By Peter Dyer
November 26, 2008
One of Barack Obama's most compelling and popular campaign promises was his pledge to end the war in Iraq “responsibly.” But what does “responsibly” mean in this context?
Does it mean the United States will be assuming full responsibility for all that has gone wrong in this unnecessary war?
That would be appropriate. Certainly there can be no question that President George W. Bush and the U.S. government are responsible for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But that is clearly not what President-elect Obama had in mind regarding the Iraq War.
In his campaign, Obama galvanized unprecedented support across a wide spectrum of voters by making responsibility a central tenet of his campaign.
He called on fathers to take responsibility for their families; parents and teachers to take responsibility for education; and citizens to take back control of the government by taking responsibility through direct involvement in the political process.
Obama’s vision of American responsibility in Iraq, though, seems to be more limited, coming to an end once a gradual withdrawal of troops is complete in his promised 16 months.
Some of these troops, we’re told, will be “responsibly" redeployed to another war, in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a "residual" force will remain to deal with security issues as the Obama administration “pushes Iraq’s leaders towards taking responsibility for their own problems.” [From Obama’s Change We Can Believe In, p. 106]
What would it mean, though, if Obama’s vision of U.S. responsibility in Iraq were as comprehensive as the one he seeks to awaken in Americans at home and Iraqi leaders in their own country?
What would it mean to actually acknowledge and assume American responsibility, in full, for “Operation Iraqi Freedom”?
It Was a Crime
Let’s start with this: The March 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq was against the law. It was a crime.
This assault on a country that never harmed nor even threatened to harm the United States violated the UN Charter, Chapter 1, Article 2.4 and Chapter 7, Article 39 as well as UN Security Council Resolution 1441 and the Nuremberg Charter, Article 6(a).
In violating treaty obligations ratified by the U.S. Senate, the American architects of the Iraq War also violated Article VI, Clause 2 (the “Supremacy Clause”) of the U.S. Constitution.
The foundation of the American experiment is dedication to the rule of law. On Jan. 20, 2009, President Obama will swear, to the best of his ability to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
How then will the candidate who spoke so often and so stirringly of responsibility deal with American lawbreakers responsible for the war in Iraq?
Will the Obama administration insist on holding these lawbreakers accountable for the initial crime as well as for the carnage and catastrophe which ensued: estimates of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths; some 4,200 dead American troops; 4 million or more Iraqi refugees; and devastation of the Iraqi economy, infrastructure and ecology?
This war was not an accident. Somebody made it happen, no matter how this issue is sidetracked or simply ignored in mainstream American political discourse. Somebody was responsible.
Unfortunately, Obama has given no indication yet that he intends to hold any of the decision-makers responsible.
This is unfortunate because, in addition to satisfying the imperative for justice served through the rule of law, a fully responsible end to the war in Iraq could provide profound immediate and long-term benefits to all parties.
How About an Apology?
There are several measures the United States could take to more fully accept responsibility after withdrawal.
An apology would be a good way to start.
President Obama could render an official, sincere and comprehensive apology, on behalf of the American government and people, to the people of Iraq, to the United Nations, to the other members of the "Coalition of the Willing," and to American soldiers and their families for the harm all have suffered as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
An American apology for American aggression would, sadly, be unprecedented. For this reason alone it could do a world of good. It could enhance the process of healing and closure for all victims of the war, including American and Iraqi families.
An apology could go a long way towards restoring the good will and faith of the rest of humanity in America as a force for good in the world. Importantly, it could also help restore our faith in ourselves.
Adding extra moral force to an apology would be a concrete accompanying measure: reparations.
In addition to materially aiding the individual victims of the war, reparations could help address the devastation that “Operation Iraqi Freedom” has inflicted on the Iraqi economy, infrastructure and ecology.
To his credit, Obama has proposed using up to $2 billion to help the 4 million Iraqis who have lost their homes as a consequence of the American invasion. This works out to about $500 per refugee.
He also has proposed that the U.S. fulfill its promise of accepting our "quota" of Iraqi refugees: 7,000.
Perhaps the most profound and far-reaching way for the U.S. to assume full responsibility would be for President Obama, as chief executive, to order the arrest and trial of those who incited and initiated the unprovoked, illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The punishment for starting a war, depending on degree of culpability, could range from fines to life in prison. The fines could be paid into the reparation fund.
Creative sentencing could include time in Iraq performing service to victims of the war: work in hospitals, rehabilitation clinics, rebuilding homes, etc.
Perhaps those culpable for the war could work side by side with American volunteers, funded by the Obama administration and inspired by American Vietnam veterans who have helped rebuild communities in Vietnam.
Those convicted could be offered mitigation of punishment in exchange for apologies and detailed description of the full measure and history of their crimes through personal testimony, documentation, etc., similar to the process of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
With few exceptions, however, those who start wars have historically been insulated by power, wealth and privilege from any sort of meaningful responsibility. Surely those who launched the Iraq invasion never envisioned facing any real accountability.
Imagine how much suffering might have been avoided if George W. Bush and the other engineers and enablers of the invasion of Iraq had been aware that severe personal consequences would await those who start the killing.
Unfortunately, the likelihood that any of these people will ever face trial for their crimes seems inversely proportional to the enormous potential for positive change such trials would represent.
But holding aggressors personally responsible for aggression would fulfill the vision of the post-World War II Nuremberg Charter, a landmark document for which the United States, ironically, is largely responsible.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who represented the United States at the Nuremberg Tribunal, stated that the intent of holding powerful Nazis responsible was not just victor’s revenge but a desire to establish a precedent against aggressive war.
“Let me make clear,” Jackson said, “that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose, it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment.”
Jackson added, “This trial represents mankind’s desperate effort to apply the discipline of the law to statesmen who have used their powers of state to attack the foundations of the world’s peace and to commit aggression against the rights of their neighbors.”
Ending the war in Iraq in a truly responsible way would uphold Jackson’s principle and could result in a significant step toward the ultimate goal of the United Nations and all men and women of good will: a world without war.
That really would be change we can believe in.
Peter Dyer is a freelance journalist who moved with his wife from California to New Zealand in 2004. He can be reached at email@example.com .