The 2003 invasion of Iraq has been swept to the margins of collective memory. We must refuse to forget it — and seek to understand what led to it, who benefited, who suffered, and how it transformed the world.

An Iraqi woman looks on at a US soldier in the Kadhimiya district of northwest Baghdad, on July 21, 2009. (Ali Al-Saadi / AFP via Getty Images)

The failure to reckon with the people and the politics that made the Iraq War happen is one of the most tragic and significant oversights in recent history. To understand where we are today, in terms of both domestic politics and global affairs, we must understand the US invasion of Iraq — what led to it, which actors were strengthened by it, who suffered and for what purpose, and how it remade the world in its grisly image.

The first season of Brendan James and Noah Kulwin’s podcast Blowback, which aired in 2020, sought to rectify that failure, diving into not just the specifics of the Iraq invasion and occupation, but also about the deeper colonial and imperialist history that brought it about. Their podcast was, in many senses, a knowledge recovery mission. Not only is the prehistory of the Iraq invasion buried under heaps of obfuscatory myths and ideology, but its consequences are too — even though they are still being felt powerfully in Iraq, the broader Middle East, and the entire world.

The people who led the Iraq invasion were never held accountable. Mistakes were made, the consensus goes, but it’s all water under the bridge. The fate of the entire bipartisan establishment was bound together: George W. Bush had to be redeemed, in part because Joe Biden had to be redeemed. Today Bush enjoys a largely rehabilitated reputation and Biden is the President of the United States, confirming total impunity for the murderous affair that was the Iraq War.

In 2020, host Daniel Denvir interviewed James and Kulwin for the Jacobin Radio podcast the Dig. The following is a transcript of their conversation about the origins, unfolding, and consequences of the Iraq War. It has been edited for clarity.

Daniel Denvir

I think you’re entirely right that we have to look to the Iraq War because, as you say, it provides a skeleton key for the present. And the memory of the Iraq War has been stuffed down our collective memory hole. What has been the result of this mass forgetting and mass disassociation?

Noah Kulwin

When Brendan and I came up with the idea, I think a lot of what we were responding to was the stuff that you saw in the news — you know, like George W. Bush getting candy from Michelle Obama, that kind of thing. It was rage-inducing, but we didn’t want to let our anger stay at just anger. We had a bunch of questions, like why was George W. Bush, who we thought we all agreed was a bad guy when he left the presidency, being rehabbed now?

When we began researching and looking into it, we came to see the Iraq War, in and of itself, as incredible process of forgetting. And we did a lot of things to make ourselves forget, because remembering would’ve produced a totally distended portrait of who we thought ourselves to be and what we thought our government capable of.

Brendan James

Forgetting is part of the algorithm of empire — and the Iraq War is probably the last stand of what we used to think of as the American Empire. That’s not to say the empire ended with the Iraq War, but it was never really the same after that. It was the last gasp of pure hubris.

Every so often empire needs to have a cleanse, basically, and rehabilitate old figures. That happens a lot throughout history in any given empire. Turn them into respectable figures, whether they be dead or alive. That’s a way to not lose the faith you have in this imperial project. And whether it serves a purpose for domestic or foreign conquest, it’s something that you have to do over and over again.

Forgetting is part of the algorithm of empire — and the Iraq War is probably the last stand of what we used to think of as the American Empire.

The title of our show, Blowback, is meant to say that the consequences of our previous meddling and violence done toward the rest of the world come back cyclically. In order for the cycle to repeat, you need to forget. You need to cleanse your palate and find yourself surprised when all of a sudden guys you trained in the hills of Afghanistan that were rabidly, militantly dedicated to jihad end up blowing up your center of global commerce.

Things like that require forgetting. And we were attempting to refresh everybody not only on why George W. Bush personally is evil, but what purpose forgetting serves.

Daniel Denvir

It’s not just that the victors are the ones who get to write the history. It’s that being a global hegemon requires, as part of its process of legitimation, that history be rewritten and forgotten in particular ways.

