Even the most cursory reading of history immediately reveals that imperial powers are free, if not uniquely entitled, to engage in massive crimes against humanity without fear of retribution or legal punishment. Examples of this essential truth abound.

Belgian killers likely were not deterred from expanding their genocidal campaign in the Congo by fear of legal action from the Congolese. British imperialists gave no thought to the idea of Indians bringing English generals to trial for their acts of mass murder while French colonialists intensified their economic exploitation of Haiti, secure in the belief that their brutal deeds would go unpunished. In Haiti’s case, the only “crime” that received punishment came after the country’s slave population liberated itself. The island’s inhabitants were subjected to harsh indemnity payments, as a result of this act of disobedience.

The U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq fits quite well into this ignoble tradition, providing instructive insight into the prevailing moral culture of America’s intellectual classes. After Iraqi mother Sundus Saleh filed a lawsuit against the Bush administration for committing the “crime of aggression” in its 2003 invasion of Iraq, Barack Obama’s Department of Justice exonerated defendants on grounds that they had “acted within the legitimate scope of their employment.” Along with his refusal to investigate the Bush administration’s global torture regime, this was the latest iteration of Obama’s mantra that “we should look forward and not backwards,” representing a tacit embrace of high crimes in violation of international law.

Given this disgraceful turn of events, it is difficult to comprehend how anyone can seriously believe U.S. pronouncements about “helping” Iraqis, or how some U.S. government officials can even utter the word “Iraq” without being overwhelmed by suffocating feelings of shame.

Since Sunni militant group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) mobilized its forces to take the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, articulate opinion has ranged from urgent appeals that the United States not entangle itself in a bloody civil war it cannot “fix,” to equally impassioned demands to unleash the wrath of the U.S. military to eradicate the domestic insurgency. U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Caroline) and John McCain (R-Arizona) have been some of the most vocal cheerleaders in the latter category, and have both ludicrously insisted that the rise of ISIS highlights President Obama’s failure to prolong the occupation through a “residual force.”

Conspicuously absent from these narratives, however, is acknowledgement of U.S. culpability in creating this crisis, one that merits a humanitarian, rather than military, solution.

Though seldom noted, the Obama administration did not willingly withdraw from Iraq, nor was the withdrawal motivated by a belief that the extreme violence of previous years would subside and the country would return to a state of relative peace. As noted by several scholars, the Obama administration adopted a “zero option” policy with regard to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. After the government of Nouri al-Maliki refused to grant the U.S. military legal immunity for crimes carried out in Iraq, Obama was left with no choice but to evacuate U.S. forces. As Democracy Now! reported in October 5, 2011, “The United States has signaled its willingness to stay in Iraq, but has insisted on immunity for troops as a precondition.”

In other words, the United States did not leave Iraq so Iraqis could “make decisions about [their] own future”–President Obama’s words in a recent Brussels speech–but because Washington elites realized they could no longer proceed in the criminal project that constituted the primary barrier to a fully sovereign Iraq; first, through a patently sectarian policy of de-Ba’athification, then through the training of Shiite militants in the Iraqi police force–a policy expertly documented in the Guardian/BBC Arabic investigation James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq–and finally by arming the central government of Nouri al-Maliki, which has been implicated in numerous human rights violations (particularly in Fallujah). In his 2010 book, Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World, investigative journalist Nir Rosen observed “Sunnis and Kurds complained to the Americans that Maliki had become the new Saddam of the Shiites,” and “as long as the Iraqi state insists on its Shiite identity, there will be Sunnis willing to undermine it.”

Instead of daily reports mourning the unraveling of U.S. “sacrifices” in Iraq, (as a thought experiment, imagine the Tokyo press in the early post-World War II period lamenting the undoing of Japanese “sacrifices” in Nanjing), this vital and highly consequential back-story should be highlighted. For instance, Right to Heal, a civil society coalition of Iraqis impacted by the 2003 invasion, human rights organizations, and Iraq war veterans, has been petitioning the U.S. government for reparations in the form of “medical and psychological care,” “monetary compensation,” “rebuilding/repairing critical infrastructure,” and “prosecution of the perpetrators.” Predictably, these legitimate demands have flown under the radar of some of the nation’s most prominent media outlets from The New York Times and the Washington Post to television networks like MSNBC and CNN. But, this is where anyone serious about ameliorating the suffering of Iraqis should direct their energy.

Long before the latest catastrophe befell Iraq, Middle East investigative journalist Robert Fisk reported, “by failing to end this violence–by stoking ethnic hatred through their inactivity–the Americans are now provoking a civil war in Baghdad.” While this warning was published in 2003, feigned sympathy from high government officials was nowhere to be found, presumably because the killers in that case included officials in Washington and not just Sunnis and Shiites clashing over “ancient hatreds,” to borrow the fashionable Orientalist phrase. Eleven years have passed since Fisk first penned these fateful words and we are now witnessing the reverberations of that deadly assault, as gruesomely captured by a graphic photograph out of Iraq showing ISIS fighters murdering Iraqi soldiers by firing squad.

Obviously, further militarizing the conflict through ground forces or drones would only accelerate Iraq’s descent into national decay, but “doing nothing”, as some have suggested, also skirts the enormous debt we owe to Iraqis. Ultimately, the most just solution for the United States to pursue is to abide by the prescriptions of Right to Heal and grant Iraqis the rights that the U.S. invasion never provided (or was intended to provide). This entails a public admission by those in Washington that they have committed a grievous injustice against Iraqis that is certain to endure for generations. Quite apart from granting Iraqis humanitarian aid, which is certainly needed, this broader policy of compensation would deliver Iraqis justice long overdue.

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