Comparing and contrasting the 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the 2003 invasion of Iraq
Comparing and contrasting the 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the 2003 invasion of Iraq
One of the most crucial methods of minimizing the destruction of war is to accurately identify which side of the war is engaging in aggression and which side is engaging in self-defense or defense of other nations. Then the aggressor must be punished accordingly. Complicating the application of this conflict resolution tool in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, however, is some muddied messaging from the North American critics of NATO.
Here in Canada, writer Yves Engler, Green Party of Quebec Leader Alex Tyrell, and 2020 runner-up candidate for Leader of the Green Party of Canada Dimitri Lascaris have all argued that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is "illegal" and criminal, yet also "provoked". (Side note: I was a signatory to Lascaris' 2016 motion to the Green Party of Canada supporting boycotts and sanctions against illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine.) Their opinions have been echoed by NATO critics in the United States, such as the famous intellectual Noam Chomsky, the outspoken journalist Glenn Greenwald, and past Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.
Their details behind their reasoning will be covered further below, but their over-arching argument appears to be this: that Russia is in pursuit of legitimate and reasonable guarantees of national security, but that Russia is pursuing its reasonable interests in the wrong way. Therefore, NATO and the government of Ukraine ought to make concessions to Russia in order to bring about a speedy resolution to the war, including a guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality and pledges by the Ukrainian government to uphold the Minsk agreement.
There is arguably a fundamental self-tension in the argument being presented here: that what Russia is doing is fundamentally wrong, but that, having done the wrong thing, Russia should receive some kind of concession in order to stop doing the wrong thing. But there is also a less obvious irony in their stance: how they perceive a previous modern incident where a major nuclear-armed power militarily invaded a weaker country in order to impose regime change.
Pro-peace critics from all around the world, well beyond North America, consider the United States' 2003 invasion of Iraq to be a war crime: not just illegal and contrary to international law, but entirely unprovoked. However, a comparison and contrast of the circumstances preceding the Iraq war and the circumstances preceding the Russia-Ukraine war might be enlightening to this perspective.
The threatening history of Saddam Hussein's Iraq?
Some facts have been beaten to death so many times that they are almost not worth repeating: in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, the United States claimed that chemical and biological weapons and an active nuclear program were hidden by the Iraqi regime, but subsequent to the regime change no such weapons or active programs were found.
However these below facts, often cited in speeches by the then George W. Bush administration, remain true and verifiable:
⦁ Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Iran in 1980.
⦁ Iraq's regime massacred tens of thousands of Kurds in 1988, including through the use of chemical weapons.
⦁ Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990 before executing hundreds of its civilians.
⦁ Iraq developed an unknown quantity of biological and chemical weapons including anthrax and nerve gas munitions, and also pursued nuclear weapons development until 1991.
⦁ During the Gulf War, Iraq fired missiles at civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Israel. After the war the Iraqi regime butchered tens of thousands of its citizens to repress an uprising.
⦁ The cease-fire terms of the Gulf War mandated in UN Security Council Resolution 687 (April 1991) that Iraq expose and declare all its chemical, biological, and nuclear program assets to UN inspectors within 15 days. Iraq instead secretly destroyed chemical and biological weapons without UN oversight while hiding assets tied to those programs. Some of those weapons were successfully hidden from UN inspectors for months throughout 1991 before their destruction. Iraq still hid related assets up until the invasion in 2003, such as nuclear centrifuges, biological research facilities, and missile arrangements with North Korea, while ordering its scientists from the former programs to not leave the country.
⦁ In 1993 Iraq attempted to assassinate George Bush Sr. and the Emir of Kuwait.
⦁ In 1994 Hussein was condemned by the UN in Resolution 949 for massing troops near Kuwait.
⦁ The Iraqi defector Hussen Kamel in 1996 exposed some of the assets of the former weapons program. Even the U.S. did not know about some of the weapons development that Iraq had undergone prior to 1992, and the CIA was found to have under-estimated the progress of Iraq's prior nuclear program.