And new erasures reaffirm and deepen preexisting erasures, which is why your podcast is not only about taking a fresh look at the monstrosity of the entire political moment around the invasion of Iraq, but looking much deeper than that into the history behind it — the whole invisibilized arc of history of the US and European colonial powers in that region more generally, the US backing Iraq and its murderous war against Iran, the selling out the Kurds to Saddam [Hussein] during the Cold War, the entire history of British colonialism and Iraq after World War I. Why do you think it’s so important to make the entire century of history that precedes 2003 clear?

Noah Kulwin

On one level it’s because it’s the same cast of characters. You have Donald Rumsfeld helping bring Saddam and the US closer together in the 1980s, and then you have him as the secretary of defense when we invade Iraq in the 2000s. They’re just different chapters of the same story.

Brendan James

Colin Powell is head of the Joint Chiefs during the Gulf War. Obviously he comes back as secretary of state. Similarly, Dick Cheney is secretary of defense in the Gulf War and then vice president during the invasion of Iraq.

Noah Kulwin

It is useful to think of American policy toward Iraq and American interests in Iraq, and how American power gets wielded vis-à-vis Iraq, as one longer story. Then, by the time we get to the point of the invasion in 2003, it sort of makes sense as to why people act the way they do, even though it was doomed in retrospect.

Brendan James

With regard to the even deeper history, we get into Cold War politics. Iraq had a pretty significant revolution in the ’50s. It essentially abolished the British sponsored monarchy and gave birth to a lot of different fresh and exciting politics for Iraqis to finally seize their own destiny.

The US, of course, moved in pretty quickly to stomp out any possibility of that happening. And one consequence of that was the Ba’ath Party coming to power with the support of the CIA because they were very hardcore anti-communist. And of course, in the tradition of blowback, the Ba’ath Party was the party that Saddam Hussein would soon take over, who the US would then depose in 2003, but also tried to knock off in 1991 as well.

Of course, the US is our main villain in the story. But to bring up British imperialism as well, I think it serves to show that this is really the same playbook whether you’re talking about British or American, French or German colonial projects. There is a basic toolkit, and there is a basic goal that any of these places have. It’s not in the DNA of Americans. On second thought, it might be in the DNA of the British. [Laughs]

In any case, the British carved up Iraq after World War I. And the conglomerate of oil companies that held the keys to all of Iraq’s oil deposits was called the Iraq Petroleum Company, but there wasn’t one share that went to the nation of Iraq — it was mainly British.

Similarly when the US invaded in 2003, almost a hundred years later, the project of Paul Bremer, the viceroy in Iraq — back to Britain, we’re even using the term viceroy there — his main job besides pacifying the country was to crack open that oil market and privatize a whole other bunch of Iraq’s national state industries.

So that’s full circle. It isn’t an American prerogative or a British prerogative. It’s the prerogative of any empire that seeks to do what empires do, which is plunder and control and guard the spigots of the world economy.

Noah Kulwin

But there are some aspects of how America executed this in 2003 that are pretty distinctly American. In particular, we failed in distinctly American ways. Rumsfeld envisioned a “light footprint.” That was the phrase they were very fond of using in the Defense Department. It meant a military that would be leaner and that would be able to accomplish effectively many of the same goals that these imperial powers had set for themselves in previous decades, but —

Daniel Denvir

On the cheap and contracted out.

Noah Kulwin

Exactly. And it fits very firmly within the neoliberal tradition and that policy rubric and theory of political economy more broadly. And you could see that failure in Iraq quite vividly.

Daniel Denvir

The US certainly did “mismanage” the invasion and occupation on technocratic grounds. But of course, and unsurprisingly, that critique also sort of gives cover to liberal supporters of the war, who then disassociate themselves from it afterward by saying, “Well, it was poorly managed.”

Brendan James

Yes. The invasion that went pretty smoothly by American standards, but the occupation and the “nation building” in Iraq, if you want to call it that, was definitely bungled. And we don’t pass over all the ways in which it was, but I do think that there’s been such an emphasis — and to your point, a kind of exculpatory emphasis — on the bungling aspect. I think that has helped some figures, not really [Dick] Cheney or Rumsfeld but certainly Bush, to be remembered as basically like Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun, who meant well, but he’s a bit of a goofy cowboy who forgot to dot the Ts and cross the Is. And that is an overcorrection.

