Twenty years ago, when I first hired him in Baghdad, my Iraqi interpreter and driver Salam was thrilled that the Americans had toppled Saddam Hussein. I worked with Salam over the next several years, on my many reporting trips to Iraq, and I can’t stop thinking about his personal tragedy as we reach the 20th anniversary of the invasion.
A Shiite Muslim whose uncle had been murdered by Saddam’s thugs, Salam was delighted to see the domination of the dictator’s Sunni minority come to an end. Yet he was friends with Sunnis in his neighborhood and took me to meet them in their mosque and in their homes.
Salam was certain the Americans were going to transform Iraq for the better. He eagerly helped the U.S. soldiers in the FOB (forward operating base) in his mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood, tipping them off about a local Shiite militia that had started murdering Sunni residents. But when the FOB pulled out, members of the Shiite family he had fingered got their relatives in the now Shiite-run army to arrest him as a “terrorist.”
In 2010, I managed to visit Salam in a filthy, smoke-filled jail. He had lost 50 pounds and showed me the torture marks from electric shocks on his body, before starting to cry. A heavyset, bearded, chain-smoking Iraqi intelligence agent, who thankfully didn’t speak English, glared at us the whole time we talked.
When he was finally set free, nearly two years after being detained, Salam received death threats from the Shiite militia and had to flee with his family. They barely made it through Syria to Turkey, then traveled on an open refugee boat to Turkish Cyprus, and finally sneaked illegally through barbed wire into Greek Cyprus. Unable to work legally, Salam had to exist by smuggling.
Meantime, one brother in Baghdad was killed by his vengeful Shiite neighbors and a second brother had to live in hiding after death threats. The surviving brother was entitled to a U.S. special immigrant visa as a relative of someone who had worked with U.S. journalists but was left waiting for years — as happened to so many eligible Iraqis.
For years, I stayed in touch with Salam and even visited him in Cyprus in 2011 to help him get temporary residence when the Cypriot government was kicking out most Iraqis. But the last time I called, he could only gurgle on the phone, having suffered a stroke. His dreams, his family, his life had been destroyed by the war he had welcomed, as Iraq deteriorated into a morass of sectarian chaos and corruption. His brother, still forced to live in hiding in Baghdad, never got that visa to the U.S.
A grenade was thrown into the central Baghdad offices of the Iraqi television network UTV last month. It failed to explode, but the attack is typical of the relentless assault on journalists in Iraq over the past two decades.
The target of the attack was believed to be Adnan Altia, the host of a political talkshow who has criticised the unrestrained use of arms in Iraq. “My questions don’t aim to provoke politicians but to ask them to justify,” he says. “But they’re quickly turned into a weapon to kill me in many different ways.”
Altia had already been forced into exile by previous threats against him and his family and now lives in Turkey, working as a journalist for Iraqi channels, including UTV, which has offices in the country.
The 2005 Iraqi constitution established freedom of expression and freedom of the press, followed by a later law to protect journalists. But far from facilitating a free and independent press, post-invasion Iraq has produced a partisan and sectarian media landscape in which violence against journalists has increased.
At least 282 journalists have been killed in Iraq since 2003, according to estimates by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, with most killed by anonymous gunmen or armed factions, and others by the Iraqi forces. The country ranks fifth in the CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, behind only Somalia, Syria, South Sudan and Afghanistan. A further 74 journalists and media assistants have been abducted, with most of them killed.
Afrah Shawqi had been working as a journalist in Iraq since the mid-1990s and was a correspondent for the Saudi-founded Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, based in London, when about 20 masked gunmen tied up her family and abducted her from her Baghdad home in December 2016.
“I was accused of receiving money from the Saudi and American embassies to write against my country and of cheating my husband with other men, and they made me sign papers to affirm that. Whenever I refused to sign, they would hit me with a baton,” says Shawqi, who was forced into exile to France soon after her release in January 2017, amid a significant social-media campaign on her behalf. “Being in exile is very difficult for journalists, it’s difficult to communicate so far from home,” she says.