⦁ In 1999 Iraqi regime forces started firing at the American and British aircraft that were imposing continuous no-fly zones on northern and southern Iraq.
⦁ An informal ally of Osama bin Laden was somehow able to make himself at home in Baghdad as of 2002, that being Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (He later founded al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, hence al-Qaeda was technically not in Iraq before the invasion.)
⦁ Other human rights abuses included the disappearance of 100,000 Iraqi citizens, widespread use of torture, and displacement of millions of citizens.
However, there is a typical response to the above that can be expected from the peace critics: "Saddam Hussein was just an American puppet, and the U.S. only turned on its puppet once it stepped out of line." It is widely known that the United States supported Hussein's Iraq in its war with Iran, most exemplified by the infamous video from 1983 of 2003 invasion advocate Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Hussein. In addition, the CIA was made aware that Iraq was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops yet the U.S. government turned a blind eye.
Despite that, there is a relevant context here: although the United States was supporting a sketchy dictator, the U.S. began its support to Hussein's Iraq in 1982 after Iran counter-invaded Iraq. The U.S. did not support Hussein's initial invasion of Iran so much as simply help protect his regime from the consequences of the 1980 invasion. While the U.S. was aware of the use of chemical weapons by the regime to repel a counter-invasion in the mid-1980s, it did not know the full scale of that weapons development, and the more obvious depravities of the Hussein regime were not fully apparent until 1988-1991. So rather than behaving as a puppet-master over the Iraqi regime, the U.S. behaved more as a naive and overly-trusting partner not fully aware of Iraq's behaviour.
The threatening history of Vlodomir Zelensky's Ukraine?
This is the history that has been cited by critics of NATO with regards to Russia ostensibly being provoked by Ukraine:
⦁ That NATO despite many warnings was pushing to advance its military alliance up to the borders of Russia while Ukraine was aspiring to join NATO.
⦁ That NATO countries like the U.S. and Canada supported the removal of the prior elected pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the violent uprising of the Euromaidan protests.
⦁ That the above occurred subsequent to the United States under former President Donald Trump withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
⦁ That 14,000 people died in the Russian-speaking Donbass region of Ukraine in 2014 as the Ukrainian government suppressed an uprising there.
⦁ That the government of Ukraine under President Vlodomir Zelensky abandoned its support for the Minsk agreements, which were negotiated by multiple European countries and which granted autonomy to the two separatist regions in the Donbas.
⦁ That the government of Ukraine is beholden to far-right and Nazi groups of the kind likely to harm Russia as German Nazis did in World War II. Vladmir Putin declared that his invasion sought to "de-nazify" the government of Ukraine.
At face value many of these arguments could seem compelling and are backed by high amounts of information. Yet logic and context put them into question:
⦁ If NATO had any aggressive plans for humiliating and subduing Russia following Ukraine's hypothetical entry into NATO, such as by moving nuclear weapons into Ukraine, then surely Russia would not have trusted NATO to shy away from direct military engagement with Russia when it invaded Ukraine. In other words, Russia's nuclear deterrent ensured that no NATO country was ever going to pre-emptively attack Russia, just as NATO is afraid to attack Russia even as it has initiated a war.
⦁ Although former President Viktor Yanukovych was fairly elected in his last contest, it would be possible that many of his voters were shocked at the direction of his governance. And it is not obvious that he was forced out of government by fear for his own life as much as by his own sheer unwillingness to resolve the violence with his own governance.
⦁ Even if Yanukovych was forced out of government by violence, the subsequent two elections following his ouster are not disputed for having been free and fair, including the 2019 election that brought Zelensky into the presidency.
⦁ 10,000 of the 14,000 Ukrainians killed in the Donbass region were fighters from both sides, as opposed to Russian-speaking citizens. And Russia is alleged to have instigated the separatist movement there, as opposed to such a movement building itself organically.
⦁ The allegation of the Ukrainian government being beholden to far-right or Nazi groups is counter-intuitive, and not just because of the fact of President Zelensky being a Jew. Far-right groups historically do not favour international integration and global citizenry, which the Ukrainian government was seeking with its aspiration to join the European Union and NATO.
