Leon Panetta in Iraq: More lies, more war

Unlike most people, Leon Panetta has nothing to lose if the occupation of Iraq is extended.


The author is an Iraq war veteran and a co-founder of March Forward!, an organization of veterans and active-duty troops affiliated with the ANSWER coalition.

We have finally said goodbye to our Pentagon boss, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who for six years has given the orders that affect the lives of millions of service members and their families.

Robert Gates was yet another millionaire corporate fat cat who came from the boardrooms for defense contractors and oil giants to send poor and working-class people to be killed and maimed for the super-profits of big business.

In the 2008 presidential election, the vast majority of the U.S. public, most notably within the military, turned against the Bush administration’s foreign policy. There was open and widespread rebellion against the military adventures of Bush and Co. that had produced a staggering body count, with absolutely no regard for the lives of U.S. service members or the people whose countries we were sent to occupy.

The election of President Obama and sweeping electoral victories for the Democratic Party were a blatant repudiation of the policies of the Bush administration—namely the endless engagement in two bloody wars while people’s basic needs at home went unmet.

Yet, curiously, despite the “great democracy” of U.S. elections, the Obama administration retained republican Robert Gates as secretary of defense from the Bush administration. Not much “change” when it came to one of the most important issues in the eyes of the masses: the ongoing wars and occupations.

After presiding over the bloodiest period of U.S. military life in recent history, service members have a lot at stake with a new Pentagon head coming into office.

Taking the reins is Leon Panetta, fresh from his position as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. We did not have to wait long to see what this new boss would bring; he revealed much on his first trip  to Iraq as secretary of defense.

For service members and their loved ones, for the millions of working families who foot the bill for the war, and for the Iraqi people, who have endured one of the great atrocities of the modern era, his trip was watched with one burning question in mind:

With so many dead, so many crippled, so many traumatized; in a war long-exposed as being based on lies, a war that clearly only benefits Big Oil and Wall Street; a war that people in the United States and Iraq overwhelmingly oppose; when will it end?

Recycling the Bush-era lies

In occupied Baghdad, Panetta told U.S. troops there, “The reason you guys are here is because on 9/11 the United States got attacked … and we’ve been fighting as a result of that.” 

It is possible that, for the past eight years, Panetta had been too busy living the lavish life of an establishment insider to know that the connection between Iraq and 9/11 was exposed as a lie and recognized as such by the majority of people in the United States long ago.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, in the two years after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration knowingly made 935 false statements to the public regarding the “national security” threat posed by Saddam Hussein and trying to link him to the 9/11 attacks. 

While the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency both released reports admitting that there was no relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda, Bush administration officials repeated the lie over and over as if it were fact, whipping up support for the war on false grounds. 

The corporate media dutifully and knowingly disseminated that false information. Thousands of U.S. troops were sent to their deaths as a result, more than a million Iraqis have been killed, and 5 million more have been displaced.

It is no longer disputed that Iraq had absolutely no link to al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks; or that invading and occupying Iraq had anything to do with protecting U.S. soil from “terrorism.” The exposed Bush administration scrapped the lie and changed the language to focus on bringing “freedom and democracy” to the Iraqi people.

Panetta, however, must have missed that memo. His statement was a throwback to the notorious lies leading up to the invasion of Iraq—the fact that he is still repeating them today is an insult to the lives of those who have had to bear the brunt of the war.

Not a gaffe

But his statement cannot be written off as a “gaffe,” or a mistake out of ignorance. His statement reflects his true outlook; that the 9/11 attacks provided the political cover to bomb, sanction and invade any independent country not within the sphere of U.S. domination under the guise of the “war on terror.”

The “war on terror” became the one-size-fits-all pretext to accelerate warfare against the many nations already targeted for regime change by Wall Street’s lackeys in Washington. Instead of saying we were there “because of 9/11,” Panetta should have more accurately said we were there “because 9/11 gave us an excuse to do what we had been trying to do for decades: return Iraq’s resources to the hands of U.S. and European energy giants.”

Panetta, like the rest of the political establishment, knows full well that the war in Iraq—like the war in Afghanistan and the bombing of Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia—are for the expansion of U.S. corporate interests. But today’s empire cannot use the same brazen, openly colonial justifications as empires past; they change the language, like Panetta did, and use blatant lies to convince us that the wars are somehow in our interests.

It was not just the repeat of the buried, Bush-era 9/11 lie that made clear how much “change” Panetta would bring to life in the military. The main thrust of Panetta’s Iraq trip was to pressure the Iraqi government to extend the deadline for withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. Or, in Panetta’s own words, as if scolding a teenager, “Dammit, make a decision!” (Wall Street Journal, July 12)   

Does the U.S. government want to stay in Iraq?