She was a grand diva of spin, known on the business and gossip pages as “the queen of Madison Avenue.” On the strength of two advertising campaigns, one for Uncle Ben’s Rice and another for Head and Shoulder’s dandruff shampoo, Beers rocketed to the top of the heap in the PR world, heading two giant PR houses: Ogilvy and Mathers as well as J. Walter Thompson.
At the State Department Beers, who had met Powell in 1995 when they both served on the board of Gulf Airstream, worked at, in Powell’s words, “the branding of U.S. foreign policy.” She extracted more than $500 million from Congress for her Brand America campaign, which largely focused on beaming U.S. propaganda into the Muslim world, much of it directed at teens.
“Public diplomacy is a vital new arm in what will combat terrorism over time,” said Beers. “All of a sudden we are in this position of redefining who America is, not only for ourselves, but for the outside world.” Note the rapt attention Beers pays to the manipulation of perception, as opposed, say, to alterations of U.S. policy.
Old-fashioned diplomacy involves direct communication between representatives of nations, a conversational give and take, often fraught with deception (see April Glaspie), but an exchange nonetheless. Public diplomacy, as defined by Beers, is something else entirely. It’s a one-way street, a unilateral broadcast of American propaganda directly to the public, domestic and international, a kind of informational carpet-bombing.
The themes of her campaigns were as simplistic and flimsy as a Bush press conference. The American incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq were all about bringing the balm of “freedom” to oppressed peoples. Hence, the title of the U.S. war: Operation Iraqi Freedom, where cruise missiles were depicted as instruments of liberation. Bush himself distilled the Beers equation to its bizarre essence: “This war is about peace.”
Beers quietly resigned her post a few weeks before the first volley of tomahawk missiles battered Baghdad. From her point of view, the war itself was already won, the fireworks of shock and awe were all after play.
One of the toughest stories I’ve ever had to do was on how my employer screwed up coverage of the march to war in Iraq.
Two decades ago, while at the Washington Post, I decided to examine how a newspaper with so much talent essentially enlisted in the Bush administration’s effort to sell the coming invasion. Pronouncements by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and others that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction got huge play, while the relative handful of stories questioning such claims ran deep inside the paper.
"I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder…I think I was part of the groupthink," Bob Woodward told me.
"Things that challenged the administration were on A18 on Sunday or A24 on Monday," said Tom Ricks, the military correspondent and author of several books. "There was an attitude among editors: Look, we're going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?"
And I drew this acknowledgment from my ultimate boss, Len Downie, the executive editor.
"We were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn't be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale," Downie told me. "Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part…We didn't pay enough attention to the minority."
Local party members contacted their MPs asking them to vote against the war. Even some Tory MPs were declaring that they would vote against it. Blair must have been increasingly alarmed, frightened that he might lose the vote. In the days running up to it, the prime minister had individual MPs brought to his offices to pressure them to vote his way. He did not invite me, or other determined anti-war MPs; he must have judged us to be a lost cause.
When private meetings with him did not seem to be working, I was told that Blair enlisted his wife, Cherie Blair, and the former US president Bill Clinton to ring Labour MPs to apply more pressure. Blair was always a little disdainful of ordinary MPs and parliament, but he was so desperate that he took to physically coming to the House of Commons and touring the bars, tea rooms and other places where MPs gather informally. He was buttonholing MPs and trying to make the case for war. Parliament became a pressure cooker. Everyone knew that the vote was not actually about the merits of the war. Instead, it was becoming a vote on whether you supported Blair personally or not. Everyone knew that voting against the war meant that your career was effectively over.
Is it true? Was Bill Clinton pressuring Labour MPs to vote for the Iraq War? Clintonista Joe Conason wrote a lengthy book extolling Bill on Iraq (among other things) but didn't include that detail. Is it accurate? If it is, Bill and Hillary have a lot more to answer for. And if it's true, Bill owes the world an apology but, ask Juanita Broaddrick, Bill's not too good at apologies or admissions of guilt.
AMY GOODMAN: While President Obama pledged to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, today, more than a decade later, there are still more than 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, and violence has continued in Iraq, as well. In 2020, in just one example, a bomb destroyed the American Institute for English in Najaf, Iraq, the school that was founded by our guest, Sami Rasouli. At the time of the bombing, Sami was visiting the United States. Since then, he has remained here with his family, which was finally reunited at the end of last year, his wife and son returning to be with him and their kids. He’s now working on starting a new organization called the American-Iraqi Peace Initiative.
