Fifteen years after the calamitous U.S. invasion of Iraq, an architect of the propaganda used to drum up support for the war is warning that it’s happening again — this time with Iran.
Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, helped the then-secretary “paint a clear picture that war was the only choice” in his infamous 2003 speech to the U.N. This week, writing for the New York Times — an outlet that, at the time, parroted misleading narratives in support of the war — Wilkerson accused the Trump administration of manipulating evidence and fear-mongering in the same way the Bush administration did to cultivate public support for ousting Saddam Hussein.
In his Monday op-ed, titled “ I Helped Sell the False Choice of War Once. It’s Happening Again,” he wrote:
As his chief of staff, I helped Secretary Powell paint a clear picture that war was the only choice, that when ‘we confront a regime that harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction and provides haven and active support for terrorists, we are not confronting the past, we are confronting the present. And unless we act, we are confronting an even more frightening future.’
Though the U.N. and much of the world didn’t buy it, Wilkerson says Americans did, and it amounted to the culmination of a two-year effort by the Bush administration to initiate the war, which he now condemns.
“That effort led to a war of choice with Iraq — one that resulted in catastrophic losses for the region and the United States-led coalition, and that destabilized the entire Middle East,” he wrote, going on to call out the Trump administration for pushing the United States down the same path in Iran.
“This should not be forgotten,” he urged, “since the Trump administration is using much the same playbook to create a false impression that war is the only way to address the threats posed by Iran.”
Wilkerson singled out Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for her recent saber-rattling against Iran. He accused her of presenting questionable evidence that “Iran was not complying with Security Council resolutions regarding its ballistic missile program and Yemen,” comparing her directly to Powell. “Just like Mr. Powell, Ms. Haley showed satellite images and other physical evidence available only to the United States intelligence community to prove her case. But the evidence fell significantly short.”
Wilkerson accused Haley’s claims about Iran of essentially mirroring Powell’s claims about Iraq, also warning that war with Iran will be very different. It is “a country of almost 80 million people whose vast strategic depth and difficult terrain make it a far greater challenge than Iraq, would be 10 to 15 times worse than the Iraq war in terms of casualties and costs,” he cautioned, still asserting that countries like China, Russia, and North Korea pose far more “formidable challenges to America” than Iran does.
The former chief of staff to Powell further criticized the Trump administration, citing its National Security Strategy, which claims:
The longer we ignore threats from countries determined to proliferate and develop weapons of mass destruction, the worse such threats become, and the fewer defensive options we have.
“The Bush-Cheney team could not have said it better as it contemplated invading Iraq,” Wilkerson wrote, going on to call out not just Haley and the Trump administration but also the executive branch in general, Congress, and the media.
“Though Ms. Haley’s presentation missed the mark, and no one other than the national security elite will even read the strategy, it won’t matter,” he lamented. “We’ve seen this before: a campaign built on the politicization of intelligence and shortsighted policy decisions to make the case for war. And the American people have apparently become so accustomed to executive branch warmongering — approved almost unanimously by the Congress — that such actions are not significantly contested.”
He implicated the news media, as well, noting that outlets recently “failed to refute false narratives” from the Trump administration that Iran worked with Al-Qaeda to undermine the U.S. (never forget the CIA’s overseas meddling helped lay the foundation for Al-Qaeda in the first place, and its policy of arming extremists in Syria also ended up empowering the terror group). He compared this false conflation with Dick Cheney’s attempts to link Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda during the Bush years.
Nevertheless, Wilkerson wrote, “[t]oday, the analysts claiming close ties between Al Qaeda and Iran come from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which vehemently opposes the Iran nuclear deal and unabashedly calls for regime change in Iran.”
He went on to list the variety of ways the Trump administration is drumming up unfounded support for war against Iran:
We should include the president’s decertification ultimatum in January that Congress must ‘fix’ the Iran nuclear deal, despite the reality of Iran’s compliance; the White House’s pressure on the intelligence community to cook up evidence of Iran’s noncompliance; and the administration’s choosing to view the recent protests in Iran as the beginning of regime change. Like the Bush administration before, these seemingly disconnected events serve to create a narrative in which war with Iran is the only viable policy.
Considering Iran has long been a crown jewel in the U.S. hegemonic efforts, it should be no surprise the Trump administration isn’t budging on its plans to intervene. Wilkerson, however, knows far better than most the dangers of pushing unsubstantiated claims to advocate war.
As I look back at our lock-step march toward war with Iraq, I realize that it didn’t seem to matter to us that we used shoddy or cherry-picked intelligence; that it was unrealistic to argue that the war would ‘pay for itself,’ rather than cost trillions of dollars; that we might be hopelessly naïve in thinking that the war would lead to democracy instead of pushing the region into a downward spiral.