Tag Archives: Iraq

The Happy Story of Bernie Sanders & Iraq



Bernie Sanders really, really, wants you to know that he voted against the 2003 Iraq War and Hillary Clinton voted for it. He’s mentioned in it every single debate. His ridiculously named website, feelthebern.org, has a whole page dedicated to it (see below).

The funny thing about that feelthebern page is how carefully it jumps from his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War to his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War. The US had Iraq policy in the 1990s. What were Bernie’s positions during those 12 years? He’d rather you not think about that. And you probably won’t, especially if you’re among the people he consistently does best with –  voters 29 and under.

The thing about voters under 29 is that the first Presidential election they could vote in was 2008.  The oldest members of that cohort were 15 or 16 when Hillary Clinton made that vote.  For them, Iraq is synonymous with a humanitarian and foreign policy disaster that began in the Bush years and continues to this day. Senator Sanders knows this. And he knows that, outside of Vermont, voters didn’t really know who he was until last year. This lets him tell a fascinating story about a reliably left-wing anti-interventionist peacenik politician who foresaw disaster back in 2002. Telling that particular story, though, relies on a clever mix of 20/20 hindsight and the short memories of his core constituency.


from feelthebern.org

Let’s tell another story – about diarrhea. For adults, it can be a messy inconvenience.  Over a prolonged period, it is fatal for children as their bodies dehydrate and lose nutrients. Between the two Iraq wars that Bernie Sanders so bravely opposed, lots of Iraqi children died of malnutrition and dehydration. Lots. A conservative estimate put the number of dead children at 106,000 between 1991 and 1998. A 1995 study in The Lancet estimated it at 576,000. Iraq was prevented from importing water purification and sanitation equipment under the sanctions imposed by the UN and enforced by the US and its allies. Bernie Sanders supported those sanctions.

Sanctions starved Iraq of resources and supplies, and Saddam Hussein allocated what was left to reinforce his regime. Sanctions precipitated a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions.  The bills that shaped US sanctions policy, the bills Sanders supported, all came up during that decade gap his site skips right over. It’s an uglier story. Tell that story,  and the man campaigning as champion of the underdog looks a lot more like any other establishment politician supporting the status quo, no matter the cost.

And there was a cost to sanctions – and not just the Iraqi lives lost at the time. In May, 2000 The Lancet ran an editorial alongside a study showing that child mortality in much of Iraq was getting worse. The editorial concluded that UN sanctions bore significant responsibility for this tragedy and that “(t)he courageous policy…is to suspend (not abandon) sanctions lest upcoming generations of Iraqis, out of resentment, suffering, and isolation, grow up to be as aggressive as their current leader.” A quick bit of arithmetic should tell you when the many young Iraqis recruited by ISIS were born.


Back when Hillary Clinton was still defending her Iraq War vote  she said she acted “in the context of weapons of mass destruction, grave threats to the United States, and clearly, Saddam Hussein had been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade.” This is the same context in which then-Representative Sanders supported every single bill supporting Iraq sanctions and regime change that came his way. Because he, like every other member of the political establishment, was far more concerned about Saddam’s WMD than he was about the Iraqi people.  Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush – believed that Saddam was trying to restart WMD programs.  He wasn’t.

Bernie didn’t have to be a reliable vote in favor of humanitarian disaster. Twelve of his colleagues voted against House Joint Resolution 75, which stated that Iraq was “a mounting threat to the United States” in 2001.  Bernie supported the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which stated “that it should be the policy of the United States to ‘support efforts’ to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” This bill threw buckets of money at the Iraqi National Congress, a corrupt opposition movement which fed lousy intelligence to the US right up to the 2003 invasion.  Thirty-eight of Bernie’s colleagues voted against the bill, and it was publicly opposed by the State Department and Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander of US forces in the Middle East. Had he voted against it, Bernie would’ve had good company.

It’s fair to say that on WMD, Representative Sanders had no way of independently knowing that Saddam had abandoned his weapons programs. That’s not the case for the sanctions. By the mid-1990s, serious people were arguing that sanctions were crushing Iraqi society, having dire effects on child mortality, and enriching Saddam’s inner circle. Quaker groups, pacifists and human rights activists mobilized against sanctions. These are Bernie’s people. Presidential candidate Sanders doesn’t like to talk about foreign policy. But as a mayor, Bernie used his position to work as a lefty foreign policy activist on disarmament, Nicaragua, and issues. Did he not read a paper or meet with activists for a decade?