Sami Rasouli, it’s great to have you back with us, as I talk to you from New York and you’re sitting in a studio in Minneapolis. It’s amazing to go back on that journey. As we met you in Minneapolis, the antiwar movement so warmly supported you, the whole community at your restaurant in Minneapolis. But then you said, “I’m closing it all up, and I don’t care if I have to just sweep the streets of Najaf, I’m going to improve my country in any small way I can,” as the U.S. bombs were falling. Take us on that journey 20 years later and how you ended up back in the United States. But talk about that first decision you made, from your comfortable abode in Minneapolis, to say, “I’m going back to Iraq.”
SAMI RASOULI: Hello, Amy. Thank you for having me. And thank you for reviewing our past meetings. It has been a while since we met.
Anyway, I’m back now. And regarding your question, I always tell my listeners that — and friends, of course, that Sami and salmon, the fish, has something in common: that they go upstream. But they also have no income, and that salmon doesn’t come back, but Sami keeps coming back, because my good friend Jeremy Iggers here from Minneapolis said, “Sami, remember, you always wanted to build a bridge for peace between the two countries, your country of birth and your country of choice. So remember that bridge has two ends. You have to maintain both ends.” That meant to come back again and go back. So, wherever I go, that’s my home, and I am privileged to have that.
As you mentioned, eventually, I got reunited with my wife and my stepson. My family and I survived. My dreams and school has been destroyed in Najaf back in September 2020, after killing General — the Iranian General Soleimani by Mr. Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: At the Iraq airport.
SAMI RASOULI: Correct, in Baghdad, Baghdad airport, yes.
Well, it looks like my wife, my kids and I are safe now here, but the war in Iraq, 20 years ago, have left scars and visible legacy. And this is the babies, the babies in Fallujah and Najaf and Basra. And the rise of the incidence of cancer, if we speak in general, fourfolds went up, but among the kids, 12 times went up. And that’s catastrophic. The gruesome deformality of newborn babies, whether in Najaf or in Fallujah, keeps happening as a witness for the crimes committed against peaceful nation in 2003.
And that brings the question how we’re going to deal with that. I always say a just compensation, a just compensation to respect that nation and leave that nation alone. That nation is rich in its resources, but, unfortunately, Bush’s administrations, represented by Paul Bremer, assigned people that’s incompetent. They have nothing to do with leading a country, such a country called the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia. They are just selling each part of the country out to others. And we, as the people of Iraq, living an unsecure country, and actually it’s not state, a lawless state. So, there is no security. There is no respected economic system, social system, health system, education system.
And when I say just compensation, I mean to build a new culture here, the backyard of the rest of the world, the United States of America, the new culture that’s based on justice and peace, that deal with, for example, local, domestic, severely affected all of us. It’s a school mass shooting. Since Columbine in April 20th, 1999, we haven’t done yet anything to prevent that, because since that shooting in 1999 up to date, there are about 366 school mass shootings happened already. And those disturbed kids, that receiving very bad education system — by their political leaders, I should emphasize — because at school they teach them how to be kind and nice to their neighbors, to their friends, and teach them not to be racist against any colors or other people that they meet, to be diversified. But again —
AMY GOODMAN: Sami, I wanted to —
SAMI RASOULI: — they are told the same thing by their parents —
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to interrupt for one second —
SAMI RASOULI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — because you’re making an extremely interesting point, as you talk about, you know, this country being really the only place in the world that has this level of mass shootings day after day. And you go back to Columbine. As you said, Columbine was April 20th, 1999. And I’ll never forget President Clinton’s comments at the time. What was it? Four — three days later that the U.S.-backed NATO forces, for example, bombed RTS, the Radio Television studio in Belgrade, Serbia, and we saw the body parts of makeup artists and technicians being taken out of this civilian structure. That was just one example. But Columbine happening in the midst of the bombing of Yugoslavia, and President Clinton saying, “How do we teach our children that violence is not the answer to resolving conflict?” And the irony of this with the backdrop of war, then Yugoslavia. In your case, we’re talking about Iraq, and now talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
SAMI RASOULI: Right. I mean, kids, the lessons. I mean, they were like 12 years old or 17 years old, the perpetrators. Those kids — and they come as a challenge for their surrounding world. They would like to make some changes in this stage of age. So, to tell them at school and at home, “Violence is bad, and we should not do it,” but yet we are doing it by our political leaders in Iraq and Syria and other places, and we tell them, “That’s good, but the violence, for example, or attacking Ukraine today is not OK.” So, we are — what we are doing, we are contributing to disturb their minds, their psyche, and eventually they end up with a conclusion that human life has no value, whether it’s their friends, their classmates or their enemies.
