As US-Iran Tensions Rise, It’s Important To Look At The Iraq-Era War Criminals And Hawks Still In US Government

This week, tensions between the USA and Iran have risen as leaders on both sides have threatened each other over Twitter. The United States is officially fighting wars in seven different countries at the moment, steadily rising since the War on Terror began in 2001. In this light, it is important that we focus on the members of an increasingly hawkish White House, how they have acted in the past, and how they have become emboldened by the failure of the media and politicians to hold them accountable.

While campaigning, Trump promised to bring back waterboarding “and a whole lot worse.” He claimed that the US was “fighting a very politically correct war” against terrorists and outlined a strategy to “take out their families.” Trump’s tough talk is backed up by alarming civilian death figures. The Combined Joint Task Force for Operation Inherent Resolve reported that total unintentional civilian deaths since the operation began in 2014, it has increased from at least 188 to 831 by the end of  2017 (since Trump took office). Airwars reported that US-caused non-combatant deaths in Syria and Iraq rose by more than 200 percent between 2016 and 2017, and 65 percent of all civilian deaths since 2014 occurred over the year of 2017.

Trump’s callous and erratic attitude towards foreign policy and war is a threat to international security. His new appointment picks this year will not push back against him, and will likely support the American president should he seek to violate international law through wars of aggression and torture. In March 2018, Trump’s foreign policy advisors were replaced with even more hawkish candidates. General H.R. McMaster was in the role of National Security Advisor for just over a year. During his time, McMaster advocated sending more troops to Afghanistan but warned against ending the nuclear agreement with Iran. Trump disagreed with both stances. Whilst Trump ultimately decided to deploy thousands more troops to Afghanistan, he never showed any interest in upholding the Iran nuclear deal.


In March 2018, Trump replaced McMaster with notorious war hawk John Bolton, an advocate for “pre-emptive war” and regime change around the world, including Iran and North Korea. He has been a fierce critic of the Iran deal, and wrote a New York Times article in 2015 titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” Bolton worked as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in the Bush administration. He spearheaded US opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to guarantee immunity for all American citizens, threatening to cut aid to any state that refused to agree. Bolton also knowingly ignored and suppressed important evidence that challenged the Bush administration’s narrative that Iraq was pursuing WMDs. Greg Thielmann, director of office in the State Department intelligence bureau during Bolton’s tenure, claims that Bolton had a “penchant for quickly dismissing inconvenient facts and rejecting any analysis that did not serve his policy preferences.” Mr. Bolton thus helped to bring about a war of aggression in  Iraq, a crime against peace and a violation of Nuremberg Principles VI and VII, principles that the US originally pushed for after the second world war.

Since his appointment, Mr. Bolton has been hawkish to the detriment of Trump’s foreign policy. It is believed that he attempted to sabotage the North Korea summit in May, believing that diplomacy will not prevail. He referenced the “Libya model” during an interview on North Korean denuclearization, allowing Kim Jong Un to draw parallels between himself and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who agreed to arms control deals and was subsequently ousted and killed with by his people with American aid. Bolton’s attempts to derail talks with North Korea does nothing to improve international security and his presence at the summit was deemed “counterproductive by new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Pompeo replaced Tillerson as Secretary of State in March too. Whilst Tillerson supported the continuation of the Iran deal, Pompeo was more critical of it. Mr. Pompeo has expressed a willingness to sign a new agreement with the Iranian government, but has made it clear that “[a] deal is not the objective.” Perhaps more alarming is Pompeo’s openness to Bush-era torture programmes. During his CIA confirmation hearings, Mr. Pompeo told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he would “absolutely not” bring back waterboarding and other forms of torture, even if pressured by the president. However, Pompeo criticized Obama in 2014 for banning waterboarding and attempting to close Guantanamo Bay when he assumed office. During the same confirmation hearings this year, he also wrote that he would be interested in reviewing the ban on waterboarding if it was shown to help in the gathering of intelligence.

Trump also nominated Gina Haspel for Director of the CIA in March. Haspel was chief of a CIA black site in Thailand where over 100 people were subjected to enforced disappearance and torture, both crimes under international law. She was also involved in the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes in 2005, twelve of which featured torture. Ms. Haspel faced no repercussions for her actions, and a Department of Justice investigation into the destruction of the tapes concluded in 2010 with no criminal charges recommended.

In addition, Ms. Haspel further emphasized in her confirmation hearing that “enhanced interrogation” was legal under US law in the turbulent aftermath of 9/11, and that as director of the CIA she would only undertake moral activities “that are consistent with American values.” However, Ms. Haspel refused to reveal whether or not she wanted the program continued or expanded back in 2007, and refused to call enhanced interrogation – ranging from waterboarding to mock executions, forced nudity and stress position – immoral. 100 former US ambassadors stood in opposition to Haspel’s confirmation, saying in a letter that despite her credentials, she gives authoritarian leaders around the world license to state that their behaviour is “no different from ours.” Concerns about war crimes did not deter the Senate in confirming Gina Haspel however, and six democrats joined republicans to vote 54-45 in her favour.

It is too late now to reverse the appointments of the warmongers and war criminals within the Trump administration. It seems that 17 years of war in the Middle East has created a level of apathy in the US and around the world. With new White House scandals and controversies to focus on each week, it can be difficult for the US media to draw attention to war crimes on foreign soil. While the mainstream media and the American population have come to a consensus that the  Iraq War was a blunder, they rarely delve deeper and acknowledge it as the war crime it was. The sooner they acknowledge this, the sooner the US can be pressured by its citizens and abroad to address human rights issues and overhaul their foreign policy.

Barack Obama made some progress towards denouncing the war crimes under the Bush administration, but not enough. In 2009, he banned the use of enhanced interrogation and in  2014 acknowledged that the CIA “crossed a line” when it “tortured some folks.” However, Obama announced his intention to “look forward” when he took office. He did not wish to pick a fight with the intelligence community and as a result ignored past wrongdoings. In effect, he created a standard in which figures of authority who enabled torture and violated international law were not held accountable for their actions. Trump’s cabinet of war criminals were emboldened by Obama’s inaction and now find themselves in positions of power once again.

Although he withdrew American forces from Iraq, Obama continued and expanded the War on Terror. He made use of drones to commit atrocities throughout without endangering American lives. By failing to turn back US military interventionism in a meaningful way, Obama has helped to normalize it. Instead of taking steps towards ending foreign wars, Obama expanded the wars, expanded the drone program and left these tools in the hands of the Trump administration.

President Trump’s successor will need to look back at US war crimes and truly address them. As the self-professed leaders of the free world, the United States should lead by example. Excusing and continuing the war crimes of previous administrations damages US credibility on the world stage, and lends legitimacy to dictators and human rights abusers.