We need to get back to a more accurate and honest and therefore critical view, which is that, sure, there were a lot of mistakes, but the basic goal to thrash a country into submission and then create a base of operations inside the Middle East was achieved. And the chaos that spiraled out after that is not altogether unwelcome as, again, the concept of blowback has long showed us. So was it really that big of a bungle on the micro level? Yes. But we want to take “Mission Accomplished” — that banner that Bush stood in front of that everyone thinks is a punchline — at face value in the show.

Daniel Denvir

I think you guys talk about the Bush administration or the Defense Department sending like a penis enlargement guy or erectile dysfunction guy or something to talk to a major Shiite leader. [Laughs]

Brendan James

Yes. That is in the very wonderful book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran Imperial Life in the Emerald City — just so I can cite my source, so no one thinks I made that up. [Laughs]

That really speaks to the lack of curiosity and knowledge about Iraq. Paul Bremer was quite an aristocrat. He was a career diplomat. He spoke, I’m sure, a bunch of different languages. He was a French-trained chef. But he didn’t know about Iraq. So he just ended up appointing some guy who held a patent to penile enhancement implants to go talk to an ayatollah inside of Iraq, which is like probably the most inappropriate thing you could do. And beyond that, there’s much more bloody and horrifying consequences of that sort of cavalier American right approach.

Noah Kulwin

One example that I think of a lot in the story is that we demolished in the city of Fallujah a Sunni stronghold where we said there were all these Sunni terrorists that we had to eliminate. We reduced the city to rubble in 2004 over a couple different battles. And one of the ways that we were going to attempt to manage the city of Fallujah was by creating a Fallujah brigade, which meant that in many cases the US military was literally just handing out rifles to people that it had just been fighting. It said like, “Alright, you’re going to help us pacify it,” and then they would just be fighting with the guns the US gave them months later.

The same kind of cavalier attitude as sending the dick pill doctor extended to the most basic assumptions. It was just a matter of empowering US military leaders to make the worst possible decisions at every stage.

Daniel Denvir

The origins and trajectory of the Iraq War and the “war on terror” really set the stage for the entire political situation at present. And when it’s forgotten or disavowed, everything just appears like it’s out of the blue, because there’s no relevant prior history that the United States might be implicated in. So instead of causality we have interminable enemies who emerge and threaten and hate us, like Iran and ISIS, and conflicts that are tragic but whose roots are unknown, like the Syrian Civil War.

Brendan James

This holds for domestic politics as well. It was the Bush administration that created ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] in 2002 out of the Department of Homeland Security as a direct response to 9/11. This is now obviously one of the most recognizable faces of the abhorrent politics of Donald Trump, but as I’m sure listeners of your show know, ICE had been operating under George W. Bush in an early version, then [Barack] Obama, and then Trump.

The forgetting, or the outright ignorance altogether, the never-having-known, that’s something that we try to dedicate some time to in the show with regard to domestic politics. Because the story is mostly about Iraq, and most of it takes place in Iraq. But you could easily do a whole show on authoritarianism and Bush and the descent into a baby’s first fascism in America.

Noah Kulwin

And I think that there are some other places in Iraq specifically where you can see this, like Abu Ghraib and the policy of torture. Iraq, if not necessarily exactly a laboratory, is absolutely a place where a lot of the worst policies that will evolve to become even worse over time were ultimately first carried out, or exposed in their full horror.

Brendan James

During the actual invasion itself, it’s striking to look at the Associated Press photographs in their archives of American soldiers throwing Iraqis with hoods over their heads into trucks and just driving them away.

I think people rightly recoil in horror at the images that come out of the Trump regime and the operations of ICE. But I mean, what are we looking at in Iraq if not that same treatment of human beings? And the man in office then is now Secret Santas with Ellen DeGeneres and Michelle Obama. The people at the top of this imperial system just think, “Yeah, all’s forgotten. Those were just Iraqis after all.