And bullying their classmates if they are bigger or stronger, just they’ve seen it when the U.S., as a superpower, goes and march in Iraq, with no reason, and destroy the country and come back, and go, after that, to Syria, destroy it, to Libya, and the saga will continue. So, that should be ended. And as I said, a new culture of peace and justice should lead our mind and hearts, not only at home and at school, but also in the Pentagon and the White House and the Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: Going back to Iraq, and in a moment we’re going to be speaking with a well-known Iraqi American who, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, left Minneapolis and said, “I don’t care if I just have to sweep the streets of my city of Najaf, I’m going to be there with my people,” and has now returned. We see that President Putin has been now charged by the International Criminal Court with war crimes. The question of where American officials should stand, not 20 years later, but even 10 or before that. President Obama was famous for saying we should always just look forward. But for culpability when it comes to the destruction of this nation of Iraq, what about George W. Bush, who — yesterday I was saying on the show — just a day after 9/11, when we know 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, was pushing his counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, on the issue of Iraq, “How can we make that connection?” And Richard Clarke was saying back to him, “There is zero connection.” But then, what this means, what this led to? Should he also be charged with war crimes? And should others be in the dock with him?
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, first of all, there’s no question, in my opinion, that the Iraq War, initiated by the United States, a war of choice, was a crime, a really horrid crime. I’m probably easier on President Bush than many other people are. You know, I view him as an individual, really, of limited talent, to put it bluntly. He became president because his last name was “Bush.” He was an unimaginative figure and was utterly unprepared for what happened on September 11th. And his reaction, which I wouldn’t defend, I think is primarily attributable to the associates that he chose to surround himself with. In other words, if I’m looking for bad guys, I don’t begin by looking at Bush. I begin with Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice, people who fancied themselves to be strategic thinkers. They fancied themselves to have a grasp of world politics, who believed that American military might was so great that we would sweep aside Saddam Hussein’s forces, and some vast benefit would result. Well, they miscalculated. They were utterly wrong. And so, when I’m looking for somebody to blame, I tend to blame those people more than Bush — not letting Bush of the hook. He was the commander-in-chief. But again, I think, in at least some sense, it was not his hands that were on the controls.
AMY GOODMAN: If Bush was so untalented, why couldn’t the largest antiwar movement in the world stop him? And it’s not only in the United States. I mean, remember, February 15th, 2003, millions of people took to the streets of the world to stop the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I don’t think Bush or anybody in the Bush administration cared about world opinion. I mean, they cared about whether or not they were going to be able to line up certain allies, like Great Britain, to support the war. In that, they succeeded. You know, shame on Tony Blair. But I don’t think world opinion factored, in a large sense, in the inner circles of Washington, D.C. But your larger question is — because I remember those. I happened to be in New York City, in Manhattan, on the day of the — was it February, I think, 15th?
AMY GOODMAN: February 15, 2003.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Moving, massive, astonishing, and I think had zero political impact. Why? Well, I think that says something about our democracy, that elites tend to bow toward the will of the people, but then, when they sit around the table and they make decisions, decisions related to war and peace, I don’t think that they think very seriously about, “Well, you know, what do the folks back in Indiana think?” Their calculation is shaped by considerations of power and, again, I would say, with regard to the Bush administration in 2003, when the war began, radically defective understanding of the war, understanding of ourselves, understanding of the potential of American military power. So, our leadership, elected and appointed, was stupid. The people, actually, I think, had a better grasp of the dangers that we were undertaking when we went to war with Iraq.