• Cleaning Up Biden’s Leadership Leftovers in Iraq

    January 9, 2021

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Iraq, Trump

    As Trump leaves office the only president to have not started a new war since WWII, and Joe Biden, who supported so many of America’s wars, including voting for and (vice-) presiding over the second and third Iraq Wars, heads into office, the talk is again what should be the most terrifying words anyone outside the U.S. could hear: American Leadership. Thing is, we haven’t really cleaned up the leftovers from the last bout of such leadership yet.

    President-Elect Biden pulls no punches about how he feels about Trump’s lack of war, saying “Trump has abdicated American leadership in mobilizing collective action to meet new threats. This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain.”

    ‘Merica, hells yeah! In a 2015 speech SecState-nominee Antony Blinken employed some version of the word “leadership” 16 times. Biden himself wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” Last week, when he introduced his national security nominees, he said that “America is back, ready to lead the world.” Let there be no doubt in foreign policy terms leadership is the happy-talk, bipartisan, and benign euphemism for America First nationalism. And that usually means some sort of war. Biden already has his warriors in place from the Obama years: Bloody Susan Rice, Blinken at State, Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense. There will be others filling in the mid ranks as those principals call in their former deputies, who call theirs. Turn the leadership dial up to 11 and burn the house down!

    The problem with America’s leadership spurts is that they are often left uncompleted. They are played for U.S. domestic political consumption and thus appear in four year bursts, and leave behind a mess someone else has to clean up when those politics shift. Worst of all, no one in America seems to ask those nice foreigners overseas who are about to be freed, liberated, encouraged to revolt, or otherwise enlightened by the arrival of the American Empire if they indeed want any leadership today.

    So maybe before spewing out any new leadership, Biden could start by cleaning up some of the leadership he and others left behind. Start with Iraq.


    Quick, Jeopardy-style, when did the Iraq War end? Correct answer of course is “What is never.” America wrecked the place from the air in 1991, then invaded by land in 2003. Those American troops mostly left in 2010, then returned in 2014, and loiter like last year’s dropouts in the high school parking lot in unknown but relatively small numbers today. The American Embassy in Iraq, physically still the size of the Vatican and once the largest embassy in the world in diplomatic headcount, sits mostly empty with a security guard-to-diplomat ratio that would embarrass any Twitter warrior.

    You would wish that was all, but the horrors of the Iraq Wars are such that even bodies already buried find their way to the surface. Among the many U.S. atrocities few today know about (Google “Haditha Massacre,” “Mahmudiyah rape,” and if you don’t know what happened there, “Abu Ghraib torture”) loom the Nisour Square murders.
    On a hot as hell September 16, 2007, Blackwater mercenaries hired by the State Department as security killed 17 Iraqi civilians, including two children, and injured 20, in Nisour Square, central Baghdad. The U.S. lied and prevaricated for years, until finally the truth slithered out that none of the Iraqis were armed, the Blackwater guys panicked, and their so-called defensive fire was beyond any legitimate rule of war. The State Department tried to intervene, allowing the defendants to claim State’s own Diplomatic Security officers had offered them on-the-street immunity in return for later recanted testimony (Nisour Square wasn’t the only time State lied to cover for Blackwater.) It took seven full years until four Blackwater employees were convicted in a U.S. court. All four were pardoned by Donald Trump in December 2020.
    “That was years ago” say many of the same Americans willing to connect a police shooting today to the first slaves arriving on this continent in 1619. Though the average American might remember something bad happened with Blackwater, every Iraqi knows what Nisour Square stands for: American invasion, false promises of freedom, arrogant use of power. The same way Vietnamese know My Lai and thousands of other such incidents whose names never made it into the American press. Or perhaps how the remaining scraps of the Lakota people still reference Wounded Knee. No reckoning allowed save the marvelous sleight of hand of America’s fragile memory.
    I’ve been to Nisour Square. It is a giant roundabout, a confusing place made worse by the Iraqi practice of driving with total disregard for traffic laws if not physics and, at the time, the American convoy practice of never slowing and never stopping for any reason. The place smells of diesel fuel and the cheap gas the old Iraqi cars ran off. There’s a perpetual blue-gray haze over the intersection. It is so noisy there most people would not have been aware of the attack, at least until Blackwater started using grenades against civilians.
    At the very beginning of my Iraq tour with the State Department Blackwater provided my security. They were bullies. They grab-assed women. They were sloppy with their weapons. You could practically get a contact high off the steroids they used just by hanging around. Count on them to wear the most expensive sunglasses and the most unnecessary gear (gold man bracelets, tactical hair gel), a bit like Jersey Shore rejects. Aryan and dudely. In my book I called them “a frat house with guns.” It is easy to imagine how it all happened.
    The Trump pardon of Blackwater personnel for their role in the Nisour Square killing was a grotesque mistake Biden will shrug off as if he had nothing to do with it. But the absolute lack of focus on what put those Blackwater killers and their State Department charges in Nisour Square in the first place — the lust to exert some American Leadership and reform the MidEast — assures it will happen again. The rest of the world knew this was all wrong long before Trump. Does Biden?
    Biden’s foreign policy does not start at zero on Day One. All the good American leadership failed to do lingers. Even while the physical infrastructure damage from Iraq War I keeps water and sewage resources to third world standards, the Iranian-installed government which took over after the chaos of War II 2003-2010 remains in power. The anti-ISIS War III campaign of 2014 created tens of thousands of internal refugees in Iraq, mostly Sunnis the majority Shia government blames for ISIS’ initial successes, and many of them are about to die.