Daniel Denvir

I think that we should pause just to emphasize, especially for younger listeners, how shocking it initially was to a lot of us how quickly George W. Bush has been rehabilitated. Because thinking back to 2008, when Obama won, Bush wasn’t just hated by liberals — like really hated by liberals — but he was also abandoned by many conservatives, and he exited office with a rock-bottom approval rating.

Noah Kulwin

Oh, absolutely. And people also forget that his exit was marked not just by failure in Iraq, but also an enormous breadth of scandal. There was the Alberto Gonzales US attorneys firing scandal, to name just one example. And then, I mean, Dick Cheney shot a guy. [Laughs]

Brendan James

Hurricane Katrina, to name another.

Daniel Denvir

Which is relevant to the COVID-19, in that it exposed the US government’s total lack of infrastructure or will to protect vulnerable people’s lives in the face of a massive disaster, which we’re now experiencing on a nationwide and global level.

Certainly many things are the same, but the mass forgetting also reflects an incredible weakness of the Left throughout the 2000s. And something we should keep in mind as we mourn the end of the Bernie [Sanders] campaign, at least as we had known it, is that we’re still in a much stronger place now than we were in the 2000s, when we weren’t even relevant.

There was a strong antiwar movement then — not against the invasion of Afghanistan at all, which I know because I was at those protests and not many people were. But the anti–Iraq War movement was really big. However it was incredibly short-lived, and then immediately folded into the 2006 midterm elections when the Democrats took back Congress, and then into Obama’s 2008 campaign, who was an antiwar candidate of sorts in the way he was presented and interpreted.

Noah Kulwin

The Democratic political leadership are ostensibly — I mean, as we know, this is a joke, but supposedly — meant to represent a Left of some sort. And they just became Bush’s willing co-conspirators in many respects. The Democrats offered very big-picture criticisms of Bush, saying that he lied and that he was bungling the war. But they were happy to continue helping to pass the bills to fund the war, and they were happy to pass the bills that allowed the White House to acquire all of the executive power with which they could do the bungling. So I think that if you want to look for or identify some of the weakness of the Left, a lot of it is because the people who were supposed to represent something like an opposition instead just became lapdogs to power.

Brendan James

The Democratic Party was the gravedigger of the antiwar movement. It wasn’t the Republican Party. They were doing all the war. That was a very good opponent to have if you’re an antiwar movement. It was the Democratic Party.

I interviewed Cindy Sheehan a couple years ago in the lead-up to the 2016 election to talk a bit about what she felt about Hillary Clinton being the candidate, and the Democrats portraying Sheehan back in the midterms in 2006. [Nancy] Pelosi and the congressional leadership of the Democrats took back Congress in a bloodbath. In the election, they used Sheehan in particular, but also the antiwar movement in general, as their credential. They were trotted out for the Democrats to embarrass Bush and to claim that the Democrats would essentially end the war. And once they got in, they completely abandoned all of them.

That was yet another lesson about what it means to trust the Democratic Party. And the movement pretty much fizzled. Unfortunately, as you say, it was not much of a broader movement other than this very specific, very worthy issue of ending the war in Iraq. But when you’re attached to a gang of complete flimflams like the Democrats, and they betray you when they get back in power and don’t owe you anything, your movement is almost certain to dissipate. I’m not saying that’s the only thing that was contaminating the antiwar movement, but it was certainly the reason why they fell out of any real position of notice or power in the mid-2000s. And as you say, it took a long time after that for any public face of radical demands from the American left to come up again.

Noah Kulwin

And Dan, you talked a moment ago a bit about how Barack Obama ran an antiwar campaign of sorts. He spoke to a very obvious disaffection and he didn’t deny the very clear reality of how bad things were going. And his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, was somebody who had voted to help make those bad things the way that they were. I had a very big aha moment when I was going through some of the reporting about Hillary Clinton’s response to the fact that she had supported the war in 2007 and 2008 when she was being pressed on that by Obama. It later emerged that she told staffers that she thought an apology or taking responsibility for it would be a distraction, that it was irrelevant, and that it wasn’t an issue.

Brendan James

And also the Iraq War was insanely unpopular by the time that Obama was running for office. He did not talk the same way about an equally destructive and disgusting war in Afghanistan because he didn’t feel politically required to. When he got into office he couldn’t not withdraw from Iraq, which was a good thing of course, but he increased the levels of troops in Afghanistan by tens of thousands.

