Nervous laughter filled the room after a moment of awkward silence and a visibly embarrassed former U.S. President having just made one of the biggest gaffes of his post-political career.
On May 18, 2022, George W. Bush stood at a podium in his presidential center in Dallas, Texas, and lamented Vladimir Putin for rigged elections and totalitarianism. He condemned the “wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq” while meaning to refer to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Critics of the former President were quick to question the blunder, wondering if it was an admission of guilt or a sign of overlapping legacies of illegal occupation.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, an invasion that claimed the lives of more than 4,700 U.S. and allied troops and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians. It also marked the one-year anniversary of the Russian offensive into Ukraine, which is estimated to have killed or wounded more than 200,000 Russian troops and 100,000 Ukrainians. What do these two wars of choice have in common and how do they differ?
Murky Rationale For War
The silence of the night covered the secrecy of withdrawal as over 100 heavily armored military vehicles containing about 500 U.S. soldiers made their way to the Khabari border crossing between Iraq and Kuwait. On December 18, 2011, the last American combat troops left Iraq. The war has ended but the problems for the Iraqi people have just begun, according to Saad Hamza Kheder, a former Iraqi soldier.
“Iraq was destroyed by the war,” said Kheder. “The Americans wanted the oil….they wanted to control the people of Iraq: Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish,” he added. Kheder served in the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq war and retired in 1991 as a captain. He was in the Ministry of Trade in the Mosul province, some 250 miles from Baghdad, during the US invasion.
The rationale for the Iraq war has been subject to numerous debates. The official position of the U.S. government was of concern that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and had links to al-Qaeda. According to an Arms Control Association fact sheet, over 900 inspections were carried out at more than 500 sites by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between 2002 and 2003. No chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons were found.
A 2003 Gallup Poll found that seventy-two percent of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq. This high level of support for war in the U.S. began to fall as the intelligence used to support the invasion proved to be inaccurate.
Similarly, Russia’s rationale for invading Ukraine was also based on faulty reasoning.
On February 24, 2022, President Putin laid out his goals for the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, of Jewish origins himself, responded by saying, “Could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?”
Putin also falsely claimed that Russian-speaking Ukrainians needed to be liberated from genocidal Ukrainian nationalists in the country.
The Russian invasion came at a time when Ukrainian officials allied themselves more closely to the West and made clear their desire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance of countries from Europe and North America. Since the invasion, Finland became the latest addition to the group earlier this year.
Observers claim that the rationale behind Putin’s actions may just be an attempt at bringing back Soviet-era domination of surrounding territories. This supplements his belief of Russians and Ukrainians are one people. The annexation of Crimea and the Russian claimed “liberation” of the Donbas region point towards motives inspired by hegemonic ideas.
Javed Ali, a professor at the University of Michigan, an expert on national security and intelligence, and a former member of the FBI said he believes Putin’s motivations for war are constantly evolving. “Now, it’s more about protecting or preserving this historical notion of a greater Russia, of what Ukraine used to be part of, the ethnic-speaking Russians that are still in Ukraine, and the cultural and historical ties and the economic importance of Ukraine to that greater Russia. Those are the narratives that Putin is holding on to now.”
Ali suggested that the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine share a commonality, and why the leaders of both countries chose war remains murky. “Whatever the initial justification was, there was some personal motivation for Putin that’s just as unclear as it is for the Iraq war decision with Bush,” said Ali.
On March 17, 2003, days before the U.S. occupation of Iraq, former President George W. Bush addressed the nation, justifying his decision to go to war. “Intelligence gathered by this, and other governments, leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq’s neighbors and against Iraq’s people.”
In the years since that speech, multiple reports and analyses, such as the Chilcot Inquiry, proved President Bush wrong and held that government officials exaggerated the threat of Saddam Hussein and his supposed arsenal of WMDs.
Yet, in the lead-up to the war, mainstream media outlets large and small helped cement the belief that Saddam Hussein harbored WMDs and that the war was one of necessity, not of choice. Editors ran stories with questionable sources and false information that was not properly vetted. Reporters were pressured by public opinion to act “patriotic,” and broadcast companies filled their airtime with U.S. government officials backing the war.
