Ten years ago, between January and April 2003, it is estimated that an unprecedented 36 million people around the world took to the streets in protest against the Iraq War. They believed the war entirely unjust, the evidence of a threat, flimsy, and the costs, in terms of lives and otherwise, potentially astronomical. Worldwide protests, from Rome to Manhattan, brought together hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions to collectively voice opposition.
In any just government, these astounding numbers would give pause to the war-wagers in power. In a truly democratic America, these sentiments should have been represented in Washington. And surely this moment should have been the cue for our "liberal media" to echo the cautionary cries of our protesters to deafening levels. Instead, our reliably bellicose Republican congressmen were joined in support by an overwhelming majority of our so-called liberal representatives, and war went ahead as planned.
Even more alarmingly, in the months preceding the start of the war, the pages of the New York Times would greet us with more banging of the drums: a demand by Thomas Friedman that France be kicked out of the Security Council for its refusal to join up, or a startling piece of war propaganda by then soon-to-be Executive Editor Bill Keller, fantasizing about the impact of a one-kiloton nuke detonated in Manhattan - 20,000 incinerated, many more dying a "gruesome death from radiation sickness." But make no mistake: although the New York Times has a shameless history of supporting war after war, other prominent mainstream journalists and intellectuals were eager to ride the bandwagon. These names include George Packer of the New Yorker, Newsday's Jeffery Goldberg, The Atlantic's Peter Beinart, Fareed Zakaria, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Paul Berman to name a few.
The late Tony Judt sized up this whole lot most aptly with the label "Bush's Useful Idiots." The "useful idiots," he said, were those from within the liberal establishment who, either through a misguided attempt to project strength, willfully played along with preposterous WMD claims, or simply allowed themselves to get carried away with the imperialistic fervor surrounding a new call to war, abdicating the responsibilities upon which liberal ideology is based. Instead, they aligned their positions with the neo-conservative architects of the Iraq War.
Since then, of course, we have seen one devastating report after another about the impact of the war: the allegedly misguided estimations of scope, length, Iraqi public opinion, and cost. We have also seen reports of a monumental death toll of Iraqis as a result of the war. 600,000 Iraqis have suffered violent deaths from the war, according to estimates by The Lancet. The number, as predicted, is staggering.
And of course, as the reports worsened, each of the "useful idiots" began issuing a mea culpa, asking, passively, for forgiveness. To this, we have to call out the stunning insincerity of these apologies, and reply with a "hell no" that embodies the ignored cries of the millions on the streets in 2003. We cannot be asked to believe that the elite of our liberal establishment could not see what millions of us screamed until our voices were hoarse.
To whom are these leaders really apologizing, and for what exactly? Not one of these apologies has been delivered to any of the millions of families in Iraq which have been destroyed forever. Not one of the apologies is for supporting the idea of a war that senselessly puts Iraqi lives on the line. Nor is there an apology for promoting a war founded on torture: when Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi finally gave Bush administration officials the claims they were looking for, an obviously-manufactured link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, we did not hear the outcry against his torture that we hear in torture debates today. Nor were there serious inquiries into the reliability of the information even though it was clear, and as al-Libi himself later admitted, that he would have said anything to end the torture.
No, the apologies we hear are for the war's lack of success; for the impact on their own brands and political capital.
What's even more frightening is that nothing has happened to the political capital of these leaders. Hillary Clinton has issued her cursory apologies, and now finds herself as the front-runner candidate for the 2016 elections. Her apology is for making the wrong calculation in 2003, which likely cost her the presidency in 2008.
But here is the real problem: the liberal establishment still has not learned its lessons. Those who opposed the Iraq War ten years ago are exposed today, not as having some kind of stronger moral fortitude, but simply having made the right political calculation. President Barack Obama will take his credit for ending the unpopular Iraq War, which he opposed as a senator. He will do so while dropping bombs in residential neighborhoods in Libya, and expanding the drone program, which kills scores of civilians, in Pakistan and now extending it into Yemen, Somalia, and soon, possibly into Syria.
And just as ten years ago, the media fails us today in carrying a real debate. Thomas Friedman continues to speak with authority on crises all over the world in spite of spitting vitriol against anyone not buying into the greatest farce ever sold to the American public. Even more shameful is Bill Keller's strong stance against Wikileaks and Julian Assange, and the great risks they undertook to expose war crimes and the toll of a war he claims to regret supporting.
Not one of these prominent thinkers and actors in our liberal establishment has reflected on the true costs of war, or made any changes to their decision making priorities. So today, as we look back on a criminal war, and a human rights catastrophe, we may as well be looking forward as well, because it looks exactly the same. Unless we truly hold those who betrayed their oath of office to account for the devastation they've caused, the useful idiots of our next war will be us.
[Michael Ratner is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights and currently serves as attorney for Julian Assange and Wikileaks. He is co-author with Margaret Ratner Kunstler of Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century. Follow him on Twitter @justleft.