A few postings back, I asked readers to compare and contrast the Russian invasion of Ukraine with America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some who responded saw nothing to compare. For them, Russia was evil and the U.S. good. Others took a diametrically different stance and saw the two events as fundamentally the same since both were based on lies, or–as those more generous towards America put it–on premises that should have been known to be false. From a smart, learned, and thought-provoking friend, however, I got a more detailed and nuanced response about the two invasions in which he listed more than a few similarities and differences that I had not thought about.
More of his comments may be explored over the coming weeks, but one of them made me think about how extraordinary our Iraq invasion was. He wrote that while Russia invaded a bordering state for purposes of territorial expansion (or, at least, for creating a “neutral” buffer), the U.S. invasion did not contemplate a territorial expansion. However, my friend continued, protections of oil supplies may have been one (unstated) consideration for our actions.
This is a difference between the two, and I have been grappling with whether this is an important distinction. In invading a neighboring state, Russia’s action is similar to many previous conflicts. Most wars I could think of started out at least as a border conflict. The boundary is in dispute or, as my friend suggests for Russia, one country wishes to increase its size by taking land next door or sometimes is acting to remove what it sees as an unfriendly neighboring government.
On the other hand, the examples of one country leapfrogging thousands of miles to invade another nation were comparatively few. The World Wars started out with conflicts among neighboring countries. Others, such as the Falklands/Malvinas war was over disputed sovereignty of distant lands. Other long-distance conflicts were justified as defense of colonies. Some sought to spread religion—often Christianity, the religion of peace—while extracting riches, such as Spain in the Americas. Our Iraqi invasion, unless its goal really was just to control oil, was different.
The stated reason was a humanitarian one. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, and soon, we said, nuclear; history indicated that he was willing to use such weapons; and so he needed to be stopped, even though he was not a threat to the invaders, i.e., us. (Not even faintly credible evidence was presented that Iraq threatened the United States.) Instead, Hussein needed to be stopped because he was a danger to peoples and lands other than the United States. Our action was not in self-defense; we were only seeking good for others. Let’s all sing: What a comfort to be sure, that our motives were so pure.* We were going to war, we said, only with the most magnanimous of motives.** Oh, and besides, we were going to bring Jeffersonian democracy to what had been a dictatorial regime.
However, the words of Francis Bacon come to mind: “A just fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is a lawful cause of war.” Although Russia claims that Ukraine is a threat to itself and to the Russian minority in Ukraine, only deluded people can believe that Russia has a just fear of those possibilities. Those “reasons” are only pretexts.
Although we supposedly had “humanitarian” reasons for attacking Iraq, a country thousands of miles away posing no threat to us, they could only be good grounds, Bacon might say, if the United States had just fears that Iraq posed an imminent threat to its neighbors. However, we know that this was not true; Iraq did not pose such a threat. Unfortunately, U.S. leaders were acting something like Putin has: They first decided to invade Iraq and subsequently looked for justifications for that decision. If the Iraq war was not based on bald-faced lies as Putin’s invasion has been, it was based on the conjectures of fools who could not acknowledge the lack of evidence for the military action.***
My friend has concluded that it is hard to justify an invasion of a sovereign state for any purpose other than self-defense or, perhaps, an internationally recognized humanitarian threat. That said, he continues, bad as the invasion of Iraq was understood to be at the time (and understood now to be even worse), the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflects a far greater violation of accepted norms and poses far greater dangers to world safety than our Iraqi actions.
I agree that the Russian invasion of Ukraine poses a greater global danger than our invasion of Iraq, but that is because of the fear that Putin might use nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. If, however, Russia continues to use only conventional weapons, is the Russian action a greater danger to the world than our Iraq invasion was? We are seeing death, destruction, and millions of frightened refugees resulting from the Ukrainian invasion, but of course, that was also true of our action. The number of deaths resulting from our invasion and occupation vary widely. Nevertheless, Iraq Body Count, an organization that carefully sought confirmation of reported deaths, concluded that over 160,000 people died from the Iraq invasion with over two-thirds of them civilians. Other sources report much higher numbers: 600,000, 460,000, and 1,033,000 deaths. Refugee numbers also vary, but many sources have concluded that 2 to 3 million Iraqis became refugees because of the war.
Moreover, the Iraqi invasion helped foster terrorism in places outside of Iraq. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, I had occasion to meet with officials who had been in Israeli intelligence services. They were mystified by our action. They said that Iraq was not a state sponsor of terrorism in the Mideast. But Iran was. They said that an invasion of Iraq was sure to increase the influence of Iran in the Mideast, and this would be detrimental to Christians and certain Muslims in the region as well as a threat to Israel. They were right. Furthermore, while ISIS was formed before 2003, it came to prominence and gained strength soon after our invasion of Iraq, and it continued to flourish in the chaotic milieu that our military adventure helped to create. The Ukraine invasion has caused deaths and an extraordinary number of refugees, but I doubt that it will spawn international terrorism anywhere near the extent that our Iraq invasion has.
What is happening in Ukraine is both a tragedy and frightening because the conflict could spread and/or escalate. Our Iraq invasion may not have produced the same fear of escalation, nuclear or otherwise, but it was also a tragedy.
*In Man of La Mancha two women who will benefit if Don Quixote is locked up in a nuthouse, sing that they desire that result only because they are after his best interests. The Padre sings:
They’re only thinking of him.
They’re only thinking of him.
How saintly is their plaintive plea.
They’re only thinking of him.
What a comfort to be sure,
that their motives are so pure.
As they go thinking and worrying about him.
** Margaret MacMillan notes in War: How Conflict Shaped Us (2020) that humanitarian interventions such as our Iraq invasion “raise questions about who decides what is just and suspicions about the motives and goals of the intervening powers. Critics have argued that Western powers are simply cloaking their deeply-rooted imperialistic attitudes to the rest of the world in the fashionable new language. ‘Hypocrisy,’ as the Duc de La Rochefoucauld remarked, ‘is a tribute vice pays to virtue.’”
*** Before we launched our invasion of Iraq, I saw a TV interview of a congressional leader who had just emerged from an intelligence briefing. The congressman said that the briefing had given him an “intuition” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He had just met with intelligence officials and had nothing more than an “intuition”?! That told me that the intelligence agencies did not have solid information showing Iraq had those weapons. Nevertheless, that congressman voted for the war. He had made up his mind to support the invasion and was only looking for grounds to justify it. I am sure that he was viewed as a “good” man, but he voted for death because he had an intuition.