    Years after the destruction of ISIS at least one million Sunni civilians remain in government-run displacement camps. Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, backed by Tehran, has made shutting the camps a priority. Initial closures have already left more than 100,000 people homeless as winter comes and the pandemic continues.

    The Iraqi government plans to soon close the remaining camps, forcibly return the Sunnis to their villages. It will be a bloodbath. In many cases the places they came from still resemble the ruins of Dresden; there physically are no homes. Other Sunnis already know their Shia neighbors took what property they once held and have nothing to return to. The worst off face retribution for siding with ISIS, or because rumor says they did. Memories are long in the Middle East. Revenge reaches across generations. Blood for blood. The best scenario awaiting a few is to become a permanent underclass in Shia Iraq, ripe for exploitation by whatever Sunni group replaces ISIS which replaced Al Qaeda because across three wars of leadership the U.S. never resolved the underlying core issues in Iraq and just made them worse.

    The Obama-Trump leadership strategy was medieval: kill people until there was no Sunni-supported Islamic State left inside Iraq, then allow the Iranians and Shia Iraqis to do whatever they pleased with the Sunnis in the aftermath, expedience over morality. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq War III of 2014 onward: there would be no political follow-on, no nation building. The United States would pay no mind to internal Iraqi actions. Genocidal-scale events that might have once set American front pages atwitter aren’t even worth a tweet today. Whatever happens in Iraq to the displaced persons, the U.S. is not involved.

    Americans demanded answers when Trump sent refugees back across the border to Mexico to await processing, but remain willfully ignorant of the hundreds of thousands of internal refugees created by American actions left to disappear somehow in Iraq. But in a way perhaps this is hardly worth noting. It is part of the American way of leadership, arriving unwanted in some third world nation with promises to liberate and then leaving when that war turns into an unwanted child. And so our wars leave behind the children, refugees in Iraq and elsewhere, literal unwanted kids from Vietnam. We walk away from the destruction we create, having burned out the jungles in Southeast Asia with Agent Orange and turned functioning countries like Libya, Syria, and Iraq who dare bark at the American Empire into failed states.
    When Joe Biden speaks of the need for American global leadership, perhaps he should first talk to those we have already left behind.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • S said...


      Hi Peter,

      I’ve been following your content for years now (since We Meant Well was first released). This is my first time leaving a comment.