The U.S. government, because of intense pressure from the American public demanding an end to the illegal war, and a near-defeat by the Iraqi resistance, promised to remove all troops from Iraq by Dec. 31. But the Status of Forces Agreement was manufactured exactly to allow for U.S. troops to stay indefinitely, if requested by the Iraqi government, to give the illusion of sovereignty.

The struggle against foreign domination runs deep in Iraqi history, and is firmly rooted in the consciousness of the Iraqi people. If U.S. forces were to completely leave Iraq, the country would return to an independent path. Though the United States would like to remove its troops from Iraq so that they can be employed in other wars of aggression, it will not do so at the price of losing control over one of the most geostrategicly important countries in the Middle East.

Regardless of whether or not the “troop withdrawal” is honored, the U.S. government will still leave in place scores of military bases, business centers, consulates, the world’s largest embassy and at least five heavily fortified compounds. Where U.S. troops once stood post, the notorious mercenary armies will flood in in their place, piloting attack drones and helicopters, conducting patrols and operating as “quick-reaction forces.” Iraqi army and police will drive U.S. armored vehicles, raid homes in U.S. uniforms, and shoot protesters with U.S. weapons, taking orders from a U.S.-backed government.

Conducting its new business ventures—like the looting of Iraq’s oil, which is now underway—and using Iraq as a staging ground to exert military dominance over the rest of the region, the U.S. government will need to leave infrastructure in place.

If the U.S. government’s true motives were to “free” Iraq and ensure they posed no military threat to the United States, then there would be no reason at all to leave such infrastructure behind—but the purpose was controlling Iraq’s treasure and to serve as a launch-pad for more imperial wars.

But even with leaving civilian business liaisons, diplomats, government officials, military advisors and beefed-up private military forces behind in their fortified compounds, removing actual U.S. military forces from the ground makes securing those business and military gains much more fragile.

The U.S. government does not have over 800 military bases in around 130 countries (the vast majority of countries on the planet) because of some “national security” threat. Those bases secure a network of global domination through force and intimidation; leaving military forces in a country is an indispensable imperial tactic that cements the dominant role of U.S. interests in that country’s politics—just ask the people of South Korea, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Japan, Bahrain, Columbia, Saudi Arabia and so on.

Without U.S. troops standing ready in Iraq, U.S. influence over Iraq’s politics weaken, and a major barrier for the Iraqi people re-asserting their independence is removed. Washington is well-aware that the Iraqi people overwhelmingly oppose the U.S. occupation and the death and destruction it brought to Iraq. With anti-U.S. sentiments so high, the U.S. government fears that the Iraqi people will stand up and re-take their country, as they did from British colonialism just 53 years ago in the 1958 Iraq Revolution.

If there is any way the U.S. government can manage the political fallout, both in the U.S. and in Iraq, it will leave troops in Iraq. Robert Gates, upon leaving his post, said he “hoped” that Iraq would issue the formal request needed to extend  the troop presence per the SOFA guidelines, and that “the United States will be willing to say ‘yes’ when that time comes.” (Associated Press, May 24)  

No matter that the vast majority of Americans and Iraqis have said “no” to any troops there since before the war even started and have sparked historic resistance movements in both countries, and that the U.S. public overwhelmingly voted against the war in 2008—that’s not how democracy works in the “land of the free.”

Panetta’s mission: Extend the illegal, unpopular war

So Panetta’s first mission as Obama’s new Pentagon boss was to do the opposite of what propelled Obama and the Democrats to victory in 2008: try to extend the occupation of Iraq indefinitely.

Panetta, admittedly “frustrated” with the Iraqi government, had to turn up the heat, because the clock is ticking on a formal request.

The Nouri al-Maliki government is stalling because it is in a precarious position; Maliki and his pro-U.S. bloc are extremely dependent on Washington’s backing to remain in power—as any government elected under an occupation, in an election crafted by the occupying army, would be. But their desire to stay in bed with Washington is at odds with the Iraqi masses and a significant bloc of the Iraqi government associated with Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Massive protests, on the wave of the Arab revolts, have already rocked Iraq’s cities denouncing government corruption and the occupation, including a massive march of over 700,000 in May that vowed to return to full-scale armed resistance if U.S. troops remained in Iraq just one day past the deadline. 

But that was of little concern to Panetta. After all, it is only young enlisted soldiers in need of jobs and college money who will be at risk should violence flare up. Panetta and his friends and family will be safe at home.

Before Panetta’s visit, Maliki was extremely tight-lipped about any indication that the withdrawal deadline would be extended. But after Panetta met with Maliki in Iraq, he changed his tune, saying that he expected “thousands” of U.S. troops to remain past the withdrawal deadline.

Maliki began throwing around what may be the government’s pro-U.S. elements’ only political cover: referring to U.S. ground forces as “trainers” instead of “troops,” and calling their outposts “training centers” instead of “military bases.” The sleight-of-hand will not fool the Iraqi people, and we should not let it fool us.

