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Donald Rumsfeld’s legacy is defined by the disastrous Iraq War and America’s disgraceful use of torture

  • Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s powerful defense secretary, died at 88 on Wednesday. 
  • His legacy will always be tied to the Iraq War and torture. 
  • Rumsfeld helped push the false notion Iraq had WMDs — the basis for the 2003 invasion.

In the days leading up to Donald Rumsfeld’s death, the US targeted Iranian proxy fighters along the Iraq-Syria border with airstrikes in what the Pentagon said was a “defensive” response to drone attacks on American forces in the region.

The fighting between the US and Iran-backed militias is intrinsically tied to Rumsfeld’s legacy. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and removal of its dictator created a power vacuum that Iran took advantage of, using it as an opportunity to prop up Shiite Islamist militias and political parties that vie for power in Iraq and counter America’s agenda and troops.

As former President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006, Rumsfeld was one of the main architects of the 2003 Iraq War and a proponent of the torture methods that damaged America’s global standing. He played a central role in selling the false notion that Saddam Hussein was actively developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that posed a direct threat to the US. Later, Rumsfeld referred to his baseless assertions about WMDs in Iraq as “misstatements.”

In one of his most infamous statements about the war, Rumsfeld once dismissed looting that occurred shortly after the invasion by simply stating: “Stuff happens.”

The war was a costly disaster for Rumsfeld’s political career and in far more reverberating ways, with the conflict claiming many Iraqi and American lives while undermining US credibility worldwide.

The “global war on terror,” which the Iraq invasion was fundamentally linked to and began while Rumsfeld was Pentagon chief, has also been an exorbitantly expensive debacle. It’s claimed over 800,000 lives, displaced at least 37 million, and the US government places the price-tag around $6.4 trillion, according to the Brown University’s Costs of War project, which estimated that as many as 308,000 people directly died as a result of the war’s violence.

The 2003 Iraq invasion also helped catalyze the rise of the Islamic State or ISIS, a terrorist organization that has claimed responsibility for devastating attacks across the globe. ISIS was initially founded as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” in 2004. By 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate as it controlled a large swath of territory across Iraq and Syria. ISIS lost its territorial holdings and has seen top leaders killed, but is still viewed as a threat by the US and its Western allies. 

“ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and Iran and its militant allies continue to plot terrorist attacks against US persons and interests, including to varying degrees in the United States. Despite leadership losses, terrorist groups have shown great resiliency and are taking advantage of ungoverned areas to rebuild,” the US intelligence community said in its annual threat assessment released in April. The US maintains a presence of roughly 2,500 troops in Iraq as part of the international coalition continuing to fight the remnants of ISIS. 

Rumsfeld in his 2011 memoir said he had no regrets about the 2003 Iraq War because it took out Saddam Hussein, which he said helped stabilized the Middle East. History tells a different story. 

“While the road not traveled always looks smoother, the cold reality of a Hussein regime in Baghdad most likely would mean a Middle East far more perilous than it is today,” Rumsfeld said. “Our failure to confront Iraq would have sent a message to other nations that neither America nor any other nation was willing to stand in the way of their support for terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.”

Years before the 2003 invasion, Rumsfeld served as the Reagan administration’s special Middle East envoy. At the time, he met with Hussein and offered the Iraqi leader assistance — even though the US knew that Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iran amid a devastating conflict.  

Rumsfeld was also a documented proponent of  enhanced interrogation techniques — or torture.

In one memo that Rumsfeld signed as defense secretary approving the use of torture on detainees, he wrote a handwritten note asking why they would only be required to stand for four hours. 

A December 2008 Senate report also concluded that Abu Ghraib torture scandal was a product of the interrogation techniques approved by Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials.

Human rights groups and civil liberties groups like the ACLU filed unsuccessful lawsuits against Rumsfeld over his involvement in America’s use of torture. Such organizations pointed to this legacy as they reacted to the news of Rumsfeld’s death. 

“Rumsfeld may be dead, but other senior Bush administration officials are alive and well and available for criminal investigation into torture,” Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington irector at Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet. 

Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, tweeted that the “top of every obituary” should state that he “gave the orders that resulted in the abuse and torture of hundreds of prisoners in US custody in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.”



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