Jonathan Landay was one of the reporters who doubted the truthfulness of the Bush administration’s claims in 2003. He and his reporting team at Knight Ridder published stories that questioned the ramp-up to war, running counter to many national publications at the time. “They (reporters) did not question what senior officials were telling them… and the fact is that the senior officials were political appointees, political appointees have political agendas.”
Landay, who now works as a national security correspondent for Reuters, suggested the U.S. media was fed the wrong information from government sources, “On the one hand, they (Bush administration) go with the weapons of mass destruction, but they reject the intelligence assessment that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. And that was an argument that we [as reporters] were being told. Our sources were telling us all of this and whether or not the other organizations bothered to look into those questions, I can’t say.”
In 2023, Russian news organizations and their reporters do not have the freedom to question the legitimacy of the Ukrainian war and face punishment from security forces if they do. As an authoritarian regime with totalitarian tendencies, Putin’s Russia has little to no press freedom. According to Reporter Without Borders, almost all independent media have been banned since the invasion, and all others are subject to military censorship. With state-owned media like Russia Today controlling the public narrative, Russia is ranked 155 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.
“Media manipulation, information warfare, as always, has long been a practice by states as part of their regular military operations. So, we’ll always see that,” explained Landay. “In the case of Ukraine, we can see where Russia has relied on misinformation and disinformation to try and legitimize its decision to invade. One example is an allegation that the United States was running secret bioweapon labs in Ukraine and doing all sorts of dastardly things. It’s disinformation that found its way from Russian mouthpieces to China where state media regurgitated these same false stories, and these same false stories were picked up other places around the world.”
Whether it’s the disinformation provided by the Kremlin or faulty intelligence released from the White House, the evidence shows that media outlets played a significant role in manipulating public support.
Resource Exploitation and War Profiting
A fact of Iraq war history that is often neglected is that the United States was anticipating one of the worst energy crises since the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, as laid out in the National Energy Policy Development Group Report of 2001. The group was headed by Bush’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, who had previously served as chairman of Halliburton, a huge player in the oil and gas industry.
The report starts with a letter penned to Bush where Cheney mentions the need to “increase our energy supplies” and “increase our energy resources.” Iraq is a resource-rich country with the fifth-largest oil reserves and the twelfth-largest gas reserves in the world. Its oil industry was fully nationalized before the invasion, but within a few years following Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was largely privatized with foreign firms deriving huge benefits. American private contractors from Bechtel, Fluor, Parsons, and Halliburton, among others, reaped billions of dollars from reconstruction projects. In many cases, these contracts were either designated as no-bid or with very limited competition.
An estimated $60 billion to $200 billion was spent on post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq. According to the Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction Report of 2013, there was massive fraud, waste, and abuse of these funds. A report from the Costs of War project at Brown University puts the total cost of the Iraq war at around $2 trillion, but other estimates place the costs much higher.
“If you look today, 20 years to the war, and say, who is the economic winner of the war? It’s actually not the U.S., it’s China. It didn’t spend one penny on the war or didn’t have one soldier there. But if you look at the major contracts for oil for construction, it was won by China,” says Joseph Sassoon, Professor of History and Political Economy at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
According to MEED, a media publishing company covering Middle East business intelligence news, Chinese contractors in Iraq won “87 percent of all oil, gas, and power project contracts awarded in the country during 2022.”
Similar to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, President Putin has fueled Russia’s war and quelled domestic challenges with oil and gas revenues. His decision to invade Ukraine has triggered what can be considered a global financial crisis with rising inflation, disruption of long-standing coal, oil, and gas flows, and a series of sanctions.
Ukraine has Europe’s second-biggest gas reserves and is rich in iron, titanium, lithium, and other rare earth materials. According to the International Energy Agency, “Ukraine’s abundant coal reserves account for more than 90% of the country’s fossil fuel reserves….most coal in Ukraine is in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine in the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Dnipropetrovsk.”
