Two decades ago, the United States invaded Iraq, sending 130,000 US troops into a sovereign country to overthrow its government. Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, voted to authorize the war, a decision he came to regret.
Today another large, world-shaking invasion is under way. Biden, now the US president, recently traveled to Warsaw to rally international support for Ukraine’s fight to repel Russian aggression. After delivering his remarks, Biden declared: “The idea that over 100,000 forces would invade another country – since world war II, nothing like that has happened”.
The president spoke these words on 22 February, within a month of the 20th anniversary of the US military’s opening strike on Baghdad. The White House did not attempt to correct Biden’s statement. Reporters do not appear to have asked about it. The country’s leading newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post, ran stories that quoted Biden’s line. Neither of them questioned its veracity or noted its hypocrisy.
Did the Iraq war even happen?
While Washington forgets, much more of the world remembers. The flagrant illegality of bypassing the United Nations: this happened. The attempt to legitimize “pre-emption” (really prevention, a warrant to invade countries that have no plans to attack anyone): this mattered, including by handing the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a pretext he has used. Worst of all was the destruction of the Iraqi state, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,600 US service members, and radiating instability and terrorism across the region.
The Iraq war wasn’t the only law- or country-breaking military intervention launched by the US and its allies in recent decades. Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya form a tragic pattern. But the Iraq war was the largest, loudest and proudest of America’s violent debacles, the most unwarranted, and the least possible to ignore. Or so it would seem. Biden’s statement is only the latest in a string of attempts by US leaders to forget the war and move on.
Barack Obama, who came into the White House vowing to end the “mindset” that brought America into Iraq, decided that ending the war was good enough. “Now, it’s time to turn the page”, he said upon ordering the withdrawal of US forces from the country in 2011. Three years later, he sent troops back to Iraq to fight the Islamic State, which had risen out of the chaos of the invasion and civil war. It fell to Donald Trump to harness public outrage over not only the war but also the refusal of elites to hold themselves accountable and make policy changes commensurate with the scale of the disaster.
Tempting though it is to look forward, not backward, the two are not mutually exclusive. And it might not be possible to reach a better future without understanding and appreciating why past attempts failed.
Ukrainians are now paying part of the price for western misdeeds. Russia’s invasion was an act of blatant aggression. Moscow violated the UN charter and seeks to annex territory as part of an explicitly imperial project (in this respect unlike America’s war in Iraq). Few people outside Russia have genuine enthusiasm for Putin’s effort. Yet, much of the world sees the conflict as a proxy war between Russia and the west rather than a fight for sovereignty and freedom.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, approximately 58% of the world’s population (excluding the two direct belligerents) lives in countries that are either neutral toward the war or lean toward Russia’s side. Over the past year, support for the west’s position has shrunk rather than grown: a handful of countries initially critical of Russia have shifted toward neutrality. Just last month, 39 countries did not support a UN resolution demanding that Russia withdraw its forces from Ukraine. Those that took a neutral stance, including China and India, represented an estimated 62% of the population of the global south.
Russia has not become the international pariah that western leaders claim it to be. Its economy has mostly weathered international sanctions, in part because the only countries willing to impose them are wealthy strategic partners of the US.
In this context, the White House should think about the message that Biden sent the world when he acted as though the war in Iraq never happened. When the US commits aggression, he implied, America’s misdeeds do not count. Or perhaps, in saying that “since world war II, nothing like that has happened”, Biden was thinking only of Europe but neglected to say so – in which case he treated the west’s history as synonymous with the world’s, effacing the experience of most of humanity. Either way, Biden conveyed that support for Ukraine is mere power politics, not a principled cause in which all countries have a stake.
Hypocrisy alone is not the problem. Hypocrisy is all around us. What matters is whether we are working to build a better world.
When Biden memory-holes the obvious, he is not doing so. He is perpetuating the hegemonic project that brought the US into Iraq in the first place. He sends a similar message when he routinely frames the Ukraine war as a struggle of democracy against autocracy – as though countries deserve support against an unprovoked invasion only if the nature of their government meets with Washington’s approval.
Countries outside the west have an interest in defending the principle that sovereignty should be respected. They have no interest in defending the principle that sovereignty is conditional. If Washington still claims the right to judge who is sovereign, then has it really renounced the right invade Iraq after all?
The US should admit past errors frankly and demonstrate, through words and deeds, that it has learned difficult lessons. No time is too late to build a better world. But even as the US takes the right side of the latest war, it is far from clear what lessons it has learned.
Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and Catholic University. He is the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy.