Truth and Official Secrets

I recently had the chance to see the wonderful new British-American film, Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightly as British whistleblower, Katharine Gun. It’s a compelling tale of Gun’s courageous attempt to prevent the Iraq War by releasing a secret document revealing US efforts to manipulate UN Security Council member states into authorizing the use of force.

I won’t spoil the film by discussing the dramatic twist in the British government’s attempt to bring legal charges against Gun, but it is worth noting that the film brilliantly exposes the illegality of the Iraq War. Under international law, the use of force is only permissible under two conditions: when authorized by the UN Security Council, or if necessary, for self-defense. In this instance, neither condition applied. Security Council member states refused to support the US-UK resolution authorizing the use of force, despite American attempts to pressure them. The self-defense argument might have been legitimate if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as Bush, Cheney and Blair claimed, but of course no such weapons were found. Extensive scouring of the country by invasion forces and special investigative teams turned up nothing.

Gun was motivated to release the documents and risk prosecution because she wanted to save lives and prevent an unnecessary war. She was unsuccessful, as were tens of millions of us around the world who tried to prevent the invasion in 2002 and 2003. The Bush-Cheney-Blair cabal pressed ahead with the predetermined war regardless of the facts or the likely disastrous consequences.

The film reminds us of the staggering human cost of the war: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and the deaths of more than 4600 US and British troops. As I read those numbers it was hard to hold back tears, or to control my rage at such colossal criminality.

Leaving the theater, I reflected on the current impeachment investigation against Trump and realized that what Bush and Cheney did in Iraq was far worse than what Trump has done. Hopefully Trump will be held accountable, thanks in part to whistleblowers in the US government today. But what about Bush, Cheney and others who lied blatantly to start an illegal war that killed so many and has had so many violent and disruptive consequences for Iraq and the region?

The British government conducted an Iraq inquiry and in 2016 issued the Chilcot Report, which The Guardian called a “crushing verdict” against Blair for launching an unnecessary war without legal justification on the basis of flimsy intelligence.

No such accounting has taken place in the United States. The Senate issued two committee reports on intelligence failures, in 2005 and 2008, but these did not address the Bush administration’s intentional and systematic deceptions in leading the country to war. The Senate reports did not examine the deeper and more important issue of the illegality of the war.

I’m not holding my breath that there will be a truth commission on US government crimes in Iraq, certainly not in the Trumpian age of assault against facts and evidence. But hopefully in the future there will be more revealing films like Official Secrets, and if necessary more principled whistleblowers like Katharine Gun who come forward sooner and in greater numbers to prevent illegal and unnecessary wars.

No Way to Treat an Ally

In the long string of recent White House foreign policy disasters, the betrayal of Kurdish allies in northern Syria is especially appalling and dishonorable. The Kurdish proxy forces that helped to decimate ISIS are being thrown under the bus, under the tank in this case.

It is gut wrenching for Americans to see our troops ordered to head for the exits as the Turkish army attacks our most loyal partners. Trump justified Turkey’s actions against the Kurdish-controlled region in the odious language of ethnic cleansing: “They had to have it cleaned out.”

Rather than ameliorating the damage, the agreement negotiated by Vice President Pence with Turkish President Erdogan further seals the sellout of Kurdish allies. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official stated, “We got everything we wanted.”

The consequences of these actions for the region and the world could be dire. There is a danger that ISIS could rise again amidst the chaos resulting from the Turkish invasion. Russia stands ever more triumphant, with Putin taking advantage of Trump’s folly to solidify Moscow’s role as a major force in the region. Russian officials are smiling at the gifts being showered upon them by American incompetence.

The Kurdish forces we once supported now have no choice but to align themselves with Assad, solidifying the Syrian government’s cruel and brutal victory against an ill-fated rebellion. American prestige and credibility, never great to begin with, have collapsed in the region and are falling to new lows globally, as alliance relationships in many places suffer.

This is not to suggest that continued or greater American military intervention in Syria and the Middle East would solve the problem. U.S. military involvement in Syria was never a good idea. The small U.S. contingent deployed there was not capable of influencing the war’s outcome or countering the clout of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

What to do now? The U.S. should work with European allies and the United Nations to seek a diplomatic settlement that tries to bring the Syrian war to an end, while working with states to forge a broader strategy for stabilizing Syria and the region.

Attention is needed to re-invigorate the campaign against ISIS and violent extremism. Not only as a security challenge, but as a multi-dimensional effort to improve governance across the region—through political inclusion for significant subnational groups, and greater accountability within states. A major international program of economic and social development is also needed: a Marshall Plan for the Middle East to generate prosperity and create the conditions for stability.

Trump’s misdeeds have tarnished America’s reputation, but U.S. leadership is still important, not just in military prowess, but in diplomacy, development and peacebuilding. New leadership and policies are needed to repair the harm that’s been done and restore America’s role as a reliable ally.

15412486014_31b3069ed7_oMembers of the Kurdish forces in northern Syria.  Photo by Kurdishstruggle