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Newcomb: Missing WMD and the rising casualty count in Iraq

"The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons."

- George Bush, Oct. 7, 2002, in a speech in Cincinnati.

On Feb. 5, 2004, President Bush visited South Carolina and used the occasion to defend the invasion of Iraq despite missing weapons of mass destruction. "Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today," said Bush, "America did the right thing in Iraq." This is a rather odd statement, given that President Bush of all people must realize that he didn't know what he thought he knew at the time he launched a massive multi-billion dollar invasion against Iraq. This point was hammered home by former top U.S. weapons inspector David Kay's explicit acknowledgment, "It turns out we were all wrong."

The administration's extraordinary "intelligence error," or "lack of intelligence" must be particularly wrenching for the families of the American troops whose sons and daughters, mothers and fathers have been killed or wounded in Iraq.

Last November, the Orlando Sentinel reported that, "Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops have been killed, wounded, injured or become ill enough to require evacuation from Iraq since the war began, the equivalent of almost one Army division, according to the Pentagon." In his interview with President Bush on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Feb. 8, Tim Russert referred to "530 [U.S. troops] dead, and 3,000 injured," a figure that definitely does not include all American servicemen evacuated from Iraq for other medical reasons. (At least 12 of the 530 dead were suicides; and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has ordered an investigation into numerous sexual assaults by U.S. servicemen against U.S. servicewomen).

It would be one thing if the Bush administration were able to stand vindicated with unequivocal evidence of WMD. Perhaps then it would be possible to justify the men and women killed and maimed, both Americans and Iraqis. Perhaps then it would be possible to stomach the thought of innocent Iraqi women and children (how many we will undoubtedly never know) whose lives were ended as a consequence of President Bush's decision to wage a "pre-emptive" war.

Perhaps if WMD had turned up in Iraq it would then be possible to resign ourselves to the anguish of little boys and girls on both sides of the war knowing that their mommies and daddies will never again be coming home to hug them and play with them. But with no WMD how is it possible to justify the carnage and the chaos and the mayhem of the war in Iraq? Yes, Saddam was a sadistic leader of the most loathsome variety, but that was not the reason Bush gave for a "pre-emptive" invasion.

Aside from the tragic human toll of the war against Iraq, there is the economic toll. Bush has spent at least $200 billion thus far to invade Iraq and, along with his huge tax cuts for the very wealthiest of Americans, he has run up a $520 billion dollar deficit. There is red ink as far as the eye can see. The Bush administration and Congress have not thought ahead seven generations, and the fact is that the tsunami of a deficit will overwhelm our children and grandchildren in future generations.

In his phenomenal book "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire," (2000) Chalmers Johnson - president of the Japan Research Institute and professor emeritus at the University of California, at San Diego - reveals the ways in which misguided U.S. policies "are planting the seeds of future disaster." This mention of "future disaster" was prescient of 9/11, which occurred just one year after the book's publication.

Johnson ominously predicted: "Given its wealth and power, the United States will be a prime recipient in the foreseeable future of all of the more expectable forms of blowback, particularly terrorist attacks against Americans in and out of the armed forces anywhere on earth, including the United States. These are, he writes, "the tangible costs of empire."

The term "blowback" was invented by the CIA, and refers to the unintended consequences of covert and other operations in American foreign policy. As I would put it, a blowback occurs when the misdeeds and arrogance behind U.S. foreign policy "blow back" toward the United States. Blowback, says Johnson, "is shorthand for saying that a nation reaps what it sows, even if it does not fully know or understand what it has sown."

When I think of the hundreds of billions of dollars that the United States has expended in its war effort in Iraq, and the staggering deficits that will be saddling the U.S. economy and the American taxpayers into the next generation, I am reminded of Johnson's observation, "Empires are costly operations, and they become more costly by the year."

As Johnson sees it, "Empire is the problem." A vicious cycle gets created when the empire responds to a "blowback" by sowing more seeds of destruction and launching more operations that result in further "blowbacks," and so forth and so on.

What the Bush White House is now facing is a dual crisis of empire and credibility. The challenge Bush must meet is how to appear strong and self-assured despite a credibility gap of staggering proportions and an intelligence system in evident disarray. (On "Meet the Press" Bush weakly demurred that Hussein "had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon.") Bush's credibility is further weakened if not lost altogether by the staggering casualty count (tens of thousands, counting both sides?) in a war that, lacking a proven "imminent threat" of WMD, was completely unnecessary and ill conceived.

As a political experiment, the United States is facing a much greater crisis of empire. Beginning with its colonization and dispossession of American Indian nations, Washington's "infant empire" has now grown into a colossus more powerful than any empire that has ever existed on the planet. But like the granite faces on Mount Rushmore, the cracks in the imperial edifice are widening. Johnson points out that the Soviet empire spent itself into oblivion in response to the Cold War. The danger exists that the U.S. could go down the same road if it abandons all fiscal restraint - as it seems to be doing under Bush's leadership - in its "war on terror."

Whatever positive aspects of the United States one might point out, it has a dark side that many Americans simply refuse to look at. In the same way that the Romans sowed salt into the fields of their enemies so that nothing would grow, the United States has for generations used its foreign policy to sow innumerable seeds of destructiveness throughout the world. Considering all this brings to mind Jefferson's remark, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever."

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/ Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, a Native peoples' think tank and human rights organization. He has been researching and writing in the areas of Indigenous law and politics, federal indian law, and international law for more than 20 years and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.