DENVER, Colo. — In 2002 and early 2003, the Bush administration rolled out a campaign to promote an invasion of Iraq. Condoleezza Rice’s statement, the “smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud,” created a popular sound bite for the administration’s warning that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The New York Times and other papers echoed the president’s warning on their front pages. Deep inside the papers, a reader could occasionally find a short story quoting Hans Blix, the United Nations weapons authority, affirming that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Part of the administration’s case was the suspicion that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were working together. In fact, no evidence of a connection existed, except Dick Cheney’s wishful thinking.
What President Bush succeeded in bringing to Americans was a war that killed thousands of American service men and women, disabled of tens of thousands more, and brought death, conservatively, to 100,000 Iraqis, and dislocated several million more.
One remnant of the war is ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Another is a bill of more than a trillion dollars that our government and our taxpayers will struggle to pay over the next generation. Moreover, torture — a war crime under American and international law — became one symbol of American policy. One can argue that crimes were committed at the highest levels of our government, yet no one is being formally questioned let alone held accountable.
Ten years later, we can understand the dangers of the authoritarian commander-in-chief. It was unchecked in its campaign for war by Congress, the judiciary or the media. Ignorance by the politicians and the press was a huge democratic movement against the war, quite possibly the largest such pre-war movement in history; a movement that was right on every major aspect of the coming Iraq war.
We wonder what was learned from the Iraq experience when we hear neocons like William Kristol press for aggression against Iran. These voices are often echoed by Democratic foreign policy “experts.” They have easy access to the press, which accords their opinions respect, but they were and are wrong.
President Obama has wisely chosen not to bomb Iran. He has also appointed as secretary of defense, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and a conservative, who believes in not waging crusading and losing wars in distant territories.
But Obama is still using drones to murder people in countries the United States is not at war with. This is the crime of aggression masked by secrecy. As Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) correctly asked last week, could this policy license executive killing of Americans far from the field of battle and perhaps even in our own country?
Drones fired into territories where we have no presence are often not accurate, even when the decisions to fire are based on the best intelligence available.
We are not officially at war with Yemen. Yet our missiles recently took out Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, an imam and father of seven who had denounced Al Qaeda. Three Al Qaeda members came to intimidate him; he brought his cousin and the chief of police for protection. American drones incinerated them all.
Will his friends and relatives now sympathize with the US?
Is striking mainly at civilians with Avatar-like weaponry from half a world away an intelligent response to Al Qaeda?
Anwar Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was looking for his father in Yemen. He was with Samir Amin, another American 16-year-old. They had committed no crime. They were among 12 people at a food stand in a small village that was blown away by American drones said to be seeking another target.
John Brennan calls any young man killed near a terrorist a terrorist. This is, of course, guilt by association. Are all these men “counted” as Al Qaeda by the Obama administration? It is doubtful that there is a plausible explanation for these crimes.
Attacks against non-white people bring to mind America’s legacy of killing Native Americans and slaves.
Such acts inspire hatred toward the US. Unneeded enmity is what drones breed; killing of the occasional Al Qaeda member, even where we have serious intelligence, is, in fact, “collateral damage.”
The US government cannot be allowed to murder innocents wantonly in our name. It is authoritarianism that we oppose, not the regime we are part of. The long, unnecessary war in Iraq undermined two deeply held principles of our democracy: the rule of law and conventions against torture — two qualities that distinguish us from Al Qaeda.
Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author, most recently, of "Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War of Independence."