Nation & World

Commentary: Ignoring the past doesn't erase our responsibility for it

It has been observed for at least a century that England and America are two nations separated by a common language. Today there is another difference. England is interested in finding out how it came to participate in an unnecessary, illegal and immoral war. America is not.

Two years ago the British government set up the Chilcot Inquiry, a commission charged with investigating how that country became involved in the invasion of Iraq, what went wrong and how the response to a similar situation in the future could be more effective. After numerous public hearings, the Inquiry’s final report is being written and will be published in the next few months.

The conclusions of the draft report have already started to leak out and were covered extensively in British media last week. The story was not considered worth mentioning by American newspapers however.

According to the British press, the report concludes former Prime Minister Tony Blair is responsible for four main failings. He asserted it was beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when the intelligence supported no such conclusion. He claimed to have not made up his mind about the war when he had already secretly pledged to President Bush in the summer of 2002 that Britain would participate. He kept his cabinet ministers in the dark about his war plans. And he had no plans made to deal with the chaos that ensued after the fighting stopped.

Unlike Britain, in the United States there has been no serious effort to examine the war in depth.

Various Senate committees and special commissions put out reports five or six years ago, but they were set up to have a balance between Republican and Democratic politicians and given narrow mandates. The results were invariably weasel-worded conclusions that evaded the truth and provided little insight and no accountability. To the extent any blame was assessed, it was directed at unnamed bureaucrats. Instead of bearing any responsibility for the war and its aftermath, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Tenet rake in seven figure advances for their books and six figure fees for giving speeches to friendly audiences.

So why is there no interest in finding out what lessons can be learned from the Iraq experience, what went wrong and who is responsible? The four failures identified by the Chilcot committee apply even more to Bush since Blair was only acting as Bush’s poodle. Does America suffer from NADD—national attention deficit disorder? Or is there another reason.

The war was unnecessary because Saddam Hussein had no WMD. And he wasn’t going to get any because the UN inspectors were doing an effective job. The war was illegal, because, as the legal experts in the British Foreign Office concluded, it was against international law. Bush used violations of Security Council resolutions to justify invading Iraq. He never bothered to ask the UN for the authorization that would have legitimized the invasion, however, because he knew he could not get it.

And the war was immoral because, despite all the Pentagon’s high tech, precision weaponry, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians died. So many that Bush may well be responsible for killing more Iraqi civilians than Saddam Hussein ever did. General Tommy Franks, who directed the invasion and also profited from his own book deal after the war, once said, “we don’t do body counts.” Clearly an accurate estimate was not in the interests of the Bush administration, but why is there no attempt to find out now?

Even the admission of a potential crime, as Bush did in his book when he justified his authorization of waterboarding, merits no further investigation. Apparently in Washington, legality is defined as whatever a government lawyer tells his boss rather than determined in a court. The latter isn’t happening because the Justice Department is almost as much a misnomer under this administration as the last.

Britain lost 179 soldiers in Iraq. American losses are 25 times that and still counting. The number of Iraqis that died is estimated at anywhere between a hundred thousand and more than a million. Joseph Stalin once said: “One death is tragedy, one million is a statistic.” Today one death may be a tragedy, but hundreds of thousands are collateral damage.

Perhaps the lack of national introspection is because, in a democracy, the people don’t just elect their leaders. They share in the responsibility for the actions their government takes. So if crimes were committed and go unpunished, and not even investigated, all Americans are accomplices and the blood is on all our hands.


Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.