      While it’s always great to have a refresher on the atrocities caused by US neoliberal interventionist policy, I can’t help but notice zero commentary on a relatively minor event that may have taken place during the election certification a few days ago.

      I find it interesting, especially after all the attention you’ve given to the campaign and election. You go from playing mental gymnastics to rationalize voting for Trump (which is your right) to beating a dead horse about Hunter’s laptop (which is valid criticism), yet I see very little of the same emotional energy in critiquing an extremist nationalist portion of the population…though I suspect when you do bother getting around to it, it will be to infantalize the Trump insurrectionists by portraying them as damaged children who have no choice but to behave like seditionists because “woke elite” hypocrites hurt their feelings. Never mind that the US is following a global trend in increased right-wing nationalism, let’s continue to bash the left because for some reason they should “know better” and not fall privy to the same groupish behavioral trends that social psychologists have been describing for decades.

      Maybe you feel like Trump gets enough criticism as it is and it would be low hanging fruit for you to go after him too, but I (and several of my colleagues who follow your content) want to hear your actual thoughts on what’s going on. We believe you’re capable of presenting genuine analytic framework and not falling into the same identitarian behavior you criticize in others. I often disagree with your perspectives, but have always respected your thought process/opinions and found them valuable to learn from. I work in public policy and need insight from people like you to do better.

      Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that American foreign policy decisions since 9/11 have ranged from “mule shit” to “hemorrhoids.” We emerged from the Cold War as the global hegemon and squandered it by promoting an expansionist foreign policy agenda, evangelizing neoliberal ideals and wasting trillions of dollars and countless lives pursuing contradictory “passion projects” which would make even the most bipolar feudal lord do a double take. Will the Biden administration likely continue this cycle? Probably, but these days it’s getting harder to predict the future.

      American policy makers are largely incapable of long-term decision making and those of us still in the public policy field rely on earnest commentary from people like you to keep us grounded. Despite the critical things I said here, I do appreciate your work and look forward to what you have to say next.

      01/10/21 1:19 PM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...


      The Charge of the Rednecks? A mob out of control at worst, with the usual weak performance by the Kapital Kops, amounted to nothing. America awoke the next morning to find it was not Judgment Day, merely morning. No tanks on the White House lawn. Not even a cop car burned. Hyperbolic media, yes. The event was goonish, embarrassing, but in the end about as historical meaningful as a floor brawl in the Taiwanese legislature. For it to be a coup, insurrection, etc., it would have needed a path toward accomplishing a change of government. There never was any. Joe Biden was always going to be president. All the mob accomplished was a meaningless few hours’ delay in that happening.

      01/11/21 7:48 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      The female realtor from Frisco, Texas who booked a private jet to attend a DC love in for Trump is now diversion fodder for the press – nothing more. We’ll all want to know if her belated sorority rush on the Capitol might make a good reality show. Will she lose their real estate license- her television gig or get a new one? Will the guy with the horns due hard time or just community service? Uncle Joe: “Folks, we’ll need at the least a few years to just to appraise the damage Trump visited upon this great nation. Don’t expect recovery miracles overnight.”

      01/11/21 10:00 AM | Comment Link

    • Joe said...


      I have to agree with PVB and John on this one. Despite hysterical attempts to portray the Capital riot as Kristallnacht finally coming to the US, it wasn’t even close. And Biden, the DNC and their supporters will blame Trump for any and every failure of the Biden administration up until the midterms and beyond. In addition I fully expect that Biden and the other chickenhawks in his administration are going to resume our costly and counterproductive overseas adventures, in order to stroke their own egos and appease the MICC. As a former boots on the ground guy who’s been shot at and rocketed more than once by POC our country has turned into enemies unnecessarily, I’m simply delighted to be out of the “public service” racket as a tired old corrupt party hack like Biden takes office – Trump was merely a symptom of a larger problem, didn’t try to hide his (many) faults and (despite all the predictions to the contrary) was no warmonger.

      01/11/21 11:01 AM | Comment Link

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