Daniel Denvir

And this became liberal Democratic Party orthodoxy, at least beginning in 2004. John Kerry’s race had this idea that there was a good Iraq War and a bad Iraq War. Like, we took our eye off the ball. And so opposition to the Iraq War is not embedded within some larger anti-imperialist critique. It’s like a technocratic critique that we did the war on terror wrong.

Brendan James

Yeah, exactly. And another thing we should mention is that we do bring up Joe Biden during the show, but we were recording this most of January and February, so it wasn’t quite clear how much of a mainstay in our political landscape he was going to be still at that moment. But Biden was the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If anyone in the Democratic Party had the access and the basic position to sniff out what a horrifying crime this was looking to be in early or mid-2002, let alone by go time in March 2003, it would’ve been him.

And Joe Biden was one of the war’s most enthusiastic advocates. He famously called it “not a rush to war, but a march to peace.”

Daniel Denvir

Cool. That’s literally Orwellian.

Brendan James

Literally. I was cutting the audio to use in the show of a lot of senators. There’s a montage we have in episode three of some of the key figures you’ll recognize today voting for the war, and then some that voted against it, Bernie Sanders and Barbara Lee being among them. But when I was cutting the audio, I had to hand it to Hillary. She did it in about fifteen minutes. She gave her speech, and then voted for the war and sat down. Biden spoke for like three hours. [Laughs] He wouldn’t shut up about how great the war was going to be, or how there wasn’t even going to be a war because Saddam was just going to surrender or whatever.

Daniel Denvir

He gave like a Fidel-level stem-winder making his case for the war. And he not only was a leading supporter of the war, but then in the Obama administration proposed ethnic cleansing!

Brendan James

After supporting the war and then being a weasel and running away from that, he wanted to carve it up into three different ethnically cleansed territories.

Noah Kulwin

When we got to Iraq, Iraqi society was not riven with sectarian conflict naturally, at least not to anything resembling the degree that we unleashed on the country.

Daniel Denvir

Intermarriage was super common in Baghdad.

Noah Kulwin

Yes. I mean, Sunni and Shia lived side by side. It was a fairly diverse society. It’s not to say that there weren’t tensions or that there wasn’t even sectarian violence on some level, but the degree to which things changed from pre-invasion to let’s say 2005 is pretty much impossible to overstate. So part of what I guess makes the Joe Biden solution particularly horrifying is proposing apartheid as a solution to a previously functional system. It was only our intervention that messed it up in the first place, obviously.

Brendan James

Or to bring it back to the question about the twentieth-century history we dig into in the first episode, just like the British, he wanted to take out a big red pen and carve into the earth his preferred division of one country into three or four. This stuff doesn’t really change from century to century. Unfortunately, neither does the carnage that comes out of those types of decisions.

Daniel Denvir

And it’s a proposed solution that participates in and facilitates this whole process of mass forgetting because it frames Iraq’s problems as not rooted in the US invasion, or more profoundly in the history of Western colonialism and petro-capitalism and all of this stuff, but in these ancient tribal sectarian animosities.

Brendan James

I think a lot of normal Americans don’t tend to care about foreign policy at all, be it good or bad. They thought, “Well, these religious psychos in Iraq, they should just calm down. What’s the big deal? We were trying to help you out.” And that was another way in which, as you point out, we could pathologize the country rather than face up to any accountability for what happens when you try to run the world on a hegemonic, British imperial-style system of conquest.

Daniel Denvir

And then we see part of the Trump and Trumpism origin story as well, because we have this process of forgetting. We have no strong left-wing movements at the time that can frame the situation in anti-imperialist terms. So Trump and the Right are able to identify the enemy and the source of the problem as Islam and the solutions to xenophobia and this kind of militaristic pseudoisolationism of Trump’s. So Trump’s Muslim ban is the imperialist war on terror coming home to roost as nativist politics.

