From Iraq to Ukraine: Reflections on imperial hubris

Marwan Bishara

Twenty years ago, as the United States prepared to wage war on Iraq, then-Democratic Senator Joe Biden voted in favour of President George Bush’s reckless adventure. On the other side of the world, in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin opposed it, denouncing it as a mistake and a major escalation that would destabilise the international system.
Today, it is the savvier and more seasoned Putin who is waging an imperial war in Ukraine – a blunder that now-President Biden has pounced on, warning of its destabilising implications for the world. Over these two decades, I have written extensively about the savage, arrogant and reckless wars the Kremlin and the White House have waged in a relentless show of imperial hubris, whether in Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.
I have exposed the pretexts for the Iraq war and warned repeatedly against the dangers of Washington’s Middle East adventures well before and after the invasion, as I have later done for Moscow’s attack on Ukraine. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, instead of writing with hindsight or introspection, as many have done in the past few days, I would like to revisit some basic ideas exactly as I wrote them years ago and over the past year. They reveal how these imperial wars of choice are destined to fail and why they bring about destruction instead of democracy, chaos instead of stability and humiliation instead of victory. Here are excerpts from three articles I wrote for the International New York Times (previously known as the International Herald Tribune) about the invasion of Iraq and three I wrote for Al Jazeera English about the invasion of Ukraine.
Those who advocate an attack on Iraq have short memories. Since World War II, the use of force by the United States has consistently failed to neutralize its adversaries beyond the short term. And in the Middle East, wars and covert operations have only produced further conflict. Washington’s logic of force has failed in the Middle East and elsewhere. All three major American wars of the last half a century – in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf – ended in stalemate or defeat. A global response to Sept. 11 could usher in a new era of multilateral cooperation and revamped international law to deal with the new transnational threats. An attack on Iraq would do exactly the opposite. The immediate threat to world stability is coming not from the Iraqi dictator but rather from the democratically elected government of the world’s superpower. Americans, the ball is in your court.
The Bush administration should be careful when it talks about democracy in the Middle East. The idea is too valuable, and too vital, to be used as cynical camouflage for other agendas, whether those are based on oil interests, or Israel’s, or the desire to have a solid military beachhead in a volatile region. It’s time for democrats – Westerners, Arabs and others – to confront warmongering politicians with a geo-ethics, to oppose war with the same unwavering opposition they oppose dictators. Democrats the world over, foremost among them American democrats, must put their values above their interests, their humanity above their fear, to help create coalitions across continents and religions to make peace and democracy possible for all. For the past few months I have watched with bewilderment as America has adopted Israel’s mistaken strategy in the Middle East. Will America take as long as Israel to realize that starting a war is nothing like finishing it, and that military occupation does not bring about peace or security?
Attaining national security in a transnational world means accepting and respecting interdependence. Once security is understood as a universal right, interdependence becomes a sign of wisdom, not weakness. If America must draw on another tradition, why not look to the long history of Jewish tolerance and survival – or to America’s own constitutional tradition? It is time to dust off those great documents sitting on the White House shelves. The much-anticipated war in Ukraine may have not started, but it has already achieved most of its objectives. Which begs the question: why persist on the path to war, a bloody destructive war with assured blowbacks, when diplomacy could finish the job?
The main protagonists, Russia and the United States, are cynically using the good old Cold War playbook to advance their national interests at the expense of Ukrainian, indeed European, and international security. The Biden administration could certainly accommodate the Russian red line since Ukraine is not even on the path for NATO membership. In return, Russia may provide the necessary assurance and commitment to an independent and free Ukraine. Presidents Putin and Biden have shown clever brinkmanship; they should not let it get out of control because of personal and national pride. It is high time to reject warmongering and embrace appeasement; yes appeasement; mutual strategic appeasement to avoid another devastating European war and dreadful world crisis. Russia’s justifications for its invasion of Ukraine, like the United States’ excuses for its invasion of Iraq two decades earlier, prove that world powers have failed to learn the lessons of imperial hubris – theirs and others. From the ancient Greeks and Romans through to the more recent French, German and British powers, geopolitical arrogance is notorious for breeding fatal political stupidity. So why then do world powers continue to make the same costly mistakes, expecting different results? Does arrogance breed madness too? Remember, the smart learn from their own mistakes, the wise learn from the mistakes of others, but only the foolish learn from neither, as we see in Ukraine today.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been catastrophic. It has led to the loss of tens of thousands of precious lives, the displacement of millions of people, and the destruction of countless homes, civilian buildings and infrastructure. It has also unravelled Russia’s moral and strategic standing in the world, as it has become clear just how badly prepared the Russian army really is and how exaggerated Russian economic might has been. The war has also been disastrous for the rest of the world. Not only has it destabilised energy markets, fuelled inflation and disrupted the supply of foods and commodities, but it has also exposed and aggravated the poor state of world affairs, accelerating nuclear proliferation, fuelling an arms race, crippling the United Nations, and undermining international law, multilateral cooperation, and humanitarian assistance.
Although we have made major strides forward as a human civilisation, culminating in healthier, richer, better-educated generations, we seem attracted, if not addicted, to destructive conflicts that could set us back generations. History teaches us that great powers decline or perish because of reckless wars, but to no avail. For decades, Russia and America have followed in each other’s footsteps, fighting wars they could not finish except in humiliation and massive destruction. And then came Ukraine, alas. Stupid, indeed.