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 (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: More American Leadership. Thing is, we haven’t cleaned up the leftovers from the last bout of 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.” In a speech SecState-nominee Antony Blinken used the word “leadership” 16 times. Biden himself wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “Why America Must Lead Again.” Introducing his national security nominees, Biden said “America is back, ready to lead the world.”
Let there be no doubt, in foreign policy terms “leadership” is the 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.
The problem with America’s leadership spurts is that they are often left uncompleted. They are played for U.S. domestic political consumption and leave behind a mess someone else has to clean up when politics shift. Worst of all, no one in America seems to ask those 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 today loiter like dropouts in the high school parking lot in unknown but relatively small numbers. 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,” “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 years until a U.S. court convicted four Blackwater employees. All four were pardoned by 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 vaguely 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 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. It is so noisy most people would not have been aware of the attack, at least until Blackwater started using grenades against unarmed civilians.
At the very beginning of my Iraq tour with the State Department Blackwater provided my security. They were bullies. They were sloppy with their weapons. You could practically get a contact high off the steroids they used. Count on them to wear the most expensive sunglasses and the most unnecessary gear (gold man bracelets, tactical hair gel), 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 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. The 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. They are mostly Sunnis the majority Shia government generically blames for ISIS’ initial success 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 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 and 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. 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 ripe for exploitation by whatever group replaces ISIS which replaced Al Qaeda because across three wars the U.S. never resolved the 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 in the aftermath. This was the big takeaway from the Iraq War III of 2014 onward: there would be no political follow-on, no nation building. 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 left to disappear somehow in Iraq. Like water thrown on to sand, goes the Iraqi expression.
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.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.