The Audacity of Cynicism – Barack Obama’s Iraq Speech

Barack Obama has balls as big as all outdoors

Before we begin, a challenge: I defy anyone to find a single phrase in Obama’s speech on Iraq last night that couldn’t have issued forth from the foetid maw of George W. Bush (with the possible exception of his mentions of George W. Bush).

Barack Obama’s Iraq speech last night is an impressive entry in the annals of war propaganda. In it, he glosses over a criminal war as ‘a remarkable chapter’ in US history, and creates the false impression that the occupation of Iraq is over. He places the responsibility rebuilding a society out of the rubble we created on the shoulders of the Iraqi people (we are, of course, blameless), and tells us that it’s time to ‘turn the page’ on a crime that is continuing, and for which not a single perpetrator has yet even been indicted. It is a wonder that he wasn’t struck by lightning before finishing.

The Withdrawal that Isn’t

In his speech last night, Obama announced that “the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.” This, many people will – not unreasonably – conclude, means that the war against Iraq, the long national nightmare we have visited on millions of people, is over.

It’s not.

In reality, Obama is continuing a rhetorical shell game that he started in the campaign, betting that most people will hear that he intended to end “combat operations” and assume that that meant ending the occupation (a word that Obama used not a single time in his speech) of Iraq. After all, isn’t the entire occupation one big “combat operation”? Isn’t every US soldier and mercenary there – engaged, as they are, in controlling Iraq by the gun and the electrode – a “combat soldier”?

“Nothing could be further from the truth”, Seumas Milne writes in the Guardian newspaper:

The US isn’t withdrawing from Iraq at all – it’s rebranding the occupation. Just as George Bush’s war on terror was retitled „overseas contingency operations“ when Obama became president, US „combat operations“ will be rebadged from next month as „stability operations“.

But as Major General Stephen Lanza, the US military spokesman in Iraq, told the New York Times: „In practical terms, nothing will change“. After this month’s withdrawal, there will still be 50,000 US troops in 94 military bases, „advising“ and training the Iraqi army, „providing security“ and carrying out „counter-terrorism“ missions. In US military speak, that covers pretty well everything they might want to do.

Granted, 50,000 is a major reduction on the numbers in Iraq a year ago. But what Obama once called „the dumb war“ goes remorselessly on. In fact, violence has been increasing as the Iraqi political factions remain deadlocked for the fifth month in a row in the Green Zone. More civilians are being killed in Iraq than Afghanistan: 535 last month alone, according to the Iraqi government – the worst figure for two years.

(emphasis added)

Simply put, Obama isn’t using the words “the occupation of Iraq is over” because the occupation of Iraq is not over.

A ‘Remarkable Chapter in the History of the United States and Iraq’

Whitewashing a Criminal War

Having cleared up that rather important terminological issue, let’s return to Obama’s speech:

From this desk, seven-and-a-half years ago, President Bush announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq. Much has changed since that night. A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency. Terrorism and sectarian warfare threatened to tear Iraq apart. Thousands of Americans gave their lives; tens of thousands have been wounded. Our relations abroad were strained. Our unity at home…

Hold on just one second. What did he just say?

“A war to disarm a state became a fight against an insurgency.“

Allow me to repeat that once again, just to make sure the important bit really sinks in:

A war to disarm a state (???!!!!) became a fight against an insurgency.“

Yes, that’s right. Obama just said, with a straight face, that the purpose of US aggression against Iraq was “to disarm a state”. Obama is seriously telling us, seven years after the last remnants of the Bush Administration’s claims about WMD were exposed as an utter fraud, that this war, in which the United States has killed well over a million Iraqis and rendered 4 million homeless, was about “disarming” a country that everyone involved knew was long since disarmed.  For those who cling to the illusion that Obama is – or ever was – some kind of ‘peace candidate’, it’s worth noting that the speech contains not a single word questioning the WMD Deception. He repeated the lie not to correct it, but to join in it.

While he tells us that ‘Thousands of Americans gave their lives; tens of thousands have been wounded’, he wastes not a single word on the number of Iraqis killed. Indeed, Iraqi civilians are only mentioned a single time, in which we hear that they are attacked by ‘extremists’ (theirs, not ours).  While there is a single mention of the refugees, they are merely ‘displaced by war’ in an agentless tragedy.