Given his history, and his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, you might find his votes odd. But that’s only if you believe the story of an outsider. A guy who speaks truth to power and rejects the conventional wisdom. That guy might have taken a stand against sanctions. But not the go-along to get-along guy that Bernie actually is. That’s the story of a politician who is a reliable vote for military interventions: in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. The story of a politician who made a deal with Democrats so that they wouldn’t run someone against him in his Senate campaign.

In the debate in Milwaukee Wednesday night, Bernie went after Hillary on regime change on Iraq: “I think an area in kind of a vague way…where Secretary Clinton and I disagree is the area of regime change.” Bernie voted for regime change in Iraq in the 1998 law. If you read the 2002 authorization for war in Iraq, the fourth paragraph cites that that law. The one Bernie voted for, along with all the other bills he supported in the 1990s that explicitly had as their goal regime change in Iraq.

And it’s not just that. Go read House Concurrent Resolution 104 from April 2003. The one in which “the Congress expresses the unequivocal support and appreciation of the Nation– (1) to the President as Commander-in-Chief for his firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq.” Bernie voted in favor of that, too. Eleven of his colleagues didn’t.

So why would Bernie bash Hillary over a policy he supported before, and he implicitly supported following (he also voted in favor of defense spending bills to support the war)? Of course, it helps that he ended up being right. It’s also one of the few instances where his vote wasn’t indistinguishable from Senator Clinton’s. But it’s also because his vote on the Iraq War is one of the few times where he wasn’t just another status-quo, by-the-book, conventionally thinking, go-along-to-get along, veteran politician with all of the accumulated baggage of his years in office. And that’s a story he’d very much like you to hear.






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Death Comes to Us All – Faster if You’re Leading Iraq

The United States is a lousy friend to have. Take the case of Nuri al Maliki. The Bush Administration raised him from obscurity and installed him as Prime Minister because he was less corrupt, less incompetent, and less friendly with the Iranians than the other guys. We supported Maliki for years, even as he became as incompetent and friendly with Iran as the other guys, learning to be a ruthless authoritarian in the process. As a rule, we’re usually fine with authoritarians, until the other week, when it looked like Maliki  might lose control of Iraq to ruthless Islamists. The American public can tolerate a lot, but not the idea that we fought a fruitless war to liberate a country that will now be unliberated by the dread Islamists. So various people who should know better have called on Maliki to resign.

Disclaimer: I’ve never been the President or Prime Minister of Iraq. If Iraq were to reestablish a monarchy, I wouldn’t have a chance at being king. So I can’t really say what’s going on in Nuri al Maliki’s mind. But if I were him, there is no way that I would ever, ever, resign. Because I know what Maliki knows: terrible things happen to the leaders of Iraq when they lose power.

Saddam-Hussein-exe_2511167bYou probably think I mean Saddam. He got off relatively easy. Sure, he was taunted, then hanged, and then his dead body shown on TV.  And yes, cell phone footage of the hanging went viral. But he was spared the indignity of his half-brother’s execution a month later, which accidentally turned into a decapitation (oops). I wonder if Saddam ever wished he could have died in a firefight like his sons, who left marginally better looking corpses when they too were shown on TV (don’t click the link if you’re eating).

Here’s the thing Maliki must be thinking about: if I resign, I am going to die a painful death?  A painful death followed by the indignity of my mangled body being displayed on TV? There’s a strong precedent for this: Abd al-Karim Qasim, who led the revolution against the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 was executed by a firing squad following a coup in 1963. His body ended up in  a television studio, which broadcast footage of his body for hours. Here’s a fun fact: there’s pretty good evidence that the CIA supported Qasim’s overthrow, and wanted him assassinated as early as 1959 – when they enlisted the help of a bumbling thug named – you guessed it – Saddam Hussein. Saddam screwed it up, but he earned a “use chemical weapons free” card from the US, which he cashed in against Iran decades later.  Meanwhile, the US decided to support Qasim for awhile because he was anti-Nasser, and we hated Nasser even more in the early 1960s.