Noah Kulwin

Jeremy Corbyn had the best response, I think, to this very particular line, and that he formulated very successfully, at least within Britain — this idea of actually framing anything resembling the knife attacks in the UK as a consequence of our own meddling, our own decision-making that we saw with our own eyes in Iraq. There is absolutely a very transparent, obvious, and lucid left-wing case to be made. It’s just that nobody in America, outside of our dear recently departed [Bernie Sanders], has ever seemed to have the courage to make it, at least on a national stage, providing a single coherent answer that everybody can see.

Brendan James

And that’s a point there about the Trumpified version of how to process and frame the enemy and the global war on terror. That’s something that we try to touch on as well as far as aftershocks of the Iraq War go. I mean, Trump ran against the Iraq War in 2016. Honestly, there were moments where, I’ll say it completely with and some guilt, no one thought he was going to win. You know, it was kind of awesome when he was on the debate stage with Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, owning them, saying there were no WMDs [weapons of mass destruction], they all lied. And the audience booed him in the first couple of debates, but they switched over once they saw he was the strong man, and said, “Oh, you know what? Yeah, that was probably all a bunch of lies.”

Daniel Denvir

Well, he had that important asterisk that we shouldn’t have gone in, but if we did, we should have taken the oil. The perfect Trumpian twist.

Brendan James

Yes, it is a xenophobic know-nothing type of rejection of imperial wars, of conquest — not because, as you said, it’s based in any anti-imperialist logic, but because they’re all savages over there and they should just go on chopping their own heads off or whatever the parody is that they picture in their heads, and we should just take their resources while they’re not looking.

It’s not sufficient to let scoundrels like Trump get away with being the only really meaningful antiwar voice in American politics. That’s not to credit right-wing populism or to say they’re starting to come over to our side. But when we look at the way that certain things are mutating right now, how the Right is reconstructing itself, it’s absolutely connected to the massive explosion of trust that fell apart in the Bush administration after the war in Iraq. We don’t need to kid ourselves that they’re on our side, but we need to take that seriously. It’s a very scary thing if the Right mutates into something that has a monopoly on nonintervention in the world.

Noah Kulwin

And they also thrive because there is no cogent visible left-wing answer or alternative that we have been able to present thus far. Bernie Sanders started to do that and articulate and chart a different vision of what that could look like. But the reality is that if you were to ask: What is the Democratic Party’s position? What is Joe Biden’s position on Iraq or America’s role in the world? I don’t think anybody on his team could even give us a straight answer because they’ve never thought about it.

In its weak, desiccated state, what is the Democratic Party establishment’s response going to be, if they try to formulate one? Because, as Brendan points out, the far right has synthesized an answer to that question. It’s a very ugly and dangerous one. And as it stands right now, there’s not an alternative.

Daniel Denvir

And if there’s a total void and no critique, no comment from the establishment Democrats, then we just have this Trumpist critique given free rein. And their critique of Bush’s imperialism is that it was wrong to try to save and do charity for the Muslims, which is how the neocons framed the war as this noble, civilizing mission. One of the craziest stats that I found researching my book is that Republican public approval ratings of Islam and Muslims skyrocket upward after 9/11 because of this neocon framing of the war as a civilizing mission. And then when it cracks, it’s the Trumpists who pick up the pieces and reframe it on their terms.

Brendan James

I don’t spend a lot of time on Fox [News] in the podcast because honestly, we know what we think about that side. The ecosystem is clear. It was cheerleading and jingoism. But it was also a paternalistic jingoism, especially those images of that stupid little statue coming down of Saddam and the American flag being put over his face, and us helping these poor little Iraqis who couldn’t do it themselves with a big tank pulling down the statue of the dictator. By the way, that moment was completely stage-managed. Managed by the Marine Corps in particular.

Anyway you hear Fox News anchors, some of whom will go on in the coming years to bemoan Obama for not calling all Muslims radical Islamic jihadists, and they’re saying paternalistically, “In the Arab culture. It’s very important to understand that the shoe-throwing is a sign of disrespect.”

Daniel Denvir

In the US it’s a friendly gesture. [Laughs]

Noah Kulwin

And then immediately like the camera shifts and suddenly you’re asking literally any Muslim in America who lived those years, or any Iraqi who lived those years, and you will find out that that paternalism is entirely a facade, such a transparently flimsy justification for wanting to do all these things.

