I’ll be speaking at the upcoming Iraq Tribunal about war lies of 2002-2003 vintage. I’m nostalgic for the days when presidents had to lie to Congress and the public and obtain some modicum of support before bombing a foreign country.
Already by the day after this week’s election we saw the return of street protests, of big plans for mass mobilizations, and of preparations to urge a presidential impeachment as soon as Trump commits the first obviously impeachable offense not routinely committed by Barack Obama.
But we are not going to see the return of the office of the presidency as it was inherited by George W. Bush or even as it was passed along to Barack Obama. When Bush became president, spying on everything everybody did was deemed unacceptable. Imprisoning people without charge or trial was an outrage. Torture was illicit. Going through a list of men, women, and children on Tuesdays to pick whom to murder with a drone would have filled the streets with protest. When Congress passed laws, presidents were supposed to veto them, sign and obey them, or quietly ignore them in secret until caught, not sign them and publicly announce which parts they would violate.
When Obama became president, illegal surveillance was a crime of his predecessor awaiting prosecution. Guantanamo and similar death camps were a problem to be remedied. Torture was a felony the prosecution of which was mandatory under the supreme law of the land. And drones were just one weapon of many to be used in existing wars.
Donald Trump — elected by Republicans after admitting the 2003 attack on Iraq was a disaster that helped create ISIS, and after pretending that he had opposed launching that war at the time — now moves into the White House with the power to spy on everything, the power to imprison anyone, the power to torture without consequences, the power to kill anyone in any place, and the power to start new wars anywhere in the world at his whim using the most costly military in the history of the earth, mobilized from more bases in more countries than any military ever before inherited by any ruler. For Trump, obeying laws or even announcing plans not to obey laws will be totally optional, and scrapping laws invented by previous presidents outside the legislative process is now routine. So is concocting new laws. And potential whistleblowers have been conditioned during the Obama years to know that they will be mercilessly persecuted.
When the Democratic Party refused to impeach George W. Bush, as when it escalated the war on Iraq that it had just been empowered to end, as when it cheated Bernie Sanders out of a nomination, it may not have been looking as clearly into the future as it should have been. Accepting immunity for Bush’s crimes on the grounds that Obama was now president may not have ever actually made any sense had anyone paused to think about it or to ask what the hell “Looking forward” actually meant. Formalizing, continuing, and expanding crimes and abuses in the Obama years was a reckless lead up to whoever came next.
Up until the Trumpian honesty of “steal their oil,” what was unique about the 2002-2003 Iraq lies was not the lies, but the number of people they killed. Those lies were preceded by lies about every previous war including Afghanistan, and followed by lots more lies about Iraq, as well as about Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, the Philippines, China, North Korea, Russia, Ukraine, NATO, the state of the U.S. military, the state of U.S. veterans, etc.
But beyond the immediate damage they did, there is something else unique about the Bush-Cheney Iraq lies: a lot of people know about them. And yet they are already being glossed over in history books. War lies once known about have to be re-taught over and over or they will be simply erased if possible or distorted if necessary. Let’s make sure it’s the latter, and then let’s correct the distortions from here on out. It was awareness of these Iraq lies that helped us prevent the proposed 2013 bombing of Syria. That awareness will also be our biggest aid in discouraging President Trump from wars or in stopping whatever bombing he quietly begins.