ashes of the invasion. And yet the man who ordered the invasion still insists that Iraq, the U.S. and the world are better off because of his historic blunder. No one falls on his sword anymore.


Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted “Across the Ocean,” a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem


Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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