Maliki might find some relief in Qasim’s successor, Abd al Salam Arif. He wasn’t shot or hanged, and his body wasn’t displayed on TV. Arif was president for three whole years before he was killed in a plane crash in 1966, likely the result of sabotage by the Ba’athists. He was eventually replaced by his brother – who was President for two years before being overthrown in another CIA-backed coup. Oddly enough, Arif’s brother lived to be 91. Historians suspect he might have been a Highlander. Arif’s daughter and her family were killed in 2004, though it’s not clear if it was because of a 38-year grudge against Arif, or just because Iraq was a terrible place to be a year after the US invasion. Not that the current mess is in any way related to that invasion, of course.

Maliki is being rational in not wanting to die. You know who isn’t? The cousin of one of Iraq’s kings, who wants to restore the monarchy.  It’s true that the first king of Iraq,who was also briefly the first king of Syria, even though he was from neither place, (long story) didn’t go too horribly. Faysal I was only 48 when he died in 1933 of a heart attack in Switzerland, and there’s only some suspicion he was poisoned. Plus, history has treated him pretty well — he negotiated full independence from Britain and got a sympathetic portrayal by Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia; Ewan McGregor will play him in the prequel. Faysal’s son Ghazi assumed the throne, leading to a period of political instability when only one defense minister was assassinated and tossed in a ditch. A couple of generals were assassinated, too – but one of them, Bakr Sidqi, was kind of big into massacres, so he probably deserved it. Sidqi also has the distinction of leading the first coup d’etat in a modern Arab country, in 1936, so he was something of a trendsetter – and he did it without the CIA, which didn’t exist yet.

King Ghazi was really into cars. Before he could legally drive, he raced cars on a track in England. Here’s an ethical quiz for you: if someone offers you a really sweet 1936 silver Mercedes Benz convertible, do you take it? Question two: do you take it if the car is from Adolf Hitler? Ghazi did.  So it probably served him right that he died in a suspicious car crash in 1939 when he lost control and hit an electric pole.

Chuck Dressen, Faisal II of Iraq, and Jackie Robinson

Ghazi’s son, Faisal II, was only four when his father died, so his uncle, Abd al Illah, was regent for fourteen years until Faysal II came of age in 1953 – the same year his cousin, King Hussein became king of Jordan (also a long story). At this point, you might be asking yourself, “did the young king of Iraq ever tour the US and hang out with Jackie Robinson?” The answer is yes! Now, you might say, “Ok. But did he also meet James Mason?” Guess what? The answer is also yes!

King_Faisal_II_and_Prince_AbdulIlah_visiting_with_Deborah_Kerr_and_James_MasonFaysal looks so happy in the pictures (at right), which is touching – because a few years later, he was going to die horribly. Really, really, horribly.  In 1958, when Abd al-Karim Qasim led the coup to overthrow the monarchy, Faysal and his family -his uncle, his mother, his sister, fiance, and 6 year old nephew –  were cornered in their palace in Baghdad. They tried to surrender, but instead were chased into a courtyard and shot. There’s conflicting reports on whether Faysal was beheaded – but his uncle, who was hated from his time as regent – was first hung in the street, then dismembered with his various parts paraded through the streets. Faysal’s Prime Minister, who served in the position fourteen times beginning in 1930, had a reputation for being a little too pro-Western, anti-democratic, and repressive. He initially escaped capture in Baghdad by disguising himself as a woman, but was eventually captured, shot, and disemboweled. He was buried, dug up, dismembered, and then run over by a car. This process is known in Arabic as being “itchied and scratchied,” hence the inspiration for The Simpsons.

One can see why the current pro-Western, anti-democratic, repressive Prime Minister of Iraq might be concerned about losing power. The only way he can avoid a terrible fate is through repression of any opposition, something he seems very willing to do – and which the United States seems generally happy to ignore. The trick for him now is to make it clear that ISIS is a huge threat (successful so far), and that’s he’s the person who can secure Iraq (less clear). If the ISIS threat were to somehow subside, the US might decide he’s bad for our image and let him fall. Or, if we decide that he’s not the person we want to secure Iraq, he might find himself going to pieces. Literally. Maliki has to be terrified of what will happen when the US turns on him. He might not be ready for his final TV appearance yet.







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