Of note, too, is the language Obama uses to discuss the war. As noted above, the word ‘occupation’ does not occur even once in his speech. Similarly, he describes the start of the US war in the following terms: ‘President Bush announced the beginning of military operations in Iraq.’ The ‘beginning of military operations in Iraq’, as if it were a start-up company in Basra just opening its doors. It is with this mealy-mouthed euphemism that Obama avoids ever stating the truth: That the US (and the UK) invaded Iraq. That, on the orders of George W. Bush, the United States military violated the borders of that country and proceeded to engage in a vicious bombing campaign that killed thousands in just the first few weeks. The word “invade/invasion” is nowhere to be found in the speech.

We hear precious little in the way of specifics about what these US troops have been doing since they ‘began military operations in Iraq’ back in 2003. When they’re not ‘giving their lives’ (our troops never, ever take anyone’s life), they’re ‘serv[ing] with courage and resolve,’ the ‘one constant amongst these shifting tides.’ Obama tells us that:

"The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future."

As commander-in-chief, I am incredibly proud of their service. And like all Americans, I am awed by their sacrifice and by the sacrifices of their families.

The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future.

They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people, trained Iraqi security forces, and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians — and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people — Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.

We’ve persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people, a belief that, out of the

"Because of our troops and civilians -- and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people -- Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain."

ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization. Through this remarkable chapter in the history of the United States and Iraq, we have met our responsibilities.

This is a slightly less crass echo of his campaign-trail call for ‘victory’ in (i.e. over) Iraq, in which he praised US occupation soldiers for ‘performing their duty with bravery, with brilliance, and without question‘ noted that: ‘The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah.’

Apparently, Obama feels that this ‘remarkable chapter in the history of the United States in Iraq’ is a ‘glorious page that has not and will not be written’, at least judging from his unwillingness to discuss the nature of the ‘sacrifices’ made by the US occupation (especially who was doing the sacrificing and who got sacrificed). While Obama may prefer to present this singularly murderous occupation in high school civics book platitudes and Hallmark sentiments, we would do well to look more closely, and there’s no better place to start than Fallujah to get an idea of the kind of ‘duty’ the occupation soldiers performed with the ‘brilliance and without question’ that Obama had so admired on the campaign trail.

Fallujah had been a symbol of Iraqi resistance to occupation ever since the people of the city took to the streets to protest the occupation forces’ confiscation of a school for use as a post. The US occupation forces responded violently to the demonstrations, killing 20 local residents and wounding 85. In response, even more Fallujis defied the US-imposed curfew to demonstrate against the confiscation and the killings of the demonstrators. Resistance in Fallujah came to a head when a gang of four Blackwater mercenaries were captured and killed after entering the city.

The US response was a massacre. The US set up a perimeter to ensure that refugees could not leave the city, with snipers firing at anyone who tried. They attacked and ransacked the only major hospital in the city, holding doctors, nurses, and patients hostage and looting medical equipment. When a provisional hospital was set up nearby to treat those wounded in the US onslaught, the occupation forces bombed it. In addition to destroying the places where the wounded could have been treated, the US forces attacked ambulances (including during an alleged ‘ceasefire’), thus preventing the wounded being evacuated, as well.

In an assault that would seem to have been the model for the ‘Cast Lead’ massacre in Gaza, the US bombed the entire city – and its captive population – with napalm and white phosphorus. Anyone found in the streets was subject to attack by the US military, and even the wounded were not spared. To compound these war crimes, the occupation forces also denied the Red Crescent access to the city. Entire neighbourhoods were razed, and mass graves were being found in the city long after the massacre. According to the US, occupation forces killed an estimated 1,500 people there, though Spanish journalist Javier Couso estimates that “more than six thousand” were killed (

Today, almost certainly as a result of the use of chemical weapons such as white phosphorus, napalm, and depleted uranium (DU) munitions, “cancer and leukaemia in the city of Fallujah…exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study.”

Iraqi doctors in Fallujah have complained since 2005 of being overwhelmed by the number of babies with serious birth defects, ranging from a girl born with two heads to paralysis of the lower limbs. They said they were also seeing far more cancers than they did before the battle for Fallujah between US troops and insurgents.

Their claims have been supported by a survey showing a four-fold increase in all cancers and a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14s. Infant mortality in the city is more than four times higher than in neighbouring Jordan and eight times higher than in Kuwait.

Dr Chris Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster and one of the authors of the survey of 4,800 individuals in Fallujah, said it is difficult to pin down the exact cause of the cancers and birth defects. He added that „to produce an effect like this, some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened“.

