20 Democratic Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the Iraq War

The U.S.-led war against Iraq began 20 years ago yesterday. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of U.S. soldiers died or were severely injured. 

There are multiple ways to look at what happened in the past and current lessons to be learned. One perspective is reflecting on the Iraq war through a democratic lens.

Here are 20 “democratic” reflections.

1. Wars and democracy rarely go together. Wars throughout history, including the Iraq war and occupation, were largely about military, political and/or economic power projection – expanding or protecting empires, including controlling resources – by one or both sides of the conflict. The goal is not to promote “freedom” or “democracy,” despite the fact that the 2003 U.S. action was named “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Efforts by the U.S. to impose its version of “democracy” was a “democratic disillusionment.”

2. Millions of people around the world organized mass protests against the war as early as November, 2002. This included nearly 800 cities around the world who took to the streets in mid-February. The New York Times commented “that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” The U.S. invaded anyway, defying mass public opinion around the world, including across the U.S.

3. It’s said that in war, truth is the first casualty. Bush Administration officials served up multiple lies for the March war launch: that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction or WMDs,” Iraqi leaders didn’t comply with agreed-to weapons inspections, there were links between Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and 9/11, and that Iraq posed an imminent military threat to the United States. Democracy is impossible when there’s no public trust in public officials and public officials are unaccountable for their lies and actions. 

4. Administration officials used fear of the invented threat of “imminent” Iraqi military attack of the U.S. to manipulate public opinion against negotiation and to justify the March attack. This is a tried and true strategy that spans centuries. Former U.S. Senator Arthur Vandenberg once told President Truman that to gain public support for war, he needed to “scare the hell out of the American people.” 

5. Congress possesses the exclusive constitutional authority to declare war. Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq were not declared wars, but “Extended Military Engagements.” A majority in Congress believed the Bush administration lies without proof and passed an Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) in 2002 that transferred Congressional power to limit where and when to send troops into battle, giving the president open-ended power to engage in war. Congress followed the will of the Bush Administration rather than a majority of their constituents. Since Iraq posed no direct threat to the U.S., the attack was unconstitutional. 

6. The First Amendment right to dissent against the war and subsequent occupation was labeled by the dominant culture as un-American. Whatever tolerance existed for public protests by administration officials and the corporate media prior to March 19 vanished afterwards. Patriotism and nationalism ruled. Out came U.S. flags and yellow ribbons to “support our troops.” Dissent was seen as unpatriotic. Blind loyalty was expected. This dramatically reduced protests around the country – that and the fact that mass public opinion was ignored. People were demoralized and intimidated. 

7. Corporate media was mostly a mouthpiece of government propaganda (especially conveying that Iraq possessed WMDs), cheerleader for the war and occupation and sports-like, play-by-play commentators on television and in print of the battles on the ground and in the air in Iraq. New York Times journalist Judith Miller’s coverage claiming Iraq possessed WMDs was so fraudulent that she was eventually forced to resign. In her defense, she claimed, "My job isn't to assess the government's information and be an independent intelligence analyst myself. My job is to tell readers of The New York Times what the government thought about Iraq's arsenal.” So much for the media being an independent “fourth branch of government” with a mission of holding the President and Congress accountable by providing truthful information to the public for them to make informed decisions. 

8. Pro-war, neoconservative extremists who propelled the war emboldened and legitimized Islamic extremists in Iraq and in the Arab world. The massive killings of innocent Iraqi civilians legitimized those in Iraq who called for terrorist attacks against the U.S. Efforts to resolve conflict through negotiation, deliberation, compromise are undermined when one side resorts to extremist violence. Such actions strengthen those on the other side suggesting extremist actions. U.S. neocons and religious extremists in Iraq needed one another to justify their own existence. This undercut those working for democracy in Iraq and democratic efforts by peace groups and some in Congress to end the conflict. 

9. Wars dehumanize people. It’s essential prior to killing or oppressing people to first treat them as less than human beings. Racism, xenophobia and religious discrimination were means used by many politicians and the corporate media to define Iraqis as non human. In fact, all dark-skinned, middle-eastern looking people in the U.S. were possible “Islamic terrorists.” The voices of Iraqis were not heard about their people, country, conditions and perspectives. Many became targets of the local police and federal authorities under the Patriot Act.   

10. “This is what democracy looks like '' was a common refrain of anti-war protesters before and after the war launch. While protest participants in the U.S. and around the world were in many instances reflective of human diversity, legitimate democracy is not only about the power of street protests, but being at the table where legitimate decisions are made that create and advance justice, peace and a livable world. While the massive street protests, as well as instances of nonviolent civil disobedience, before and after the war began no doubt limited the extent of U.S bombings, they were unable to define policies since We the People didn’t control the institutions of power.

