The Iraq War Doesn’t Justify What Russia Is Doing In Ukraine
Mar. 5 2014
My suggestion that the United States make Russia pay a stiff financial price for its invasion of Crimea drew more than a few howls in the comments section and over social media. By far the most common retort has been “but the United States invaded Iraq! What about that?” At first glance this might seem like a clever counter-argument. “Whataboutism” is reviled by people in the West precisely because it such an effective strategy. Most people understand that hypocrisy is bad, and the most religiously inclined will remember Jesus’ admonition against looking at the speck of dust in someone else’s eye while there is a plank in your own. But when you take a moment to think about what actually happened to the US after the Iraq war the argument completely falls apart. In fact the Iraq war is one of the best arguments against Russian intervention in Ukraine.
So, what about Iraq? Well the Iraq war was an economic, military, and geopolitical catastrophe for the United States. It cost the United States trillions of dollars in direct and indirect costs (the opportunity costs are so vast as to be beyond reckoning) and lives of thousands of its best troops. At the end of the Iraq war the United States had not “advanced democracy” nor had it gained a new ally. Instead, the American military’s occupation of Iraq midwifed a corrupt and unstable Iraqi government, one whose human rights record was only slightly better than that of Saddam Hussein’s. In addition to being corrupt and brutal, the new Iraqi government was closely linked to, and sympathetic towards, Iran, our chief regional antagonist. Due in large part to the instability brought about by the forcible overthrow of the Iraqi state, tens of thousands of civilians perished in terrorist attacks, attacks that continue to this day at a bewildering and terrifying clip. Outside of a small group of Eastern European countries whose pro-American credentials were never in any doubt, the Iraq war poisoned Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in Western Europe and with a number of important emerging markets (such as Turkey) as well. As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the United States’ invasion of Iraq also led to the emergence of dozens of new Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, groups that our security services will be fighting for a generation.
The United States’ invasion of Iraq, then, accomplished precisely none of its original goals and it did so at enormous expense to America’s relations with its allies and its overall position in the world. The Russian government itself recognized this, standing stridently against the invasion from the very beginning and taking great delight as the United States’ bold plans for regional transformation turned to dust. Some of Putin’s most famous quotes are sarcasm-heavy denunciations of America’s role in Iraq, and, as a quick glance at any of the relevant polls would tell you, Russian society generally understood that the entire operation was a fiasco from top to bottom.
Why Russia would want to imitateany part of the United States’ experience in Iraq is absolutely beyond me. Does Russia want to alienate itself diplomatically? Does it want to waste enormous sums of money? Does it want to inflict damage on its own economy? Does it want to massively destabilize the international system? Does it want to create a Ukrainian government hostile to its interests? Because all of those things are exactly what is happening and what anyone with half a brain would have predicted would happen if Russia invaded any part of sovereign Ukrainian territory. Replace “Ukraine” with the name of any other country in the world and the Russian government would be right at the forefront of those condemning even the mere thought of military intervention, making arguments identical to those which I’ve outlined above.
In short, the Russians were right when they said that invasions are extraordinarily poor ways to defend or advance national interests, and they were right when they said that the use of force across established international borders is horrifically unpopular in today’s world. They have no one but themselves to blame for forgetting all of the lessons that they were so eager to impart on others and for the harvest they are going to reap. The lesson of Iraq is that invading other countries for no reason is poor statecraft, and it’s a lesson that applies equally to Washington and Moscow.