…After an eight-month stand-off, the Marines stormed the city in November using artillery and aerial bombing against rebel positions. US forces later admitted that they had employed white phosphorus as well as other munitions.

In the assault US commanders largely treated Fallujah as a free-fire zone to try to reduce casualties among their own troops. British officers were appalled by the lack of concern for civilian casualties. „During preparatory operations in the November 2004 Fallujah clearance operation, on one night over 40 155mm artillery rounds were fired into a small sector of the city,“ recalled Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a British commander serving with the American forces in Baghdad.

He added that the US commander who ordered this devastating use of firepower did not consider it significant enough to mention it in his daily report to the US general in command. Dr Busby says that while he cannot identify the type of armaments used by the Marines, the extent of genetic damage suffered by inhabitants suggests the use of uranium in some form. He said: „My guess is that they used a new weapon against buildings to break through walls and kill those inside.“

(emphasis added)

Also not feeling the love are the women of Iraq, whose rights had already deteriorated under the 12 years of US-UK sanctions, which are estimated to have killed 1,000,000 people, including 700,000 children. However, even given the disastrous situation prior to the US invasion, Iraqi law granted women constitutional equality and the right to work, study, divorce, marry without anyone’s permission, and to dress in Western or traditional clothing.

The writing was on the wall from the start: One of the first acts of the “Governing Council” hand-picked by the US occupation after the war was to put an end to all that, by issuing a decision that brought domestic relations law – which had been governed by a statute based on the French Civil Code since 1958 – under Sharia rule. Not long thereafter, a new US-imposed “Iraqi” constitution was passed, which demoted women from constitutionally equal to “equal to the extent consistent with Sharia”.

Since the US invasion, Iraqi women have been living something akin to an Arabic-English-language remake of The Handmaid’s Tale. Women who work, drive, go outside alone, wear trousers, wear makeup, don’t cover their heads or faces, go to school, go to university, or do any number of things that Iraqi women have been doing for quite some time now run the risk of being lynched. And that, it’s worth bearing in mind, is in addition to the risk of being raped, murdered, or abducted by the occupation forces.

While Obama does not mention this, or any of the other wonderful features of the US occupation directly (the concentration camps, the torture facilities, the death squads, the looting of the oil reserves, the looting of the cultural heritage of what he calls ‘the cradle of civilisation’, the enclosed ghettos, the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, etc.), the above might be what he means by:

The Americans who have served in Iraq completed every mission they were given. They defeated a regime that had terrorized its people. Together with Iraqis and coalition partners who made huge sacrifices of their own, our troops fought block by block to help Iraq seize the chance for a better future.

They shifted tactics to protect the Iraqi people, trained Iraqi security forces, and took out terrorist leaders. Because of our troops and civilians — and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people — Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.

The US should know a thing or two about “the resilience of the Iraqi people” – they’ve been testing it since 1991.

And what exactly are “Iraqi security forces”? Are they being trained and equipped to combat the main security threat the Iraqi people face, i.e., the fact that they have been overrun by heavily armed foreign teenagers who can’t pronounce the place name and have the quaint habit of breaking into their homes in the middle of the night and dragging their family members off to torture camps? Of course not. They’re being trained and equipped to kill the main security threat that the occupation faces, i.e., Iraqis.

Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say the US were occupied by a hostile foreign power bent on robbing us and imposing a puppet regime (though about the only force that is as militarily powerful compared to the US as the US is compared to Iraq would be those aliens from the otherwise forgettable Independence Day). What would people here call anyone who joined forces with the occupying army and started torturing, killing, and abducting us? Somehow, I don’t think the term would be ‘security forces’.

No, the term we’d probably use is ‘collaborators’ (though ‘traitors’ would also be an acceptable answer), just as they were called in occupied Europe.

Translating from bullshit, then, Obama is saying that the rebranding of the occupation has been made possible because the US has press-ganged an army of collaborators who will kill and torture their own people. And, now that the US occupation is a ‘stability mission’, the collaborators will be able to count on the support of US ‘advisers’, just like in the old days with our good friend Diem.

Another interesting expression in Obama’s speech is ‘credible elections’: “This year also saw Iraq hold credible elections that drew a strong turnout.” Note that he doesn’t say ‘free’, ‘fair’, ‘legitimate’, ‘valid’, ‘lawful’, or any number of things. He doesn’t, because the elections weren’t any of those things. However, they were ‘credible’. They were ‘elections we can believe in’.