Putin’s initial advance into the Donbas, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions is where the country’s energy resources are concentrated. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 had already opened up billions of dollars worth of natural assets in the Black Sea, now guarded by Russian naval forces. This could be considered Russia’s attempt at securing energy supplies for an uncertain future for worldwide energy consumption. Bush had a similar agenda during the uncertainty in global financial markets in the early 2000s.
According to a joint assessment by the Government of Ukraine, the World Bank, the European Commission, and the United Nations, “the cost of reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine has grown to US $411 billion.” This covers the one-year period up to the first anniversary of the invasion. These estimates make the reconstruction effort much more expensive than the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
Last year, President Zelensky signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with a leading asset and investment management company, BlackRock, to design a roadmap for reconstruction efforts. A similar MoU was signed with U.S. investment bank JPMorgan Chase in February. Companies worldwide are positioning themselves to get lucrative contracts that can be considered a “gold rush.” A strong anti-corruption effort with reconstruction will need to be pursued to avoid repeating mistakes from Iraq.
The decision to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003 led to mixed reactions worldwide. Military operations initiated by the U.S. and its coalition force caused turbulence in NATO and undermined the authority of the United Nations. Strong voices of opposition were raised around the globe, including in France and Germany, who opposed the war under their pacifist agenda. Political commentators criticized the U.S. for acting selfishly and interrupting the process of international law. Hundreds and thousands of citizens from cities like Madrid and Lahore took to the streets in anti-war demonstrations.
Although many opposed the operation and some suggested the war was illegal, more than 45 countries offered military forces to combat the authoritarian regime. Countries like Poland and the United Kingdom even deployed troops to the battlefield as part of a multi-force coalition. The potential threat of WMDs, Saddam’s autocratic power, and Iraq’s alleged affiliation with al-Qaeda made it easier to justify the legitimacy of the invasion.
Today, Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused a similar, if not more, negative reaction. The UN general assembly approved a resolution demanding Russia’s unconditional and immediate withdrawal from Ukraine. NATO has condemned Russia’s aggression on Ukraine as an unprovoked and brutal act, accusing it of disrupting international law and undermining international security. Public opinion on Putin’s Russia has also plummeted after the initial military operation. According to a 2022 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, “a median of 90% of adults across 18 surveyed countries said they had no confidence in Russia’s president to do the right thing regarding world affairs, while a median of just 9% had confidence in him. Ratings for Putin reached record lows in every nation with available trend data.”
What Putin lacked compared to Bush was the support of other nations. Putin’s operation in Ukraine united Western nations and NATO. When asked about Putin facing the stronger alliance and expansion of NATO, Ali suggested that it is a consequence Putin did not foresee. Under Western support, Ukraine has resisted Russia’s aggression for more than a year and is stuck in the conflict without a clear exit strategy.
Additionally, with Finland now entering NATO, Russia must contend with a new adversary nation on its border.
“I would have to think it is Putin’s worst nightmare that NATO has now gotten even bigger as a result of this campaign that he launched,” Ali explained on where Russia stands on the world stage. “On the flip side, Russia has brought together countries like Iran, North Korea, and China. Not at a coalition level, but maybe at a bilateral level, in a way that probably the West didn’t anticipate, either.”
The Road Ahead
With diverging reports on casualties and a strong standoff between the two nations, it is unclear how long the Russia-Ukraine war will continue. The Iraq war, spanning nearly a decade, was filled with similar uncertainty following the initial advance into the country. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), a transitional government following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and labeled as “Bush’s man in Iraq,” recently shared a personal anecdote with these reporters about the prolonged stay in Iraq. “Me and the President, we were both athletes. I told him, ‘Mr. President, this is a marathon, not a race’,” he said. President Putin has warned that the war with Ukraine could be lengthy. Still, with China intermediating and casualties on both sides piling up, this marathon is one that the Russian President is in no rush to finish.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba visited Iraq on April 17 to garner political support from the Middle East. He stood beside Iraq’s foreign minister, Fuad Hussein, who emphasized the importance of de-escalating the situation, “Wars end with negotiation and dialogue; that’s why we believe in the language of dialogue.”