By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
Antony Blinken is the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Niger, an African nation that few Americans could find on a map. The United Nations Development Program’s recent Human Development Index ranks Niger 189th out of 191 countries. Life expectancy is 60 years, and the mean education level of its 25 million citizens is just two years. Twenty years ago, Niger unwittingly played a pivotal role in what turned out to be one of the greatest U.S. foreign policy debacles of the modern era. Without Niger, the U.S. probably couldn’t have launched its illegal and disastrous war on Iraq.
“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address on January 28th, 2003, referring to Niger’s mostly foreign-owned uranium mines. Bush’s notorious “Sixteen Words” were based on intelligence the CIA believed to be false. Nevertheless, it formed the core of the Bush administration’s pretext for war, that Iraq’s formerly U.S.-backed dictator Saddam Hussein was secretly amassing weapons of mass destruction – WMDs.
Months earlier, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice warned of the WMD threat, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Bush invoked the same imagery one month later, in a major address in Cincinnati, laying out the case for invading Iraq, saying, “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Bush’s Secretary of State General Colin Powell sealed the deal at the United Nations on February 5th, 2003, with a presentation laced with false intelligence on Iraq’s alleged WMD program that he said included nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He would later call the speech a “blot” on his career.
The Bush administration’s lies and misrepresentations were amplified by the corporate media, most notably by The New York Times. Story after story ran above the fold on the front page by reporter Judith Miller, often co-written by Michael R. Gordon, hyping the claim that Saddam Hussein was attempting to build nuclear weapons. In a 3,400-word article hyping the threat of WMDs published on September 8, 2002, Miller and Gordon cite unnamed “officials,” “American intelligence” and Bush administration “hard-liners” three dozen times, along with unnamed Iraqi defectors and dissidents.
Months after the invasion, the Times also published a piece by the late Ambassador Joe Wilson. “What I Didn’t Find in Africa” was Wilson’s first-hand account of a CIA-sponsored trip he took to Niger in February, 2002, to assess the veracity of the uranium claims being pushed by the Bush administration. Wilson reported to the CIA that he had found no evidence that Niger had sold uranium to Iraq. His Times piece was a damning indictment of the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence to push an illegal war.
In retaliation, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, leaked the name of Joe Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, to select members of the press, including Judith Miller. Plame was a covert CIA agent, and when a rightwing columnist published her name, her undercover career was essentially over. Judith Miller refused to reveal her source to a grand jury investigating the leak, and was jailed for 85 days for contempt of court. She was released after agreeing to cooperate.
As these legal battles raged in Washington, DC, the real war raging in Iraq was killing tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of U.S. and coalition troops. Millions of Iraqis became refugees, later joined by Syrians as the conflagration sparked by the U.S. invasion spread.
While the true cost of the Iraq war will never be fully known, Brown University researchers put it at close to $3 trillion. They also estimate that up to 580,000 people – civilians and combatants – have been killed in Iraq and Syria since 2003. “Four times that number may have died due to indirect causes such as displacement, poor access to safe drinking water, healthcare, and preventable diseases,” their Cost of War report grimly notes.
This week, Brown University Professor Nadje Al-Ali, Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies, speaking on the Democracy Now! news hour, reflected,
“The young generation of Iraqis are trying to go beyond the impact of the invasion and occupation. There’s lots of creativity, resourcefulness and positive energy. So I have some hope. For people, especially in this country, it’s high time to really rethink US military involvement and policy more broadly, not just in Iraq but in the Middle East and the world.”