And elections held under hostile military occupation that bring a long-time employee of the occupying power (Iyad Allawi) to power amidst “the banning and killing of candidates and activists and subsequent political breakdown“ (Seumas Milne in the Guardian) and widespread accusations of fraud, are certainly not free or legitimate, but they are probably ‘credible’ enough for the folks back home.

Looking back on years of mass murder and plunder, Obama can think of nothing better to say than: ‘We have met our responsibilities. Now it’s time to turn the page.’ Yes, now that ‘Iraq is dead, never to rise again’ (Nir Rosen), it’s time for us to move on. While the devastation we’ve wrought may cause a few difficulties for the people there, it’s time for them to step up to the plate. If they find it’s difficult to build a viable society out of the wreckage, they’re just not trying hard enough and we will have every reason to be sorely disappointed in them.

‘It’s Time to Turn the Page’ – Obama Calls for Amnesia

‘Turning the page’ is what this speech is really all about. By creating the (false) impression that the occupation of Iraq is over – when, in reality ‘In practical terms, nothing will change’ (Gen. Lanza) – he is telling the population that it’s time to shut up about Iraq. The ‘patriots’ both supporting and opposing a murderous, patently illegal war of aggression (none of whom ‘can doubt President Bush’s support for our troops or his love of country and commitment to our security’) that began with a massive deception are now supposed to ‘[turn] the page’ and realise that ‘[t]he greatness of our democracy is grounded in our ability to move beyond our differences’ and unite in support of the equally illegal, equally murderous war against Afghanistan (euphemised here as ‘our fight against Al Qaeda’).

This is how abusers talk. ‘Of course we differ about what I did, baby. You call it “abuse”, and I insist that it was love, but I’ve said I’m not going to do it again, so can’t we just move past our differences and leave all that ancient history behind? It doesn’t matter now, anyway.’

It matters. Even if the occupation were really ending, even if every last permanent base were emptied, and all but enough space in the Vatican-sized ‘embassy’ complex for a genuine embassy were given back to the Iraqis, the country would still be devastated. The treasury would still be looted. The oil would still be under foreign control. The rights of women would still be flagrantly violated. The infrastructure would still be destroyed. The cancer and leukaemia rate would still be well above average, and there would be no end to the birth defects. The rifts in the society created by the occupation’s divided-and-conquer strategy would still exist (though a majority of Iraqis did say in an occupation-run poll that they thought that they could probably work out their differences if the occupation left). The million killed by 12 years of murderous ‘sanctions’ would still be dead, as would the about 2 million killed by now by US aggression. There’s no ‘turning the page’ for them. They have to live in the hell we’ve built them.

And there can be no turning the page for us, either. Not until the last person involved in the planning of this war of aggression (‘the supreme international crime’ in the words of the Nuremberg Tribunal) has been brought before the International Criminal Court, not until the Iraqis get the billions in reparations due them (in addition to the money plundered from the treasury, plus interest), not until the US government issues an official, unqualified, abject apology to the people of Iraq and the world, not until the generation that let this happen – my generation – is truly overcome by shame and guilt for the crime that some of us actively participated in, others did nothing to stop, and still others didn’t do enough to stop. This war – this ‘supreme international crime’ – is our disgrace, and we should all be deeply ashamed. There is much that we must do, but we must not forget even for an instant that it is our responsibility to make sure that these criminals, who would have been hanged at Nuremberg, but will live comfortably as ‘elder statesmen’ or the like in our ‘civilised’ society, are accompanied everywhere they go by the memory of their crimes. If they cannot be brought to justice, then they should not get even a moment’s peace, nor should we.

And, as hard as it will be for some to accept this, we need to realise that Obama is one of them. He didn’t just ‘inherit’ these crimes – he has become a very active participant in them, and now he is helping to cover them up. Obama is as guilty as anyone in the Bush White House.

The first German feature film after the end of the Second World War was the 1946 DEFA production Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are in Our Midst). In it, the protagonist, a Wehrmacht veteran, comes to realise that his commanding officer, who had gone on to become a ‘respectable’ industrialist in the post-war, was in reality a war criminal who ordered a massacre of defenceless men, women, and children on Christmas Eve. The message was clear: ‘The criminals who participated in aggression and mass murder walk free in our society, and it is our duty to bring them to justice, because their crimes were our crimes.’