11.Wars and occupations strengthen corporate rule. The Iraq war produced more profits from arms sales, access to more and cheaper resources, cheaper labor, access to new markets and privatization/corporatization (i.e. Halliburton and Blackwater corporations) for military contractors and transnational companies. Chiseled above an entrance to the U.S. Department of Commerce is this quote: “Commerce defies every wind, overrides every tempest, invades every zone.” Increased corporate profits translated into political power and influence. This reduced the political power of individuals requesting basic domestic needs for themselves and their communities.

12. Wars concentrate political power. Presidents are also Commanders in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. There is enormous cultural pressure on Congress during wars not to question, challenge or debate on military policies for fear of appearing divided and, thus, militarily weak or compromising “national security.” Wars directly connect government (especially the Executive Branch and Pentagon) and military contractors and transnational corporations. Meanwhile, citizen anti-war organizations demanding truth and public accountability are ignored or criticized as naive or aiding the enemy.

13. Warfare deters exploring political alternatives to war. Diplomacy, including bringing all parties to the table, to negotiate is not an option when fighting is at a peak or when one side feels it has the upper hand. Even when wars bog down, negotiations prove challenging since military contractors prefer perpetual war – to maintain perpetual war production. War only involves generals and top politicians. The voices of the victims of war are rarely heard. There is also pressure to keep fighting, as was stated during the Iraq war, to “ensure that U.S. soldiers who died didn’t do so in vain.”

14. Wars create debt and the pressure to privatize/corporatize public services. The cost of the Iraq war is at least $2 trillion. As the U.S. debt rose, pressure mounts to cut public spending. One way is to privatize/corporate public services. President Bush pushed to privatize Social Security during his second term. The same call for privatizing/corporatizing Social Security and Medicare is happening today in response to exploding costs of military spending in Ukraine. Privatization/corporatization of any service reduces public influence on services and costs and transparency compared to those services provided by public agencies.  

15. Wars justify government secrecy. Policies, operations and “black budgets”  are often marked “Classified” to maintain “national security.”  Nearly 400,000 released Wikileaks documents detailed unreported casualties, torture, lack of investigations of incidents of torture, failed missions, chaos among corporate military contractors and downplaying democracy efforts in Iraq. This lack of transparency makes public accountability of government agencies and officials impossible. 

16. The illegal war in Iraq using overwhelming weaponry that resulted in deaths, injuries and sometimes torture of innocent people of color has a domestic counterpart. Local U.S.police departments have increasingly become militarized with over $15 billion worth of free surplus military equipment available from Iraq and other past military actions along with Iraq war veterans joining their ranks. This equipment has been disproportionately used against people of color, especially African Americans, who are targeted in communities across the country. Possessing massive weaponry incentivizes using it. A culture and law that gives overseas soldiers enormous discretion to use violence in the field in a way legitimizes the qualified immunity of local police officers. Innocent people are increasingly killed by officers with no opportunity to defend themselves in court. 

17. Wars centralize economic power, inhibiting alternative democratic economic systems. Given the close relationship between government and military contractors coupled with the deindustrialization and off-shoring of civilian manufacturing, production of military equipment constitutes the #1 planned industrial policy of the U.S. with all the public benefits of research and development that goes with it. The Iraq war reinforced this economic system and power. This makes planned economic conversion to other high-tech civilian production and more democratic models of enterprises, like worker cooperatives, extremely difficult. 

18. A permanent war economy perverts grassroots public support for war. Since weapons manufacturing, perpetuated by the endless war and occupation of Iraq, provides good paying jobs and a predictable local tax base (i.e., weapons production is not sent abroad for national security reasons), military industrial workers and their unions, local public officials and other community stakeholders dependent on military production become grassroots lobbyists for continued military production, regardless of whether more jobs could be created per dollar spent on civilian production and/or whether the military products have no military purpose, are too expense, don’t work or are considered, if used, to provoke military escalation. 

19. Passing HJR48, the We the People Amendment, is a part of the solution to reducing the drive for wars and occupations. Ending corporate constitutional rights and money defined as free speech will eliminate powerful tools military contractors, transnational corporations and the rich use (i.e. political campaign contributions) to create, promote or perpetuate military conflicts. Sign up to lobby your Congressperson to enact HJR48 at https://www.movetoamend.org/lobby 

20. Abolishing corporate constitutional rights and political money spent in elections as free speech, however, is only part of what’s needed. Just as changing the culture to no longer accept the inevitability of corporate power, we must work to change our culture of violence as an appropriate means of resolving conflict, “might makes right,” belief that the U.S. is policeman of the world, Manifest Destiny, and that all U.S. wars are fought to defend or expand democracy and freedom instead of empire building and greed. 

Many, if not most of the above factors, relate to the Ukrainian “war,” There are some differences since the U.S. is not directly involved, but funding and supporting Ukrainian surrogates. 

If it’s true that “there is no way to peace, peace is the way,” then it is also true that “there is no way to democracy, democracy is the way.” Working for authentic peace and democracy are inextricably connected.