Brendan James

It coexisted with the Bush administration infiltrating mosques, developing the new capacity to spy on and disrupt life in Muslim communities inside of America.

Daniel Denvir

So I think another thing that we should talk about in terms of the present-day impacts is just that it really did impact the Democratic primary. And we need to think about this mass forgetting as one reason that Joe Biden defeated, or is in the process of defeating, Bernie Sanders. Because Bernie’s attacks on Biden over his support for the Iraq War, he made a bunch of them, and they were totally necessary and justified, but I don’t think they really stuck. There was a sense that this was picking on Biden over old news.

While Bernie’s attacks didn’t hurt Biden as much as they should have, and as much as we would’ve liked them to, Bernie raising the issue and attacking Biden for supporting the war is good in and of itself for the same reason that your podcast is — because it re-politicizes this history and makes it newly visible. So on the one hand, I’m disappointed that the attacks didn’t stick and that not enough people considered them relevant. But Bernie, in making those attacks, did more to kind of keep the Iraq history alive and keep it from being erased than any politician I’m aware of in a long time.

Noah Kulwin

Oh, absolutely. And I guess one thing that I would also note there is that he’s making those attacks now, but it’s also going to be the future of the Democratic Party, those attacks. Like, if it’s not Joe Biden, it’s going to be any of these other stand-in political figures who have the same legacy, the same beliefs, the same attitudes, and they’re going to have to suffer the same kind of scrutiny. Bernie is not going to be the last one to make these critiques within Democratic or left-wing politics. It’s a sign of what’s to come. Because I think that the awareness and the outrage and the frustration is all there.

Brendan James

Well, I think it’s unfortunately though a catch-22 for anyone looking to attack, say, their opponent on the Iraq War, as Sanders tried to do with Biden. Because if you really want that attack to mean anything, you have to say a lot of reasons why America is bad and sucks and is evil actually. And you have to maybe say it wasn’t just like this vague war where like things blew up and then it ended.

We designed a forced labor system in Fallujah. That’s kinda like what the Nazis did. People go, “Ugh, shut up. That’s not my country. What, he’s calling us Nazis?” You have to say we killed at least six hundred thousand people, maybe a million. I wonder if it’s possible to effectively make the attack without being dismissed as a caricature of an anti-American leftist. Bernie Sanders, for instance, had to balance criticism with a message of redemption for the country. I’m unsure if this approach can transition to a more effective strategy. Corbyn managed to pull it off in the UK, blaming terrorism on imperialism, but it’s uncertain if the same tactic would resonate with the American public if employed by Sanders. Unfortunately.

Daniel Denvir

The story you’re telling is also a media story, a product about other media products. You have the New York Times with Judith Miller, who infamously laundered the Bush administration’s totally false case for war to the public. There were some important exceptions, but it wasn’t just Judith Miller’s active misinformation — there was also this general failure of mainstream media to question the invasion.

So Miller’s kind of an extreme example that obscures the more banal everyday deference that, in part, is this conventional issue with the media that emerges in mass media and capitalist societies — basic manufacturing consent type stuff. But then everything was exacerbated by post-9/11 jingoism that younger people who weren’t sentient at the time won’t recall. That jingoism really softened much of what little critical edge did exist in the mainstream media. Say a little bit about the media’s role.

Noah Kulwin

Yeah, I think there are several different ways in which the media helped sell the war and manufacture a certain set of stories about the case for war and the war itself. You had people like Judith Miller who were willing launderers of bad or slanted information. Then there’s the pundit class, like Jonathan Alter, for example. In an early episode, Brendan kicks to me a column that he wrote about how after 9/11, we had to start torturing people. This kind of jingoism after 9/11 came very naturally to the armchair pundits, liberals, and conservatives alike, and it would lead them to vociferously declare that we had to go after Saddam.