Today, the lawyers who helped create a fig leaf of legality for torture and who prosecuted and continue to prosecute those detained in our concentration camps (for that’s what they are – in the original sense of the word) in bogus kangaroo courts, the strategists who planned a war of aggression, the doctors and psychologists who aided in torture and issued false death certificates to cover up the real cause of death of those who died under torture, the officers who ordered terrorist attacks on Iraqi and Afghan civilians – they are in our midst. Many of them will no doubt ‘turn the page’, and reenter society in our hospitals, law firms, doctor’s offices, prosecutor’s offices, judges’ chambers, and other ‘respectable’ places. It is our duty to find them and expose them.

At the height of US aggression in Indochina, Noam Chomsky – contemplating a display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry that invited children to participate in a simulated massacre of a Vietnamese village – asked whether this country needs ‘dissent or denazification’.

We need denazification.


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#2 Bruce on 09.02.10 at 13:53

Wir haben schuld.

#3 elisehendrick on 09.02.10 at 14:53

Wer sind ‚wir‘, und schuld woran?

#4 Ben on 09.03.10 at 12:18

Thanks for summarizing the catastrophe that this war has been. Much of the damage is only beginning to come to light through studies like Busby’s.
Obama also managed to throw in his praise for the Vietnam war: „from Khe Sanh to Kandahar — Americans who have fought to see that the lives of our children are better than our own.“

Obama’s speeches reveal more and more about his unfaltering militarism and opportunism. Where do we go from here?

#5 elisehendrick on 09.03.10 at 16:46

Ben: Thanks for mentioning the „Khe Sanh to Kandahar“ bit. I had actually overlooked it when I was reading the transcript of the speech (I never watch them live if I can avoid it, because it just pisses me off too much to concentrate). It’s hard to know where even to start with a remark like that – you have the notion that the US attack on Indochina (3 million killed, not including the people still dying as a result of US chemical warfare and land mines there) was somehow a good thing, combined with the singularly bizarre notion that it was about ensuring „that the lives of our children are better than our own.“ That last bit is probably the sickest thing in a deeply sociopathic speech – the idea that it’s OK to go on a murderous rampage in other people’s countries if it somehow means that OUR kids (who gives a shit about THEIR kids, apparently?) will be better off as a result of it.

If one accepts that logic, the only thing one can criticise about Hitler’s imperial rampage in Europe is that it ultimately left the people in Germany economically worse off than they had been before Hitler started the war. If they had been better off, it would have justified every mass grave the Wehrmacht and SS filled. That kind of thinking is nothing short of supremely fucked up.

As for what to do, I think that one of the most important things is to make sure that people see Obama for what he is – another spokesperson for corporate-imperial power, in order to promote the realisation that we can’t expect him (or any other Great Leader the ruling class dish up for us) to lead us anywhere we want to go, that if we want an end to endless war, to the plunder of the working and middle classes for the benefit of the top 10%, to the massive social, economic, gender, and racial inequality that infects this society, the only people who can accomplish it is us.

If, through this mess, people finally realise that they can’t just organise around candidates and hope that things will improve as a result of corporate managed elections, and that they instead have to be organising and struggling every day of the year for a better society and using our numbers to impose heavy costs on business as usual, then it may, at least in a limited sense, be worth it.

It’s not enough that people realise that Obama is full of shit (that could as likely lead to complete apathy or a rightward shift as to anything else). They have to realise that this is the only thing our current system produces, and that we will have to rely on ourselves if we want anything better. And they have to be given the chance to learn from the suppressed history of struggle that something better is indeed possible.

#6 Rob on 09.03.10 at 16:51


„This is how abusers talk. ‘Of course we differ about what I did, baby. You call it “abuse”, and I insist that it was love, but I’ve said I’m not going to do it again, so can’t we just move past our differences and leave all that ancient history behind? It doesn’t matter now, anyway.’“
– exactly. The tendency of the abuser is to shun any responsibility for his acts through a kind of twisted logic.

[found via Seham @ Mondoweiss]

#7 elisehendrick on 09.03.10 at 17:00

And it’s not the first time that he’s used the „turn the page“ schtick. I was rereading Paul Street’s „Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics“ to research this piece, and I have continued rereading since I finished it. Whilst rereading, I found a remark he made during the campaign about how the corporate money game in political campaigns has gone on too long, and we need to „turn the page“ on it. Of course, on the next page, he started sucking up corporate money like an industrial-strength vacuum chamber.