bush wanted poster
© Getty Images / Oleg NikishinA man walks past a mock wanted poster for then-US President George W. Bush in April 2003 in Moscow.
Political tribalism protects America's leaders from being held accountable for everything from failed policies to war crimes.

Washington is where securing political power means never having to say you're sorry - regardless of how many thousands or millions of people you might have gotten killed. Tribalism is what keeps the perpetrators from ever being held accountable.

Consider, for example, this month's Axios/Ipsos poll showing that more than six in ten US adults believe that George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake. While it might seem encouraging that most Americans have come to realize that the Iraq debacle was a bad move - sort of like recognizing that the sun comes up in the East - a glance beneath the headline number reveals that voters haven't really learned anything.

You see, two decades on from a war that was started on false pretenses and was illegal under the UN Charter, 58% of Republicans still believe that the Bush administration was right to launch the invasion (compared to 26% of Democrats). They still feel this way despite a bevy of troubling truths that should be clear to everyone by now, including the fact that the whole basis for the invasion - the hype that Saddam Hussein had obtained weapons of mass destruction - was a sham.

It was a sham that cost US taxpayers over $2 trillion, helped give rise to ISIS and killed or maimed tens of thousands of American troops. Along the way, this bogus war also killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and left the country shattered, even to the present day. The cherry on top is that it also strengthened Washington's arch-enemy, Iran.

It's almost incomprehensible that any Americans, other than the war criminals themselves, would still defend such a fiasco - unless one factors in the level of tribalism that currently pervades the US political system. Rank-and-file members of the red team and the blue team can see no evil nor hear no evil when it comes to their tribe. Their "leaders" are all on the same team, the one that keeps the masses warring with each other rather than turning their pitchforks and torches against the ruling class.

As the late, great US comedian George Carlin famously said, America's "real owners" count on the people remaining "willfully ignorant" of what's being done to them and devoid of critical thinking skills. "It's a big club, and you ain't in it. You and I are not in the big club. And by the way, it's the same big club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe."

The big club has been spectacularly successful in dumbing down and dividing the US populace to the point that the masters are essentially immune from ever having to answer for their blunders and crimes. Principled thinking is extinct. If wrongdoing by one of the tribal chiefs gets exposed, his or her followers shrug off the truth and point to allegedly worse sins by the rival tribe. In a pinch, they can even blame the rival tribe for their chief's transgression.

Case in point: President Joe Biden's administration botched the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan so badly that the Taliban was able to seize control of Kabul even before Washington's chaotic exit was completed. Thousands of Afghan collaborators and US citizens were left behind. Thirteen US troops were brought home in body bags.

Hundreds of Afghans also died during the chaotic evacuation, including seven children and three other civilians who were killed in a drone strike after US forces mistook an aid worker for an ISIS-K terrorist. Pentagon officials lied and concealed what they knew about the strike. Days later, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley insisted that the attack was "righteous" and that an ISIS facilitator had been killed. A US military investigation showed that senior officers were told within three hours of the attack that children had been killed.

Nevertheless, supporters of the blue team dismissed criticism of how the US withdrawal was handled and blamed Biden's predecessor, former president Donald Trump, for essentially everything that went wrong. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cited Trump's agreement with the Taliban to end the 20-year conflict, saying, "We inherited a deadline. We did not inherit a plan." Congressman Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, helpfully replied, "It's amazing that it wasn't much, much worse."

No one was punished for the Afghan debacle. Biden, Blinken and the Pentagon brass still refuse to admit to any mistakes. The only person fired over the withdrawal was Stuart Scheller, the Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who dared to publicly criticize the evacuation and call for senior officials to be held accountable. He was court-martialed for his temerity.

Meanwhile, the so-called experts in Washington continue advancing their careers, regardless of how many lives they destroy. It's a town where Victoria Nuland can play a key advisory role in the Bush administration's Iraq debacle, help engineer the Obama-Biden administration's overthrow of Ukraine's elected government in 2014 - setting the table for the current crisis in Eastern Europe - then land a job as the Biden administration's undersecretary of state. It's also where former secretary of state Madeleine Albright can say in a television interview that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children resulting from US sanctions were "worth it" - then be eulogized by three presidents upon her death last year and praised by Biden for her "humanity."

As Albright's case shows, there's no statement too ghastly, no policy too abhorrent for an American leader to be excused from accountability. Some of the same people who brought about the illegal invasion of Syria and the failed regime-change campaign against President Bashar al-Assad get to be taken seriously today as they moralize about Russia's attack on sovereign Ukrainian territory. And to this day, the illegal US occupation of Syria's most oil-rich region continues, ostensibly to contain ISIS, the group born out of America's illegal war in Iraq.

Just last week, Trump's former national security advisor, Robert O'Brien, said in an interview that the US would destroy Taiwan's semiconductor factories, if necessary, to prevent them from falling into China's hands. No one even blinked. It wasn't big news. Never mind that the US is supposedly trying to protect Taiwan. Never mind that China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, meaning it would merely be seizing its own territory in an invasion, and that neither the UN nor the US recognizes the self-governing island as a separate nation. Talking openly about blowing up somebody else's world-leading chip industry is so humdrum - so par for the course in Washington - that hardly an eyebrow is raised.

Biden made a similarly brazen statement in February 2022, assuring a reporter that if Russian military forces crossed into Ukraine, the US would ensure that the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Western Europe would be stopped: "We will bring it to an end." Standing alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, he openly promised to eliminate his supposed ally's critical energy infrastructure.

The Nord Stream pipelines were blown up seven months later in one of the worst acts of industrial sabotage in world history. US officials suggested that Russia must have destroyed its own gas conduits. Legendary Washington journalist Seymour Hersh reported last month that Biden secretly ordered the attack. The White House responded by dismissing Hersh's story as "utterly false" and later floated a new theory on the culprit, suggesting that a "pro-Ukrainian group" carried out the undersea bombing.

Nuland, meanwhile, could hardly contain her glee, saying in January that the Biden administration was "very gratified to know" that Nord Stream 2 had become "a hunk of metal at the bottom of the sea."

Will justice be done over Nord Stream? History suggests that the perpetrators won't be punished. It's even more certain that Americans won't come together to rebuke their leaders or demand change.

The most we can expect is that the Republicans will use the controversy to score political points. If and when the red team takes back the White House, its figurehead will pick up where Biden left off with policies that make America's commoners poorer, less safe and less free. Blue team tribesmen will howl about the new leader's evildoing, while their counterparts in the red camp will deflect any criticism by arguing that the former administration was worse.

Divide, conquer, repeat.

Tony Cox, a US journalist who has written or edited for Bloomberg and several major daily newspapers.