The Washington Post had reams of reporting making the case for war, and it was actually quite easy to find a lot of those stories about how shaky the case for war was. But they were just buried. They weren’t actually presented on the front page. You have to look at all these different pieces and how they fit together. While the Judith Millers surely deserve a lot of the blame, there’s also a series of institutional failures ranging from the New Yorker to the Washington Post to obviously cable television, where they simply weren’t interested in asking any of those questions. Even when they did ask, and they knew, and they had the information about how sketchy what al-Libi was saying, when they had the information about how [Lewis] Libby’s sourcing was total bunk, they too chose to ignore it. So it wasn’t that they were just totally misled or lied to. I think some of the failures of the media that at least we discussed reveal that they were actually quite comfortable dismissing the information that was made available to them.

Brendan James

There were more critical stories coming out in the Times or in the Post. But you can push those to another page. In a medium like cable news, where it’s pretty much right in front of your face, you can’t marginalize information like that as much. Phil Donahue on MSNBC was crying bloody murder about the war being a horrible and bad idea, and they just fired him. He obviously was a staple of most people’s understanding of daytime American talk shows, and they canned him because he wasn’t getting with the program. So you had that going on, and the journalism proper from the New York Times and the Washington Post and a bunch of other papers. Then you had the pundit side, the philosopher kings Thomas Friedman and David Brooks.

Noah Kulwin

One thing I would note is that in this pundit space, there was a cottage industry of experts, especially liberals like Kenneth Pollack who wrote a book called The Threatening Storm, which was supposed to be the liberal intellectuals’ case for war. I remember going into good liberal family friends’ homes at this time and seeing that book on the shelf, and it had a lot of influence. There were a wide range of experts from Stephen Hayes on the Right to someone like Kenneth Pollack or Paul Berman ostensibly on the Left, who were creating material that would then get tossed around on cable news as a justification for buying into all of this cooked intelligence.

Daniel Denvir

Or Christopher Hitchens, who was never on TV that I recall when he was a Nation writer. And then he becomes the big hawk who breaks up with the Left over the Iraq War, and he is everywhere. His celebrity explodes.

Noah Kulwin

He’s rewarded when he gets US citizenship. And who is it that swears him in? It’s a secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff.

Daniel Denvir

Speaking of apologists for war, we also see the rehabilitation of Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol, who are now giving daily advice to liberals on the internet.

Brendan James

Yeah. The “Resistance” is truly a big tent.

Noah Kulwin

David Frum is probably the most offensive example to me personally.

Brendan James

Also, he did not come up with that phrase. According to Bob Woodward, he did not come up with “Axis of Evil,” which is his claim to fame as a Bush speechwriter. He had something way shittier, like the “Axis of Ignitability” or something. The actual speechwriter to Bush was like “Let’s tune that up a little bit.”

Noah Kulwin

The guy who was the actual speechwriter to Bush, Michael Gerson, was a much funnier and more interesting person than David Frum ever was. When Gerson was getting hopped up to write a Bush State of the Union, he gave himself a heart attack in his fervor of trying to write this up. And when he went to his doctor, his doctor told him that he was stressing himself out by thinking about and fantasizing too much about Bush in Iraq.

Brendan James

He was too horny for the war. Probably getting those dick implants from our ambassador to the ayatollah in Baghdad.

Daniel Denvir

For all that we’ve just said about the press, you do make a point of citing mainstream sources, which I like a lot, and I think it’s a left approach to mass media that I agree with. Because like we were talking about earlier, although there are outright fabrications like what Judith Miller did, there are still lots of valuable facts turned up by mainstream reporters. And then there are some exceptionally good ones, like the people who were doing the work at McClatchy Washington Bureau that was contradicting.

That was getting syndicated in all kinds of medium-sized papers, but I wasn’t seeing it reading the New York Times at the time, for example. I think what your approach is premised on is the correct idea that the pernicious distortion is, sure, sometimes the Judith Miller–style outright fabrications, but is most often to be found in this more basic framing of stories in particular and of the news in general. What’s on the front page, what’s buried on page sixteen — the story isn’t so much censored or suppressed in the US. It’s more obscured.

Brendan James

Yeah. I think that’s the old construal of American-style management of the press versus a more authoritarian idea.

Noah Kulwin

The UK is a good example. They just censor there. The press just does not have the same rights that it does here.

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