⦁ None of the far-right groups in question seem to be alleged to have organized any attempted attack on Russian soil. And there do not seem to be identifiable names or organized hierarchies in said groups that are alleged to wield organized power in Ukrainian politics, aside from the Right Sector's presidential candidate winning only 1.6% of the popular vote.
In summary, there is selective information to suggest that the Ukraine of 2022 could have conceivably threatened Russia at some future point in time - but the evidence offered is so specious that it seems unlikely that it could be honestly believed by Russia's leadership.
The lead advocate for the invasion of Iraq
The lead advocate of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then U.S. President George W. Bush, was elected in 2000 despite losing the popular vote. Then following his invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq he won the popular vote in the 2004 election, only to then plummet in approval ratings in the years preceding the expiry of his presidential terms.
Under Bush's leadership the U.S. government sought the approval of the United Nations to invade Iraq, but then failing to do so and in spite of global protest proceeded to invade Iraq anyways. He openly declared that the invasion would be proceeding and received Congressional approval for military action. (Technically Congress did not grant him a declaration of war, but then technically the U.S. had already been in a state of war with Iraq for 12 years.)
Although critics allege that American press beat the drums of war in support of George Bush, the fluctuations in public perception of the then President are suggestive of a war initiated in the midst of usually-independent media that were not consistently on his side.
The invasion of Iraq would be supported by multiple American allies, though some of those allies contributed troops in spite of popular domestic opposition. Canada did not directly supply troops to the invasion but supplied increased troops to Afghanistan to free up more American troops for Iraq.
The lead advocate for the invasion of Ukraine
The lead advocate of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin, was first elected as Russian Prime Minister in 1999, and has continuously cycled between Prime Ministerial and Presidential roles non-stop since. He seemingly receives positive approval ratings from many or most Russians residing in his country.
Under Putin's leadership the Russian government had interfered militarily both in the quasi-independent Chechnya in 1999 and in Georgia in 2008. In the context of the current invasion, Putin launched it with warnings that it was coming but without a transparent deadline. He has yet to admit that he is waging a full-scale war in Ukraine, let alone having attempted to seek buy-in from either the Russian people or the United Nations.
The press in Russia is obviously not free, with the lack of detectable fluctuation in public opinion about Putin being an obvious hint. A striking number of journalistic and political opponents of Putin have died from exotic poisons, while other journalists and political opponents are arrested or jailed.
The invasion of Ukraine seems to be singularly supported by Russian ally Belarus, although China neither openly supports nor condemns the invasion.
The stark differences between the two invasions
The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine share some obvious similarities: lack of support from the United Nations and the full global community, lack of an imminent threat as justification for war, and an intent to impose regime change by military force. Yet in other ways, the two invasions could not be starker in their differences.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was led by a man distinctly lacking of a cult of personality and who would in time quietly fade away from American politics. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine is led by a man who consistently dominates Russian politics, who has strong ambitions or delusions of self-grandeur, and who plainly has no intention of resigning from office anytime soon.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was led by the United States, which is a country that has initiated many military attacks in many countries. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine is led by a man who has overseen attacks on multiple of his nation's neighbours, the very nations he should be able to most easily understand and therefore most easily negotiate with.
The Iraq of 2003 had accumulated a record of recklessness and aggression that included attacks on many countries, support for assassinations and domestic terrorism, lack of disclosure on historical weapons development, and defiance of the restraints of economic sanctions and no-fly zones where it had previously butchered opposition. It destroyed its weapons of mass destruction, but under the veil of secrecy.
The Ukraine of 2022 had established a pro-integration record that, while not fully in line with UN resolutions and far from perfectly democratic, sought to integrate Ukrainian membership in more global institutions. And following its newfound independence from Moscow after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukraine disarmed its weapons of mass destruction under international supervision.
All these realizations lead to the obvious question: when will the critics of American foreign policy and NATO, who say that George W. Bush should have been subject to war crimes trials, also demand that Vladimir Putin be subject to war crimes trials?