A Democratic Deficit: The War in Iraq

Protests Against the War in Iraq
Iraq War protesters walk toward the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Vince Reinhart.

By David Cortright

War in Iraq

Twenty years ago this month, millions of people in Europe, the United States and on every continent took to the streets to oppose the dangers and likely human cost of invading Iraq. It was the largest antiwar movement in history. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft warned that war in the Middle East would spark “an explosion of rage” against the United States and stir up further terrorist violence. Yet President George W. Bush and his administration ignored the critics and pushed ahead with war. As we mark twenty years since the invasion, it is important to reflect upon why the massive opposition to war was unsuccessful, and what that means for the condition of American democracy.

The inability to prevent war in Iraq reflected not the weakness of the arguments of the critics (their dire predictions sadly proved correct), but the limitations of democratic accountability in matters of national security. The administration was able to override democratic constraints through a massive public relations campaign to “sell” the war to a population traumatized by the attacks of 9/11.

The president and his senior advisers saturated the airwaves with false claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and supposed links between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. The drumbeat of hysteria and fearmongering was relentless. The White House conjured up images of the Iraqi tyrant threatening to use weapons of terror, captured in the powerfully evocative, but thoroughly misleading sound bite: “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a nuclear mushroom cloud.”

A Persistent Pattern

A steady stream of disinformation flowed from the administration—uranium from Niger, aluminum tubes, defector reports, mobile labs—to underscore the WMD danger. All were part of an appeal to fear, an elaborate deception designed to scare people into supporting military action. In the months prior to the war two-thirds of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein helped Al Qaida attack the United States.

The Bush administration’s manipulation of public opinion was not an anomaly, but part of a persistent pattern in national security decision making over the decades. Government officials have long used the fabrication of foreign threats to get their way on national security issues. Democracy depends on open debate and access to accurate information, but this becomes impossible when national security decisions are shrouded in secrecy and dubious intelligence claims.

The pattern was established at the dawn of the Cold War, when Dean Acheson famously wrote that matters of foreign policy must be made “clearer than the truth.” At the time Americans were warned of nonexistent missile gaps with the Soviet Union to justify a nuclear arms race. During the 1960s, the Vietnamese struggle for national independence was interpreted as communist aggression to justify military intervention. In Iraq images of nuclear mushroom clouds and false links to Al Qaida became the argument for an unnecessary war.

A Democratic Deficit

These episodes reflect a deeper institutional crisis within American democracy, the rise of what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. termed the “imperial presidency.” The militarization of society from the Cold War to the present has led to the rise of a powerful national security state, with war-making authority concentrated in the executive branch. When matters of war and peace are at stake, presidential authority is paramount, and congressional oversight and democratic constraint are limited. The Bush administration benefitted from and further expanded presidential war-making authority to push through its regime change policy in Iraq.

American democracy has structural elements that are supposed to protect against such abuse. The press is considered the fourth estate, an independent watchdog to expose abuse and deception. In recent decades, however, the Pentagon has learned to tame the press, and Presidents have controlled the media to their advantage. During the Iraq debate the press proved to be astonishingly gullible, echoing the arguments for war and failing to challenge the lack of evidence for administration claims.

A Long Overdue Step

The Constitution gives the legislative branch a constitutional role in approving the use of force and guarding against unnecessary war, but Congress long ago began deferring to the executive branch on military matters. The Congressional war power has steadily eroded over the decades. As Bush prepared for military action in Iraq, Congress demanded and won the right to vote on the use of force, but it failed to exert meaningful constraints. Some Senators tried to impose conditions on the use of force, such as prior UN approval, but they were outmaneuvered by the White House and voted for an authorization that gave broad latitude to the President on the decision to attack.

Today, two decades later, the Iraq war authorization is still on the books. Congress soon will have a chance to vote on revoking that authorization. It’s a long overdue step that hopefully can spark debate on reasserting democratic control over the use of force in American foreign policy.

A Peaceful SuperpowerAbout the Author

David Cortright is author of A Peaceful Superpower: Lessons From the World’s Largest Antiwar Movement (New Village Press, 2023).

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