It was nearly a mission accomplished for Panetta; the Iraqi government is now laying down the legal language to justify their impending request to extend the occupation.

Shortly thereafter General Ray Odierno, Obama’s nominee for the next Army chief of staff, made several statements pushing for a continued occupation of Iraq.

“We must avoid our historical pattern of drawing down too fast and getting too small,” he said. Apparently, the war that the Bush administration said would last “weeks, not months,” is ending too fast for Odierno and the Obama administration.

Forget about democracy. Forget about the will of the people. Forget about national sovereignty. Forget about the lives of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. Wall Street’s investment in Iraq trumps all else.

Troop deaths on the rise; Panetta blames Iran

The Obama administration has been under considerable pressure since continuing combat deaths have exposed the “end of combat” declaration as a farce. Panetta visited Iraq on the heels of the deadliest month for U.S. troops in two years.

Panetta could not visit Iraq without addressing this political reality: that the continued occupation—however scaled-back and repackaged for public consumption—carries with it continued U.S. troop casualties.

If troops (or “trainers”) remain past Dec. 31, U.S. casualties will again spike, and the Obama administration will have to answer to the families of the dead and maimed: Why are we still being sent as cannon fodder in a war premised on exposed lies, a war we voted to end, and a war this government promised to end?

Panetta also used the opportunity to yet again beat the war drums against Iran—another resource-rich country with nationalized oil that the U.S. government has longed to dominate since the 1979 Iranian Revolution threw out the brutal U.S.-backed dictator who protected Western access to Iran’s wealth.

Panetta attributed the death of 15 U.S. troops in June not to widespread hatred of the U.S. occupation by the Iraqi people—one in three of whom have either been killed, wounded or made a refugee by the U.S. occupation—but a proxy war being waged by Iran. (Washington Post, June 30)  

He asserted that the Iranian government provided the weapons that killed those soldiers, and that the attacks were carried out with the guidance, and in the interests of, the Iranian government.

Of course, Panetta would have us believe: It could not be the fact that the Iraqi people have just endured eight years of “shock and awe,” night raids, detentions, torture, checkpoints, chemical fallout, complete destruction of their cities and over a million innocent people killed, not to mention more than a decade of crippling sanctions that followed the 1991 Gulf War. It could not be that they will never accept this occupation, and are stepping-up the pressure to ensure that it ends. It must be that another country, which had the audacity to nationalize its oil, that is responsible.

Keeping with the theme of his trip, blaming Iran is yet another old Bush-era lie. It is not a new claim. George W. Bush told us he was “certain” that Iran was arming Iraqi fighters back in the early months of the war and were responsible for troop deaths. This lie was an attempt to mask the growing widespread opposition among the Iraqi people to the U.S. occupation.

Panetta went beyond simply blaming Iran for the troop deaths. He issued a threat: “[W]e cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen.” No trip to the Middle East by a Pentagon official would be complete without renewed threats of war against the Iranian people.

Panetta’s trip reflects more of the same

Panetta’s trip to Iraq, his first high-profile act as secretary of defense, had three striking features: Repeating the long-exposed lie that the war in Iraq is somehow connected to 9/11; prodding the Iraqi government to allow the occupation by U.S. troops to continue indefinitely; and issuing unabashed threats of war against Iran.

His trip gave quite an accurate glimpse of what is to come. Panetta shows us that regardless of what politician sits in the oval office, regardless of which of the two mainstream parties holds power, regardless of how many people vote to change foreign policy, the U.S. war machine stays firmly on course. The interests of big business rule supreme.

The reality remains that if Washington is left to its own devices, countless more service members will die and lose limbs in a war we know was started based on lies, a war that virtually everyone vehemently opposes—except for the multi-millionaires who have a stake in investments in Iraq.

This begs the question: Why would we let some clique of millionaires in three-piece suits order us, our friends and our family to be killed, maimed and traumatized so ExxonMobil, Boeing and Halliburton can please their shareholders?

It is an absurd equation. But it is one that we can alter.

Every service member has the right to disobey whatever profit-inspired orders Panetta issues. And every family in the United States, who pay for the wars with their tax dollars and their loved ones, has the right to step outside the guidelines of the political establishment and take dramatic, mass action to force change.

That, and only that, is the remedy for the same old lies, the same old policies and the same old dynamic of profits for the rich over the needs and desires of the people.

On October 6, the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, March Forward! will join thousands in Washington, D.C. for a historic mass protest against the wars.

The participation of united veterans and service members will send a clear message to the U.S. government that we can take our lives into our own hands, and will fight against the reckless decisions that have destroyed so many lives.

If you are a veteran or active-duty service member, click here if you are interested in joining the GI contingent on October 6.

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