This year the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the USA and Britain—the 19th—falls amid a further major conflict, today in Ukraine.
Each year, the recollection of the Iraq war is framed differently. Early on, it has a deep resonance within British domestic politics, something which persisted at least until Tony Blair departed Downing Street in 2007.
Later it was set in the context of the rise of Islamic State with all its depredations—a development which led to Britain’s fourth war in Iraq over the last hundred years, and third in the last thirty-one.
Now we remember the Iraq War, still the greatest calamity of the twenty-first century to date, as we consider Ukraine’s plight. We have it on the authority of the BBC’s Clive Myrie that any comparison of the two conflicts is ‘fucking bullshit’, which is about par for the quality of the Corporation’s coverage of events.
In terms of deaths, that is surely true, however. Iraq Body Count estimates 162,000 violent deaths consequential upon the 2003 invasion; other estimates are much higher. 4.3 million Iraqis were internally displaced or sent into exile as refugees. The Ukraine war is in its infancy as we write, but we can certainly hope that these horrific casualty figures are not replicated. The refugee count, alas, may be.
But, pace the overwrought Myrie, comparisons are illuminating. The differences and similarities tell us something about power in the world.
First, some similarities. The Anglo-US invasion of Iraq and the Russian of Ukraine were both illegal wars, fought without a simulacrum of United Nations blessing. Simply, they are wars of aggression.
The main reason given for the Iraq War, by Tony Blair at least, proved to be false. Saddam’s regime possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Putin’s justifications about NATO and the Donbas, although not straightforwardly falsifiable, clearly do not rise to the level which would mandate a military response under international law. Neither an assault on Russia’s own integrity nor genocide against Russian-speakers were imminent, or even contemplated as far as can be told.
Beyond this point, the politics diverge. The US-British war was aimed explicitly at regime change—deposing the Baath government, imprisoning its leaders and liquidating the state it headed. Putin has blown somewhat hot and cold on this point—on the one hand calling the Ukrainian government a group of ‘drug addicts and neo-Nazis’ and urging the army to overthrow it, while still negotiating an end to the conflict with the self-same administration.
The Iraq invasion was the precursor to an eight-year occupation of the country by the US military, ineptly aided by the British for the first five years. This occupation was direct and unambiguous for the first twelve months, with Iraq in the hands of US proconsul Paul Bremer. Thereafter the real power remained with the US military, operating behind the screen of an Iraqi government.
The occupation led to endless miseries of its own, of which the mass torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison by US forces may be the best remembered and the unleashing of a horrendous sectarian conflict the most enduring. A shattered economy and the rise of Islamic State are the legacy. Even today, Iraq’s unity is no more than precarious.
Occupation of all of Ukraine is beyond Putin’s power and may be beyond his intentions too. Partition cannot be excluded, but the absence of any obvious enthusiasm for such an outcome amongst Ukraine’s Russian minority would make it seem unlikely, even should Russia’s military prevail. Bush and Blair had more cards to play in internal Iraqi politics than Putin does in Ukraine.
George Bush had allies too—Britain most significantly, but also Poland, Australia and others. The war was opposed by France and Germany, so any idea of using NATO to prosecute it (as had been done in the likewise illegal attack on Yugoslavia a few years previously) was a non-starter. But there was the notorious ‘coalition of the willing’, a coalition which excluded public opinion.
Putin essentially acts alone, if the somewhat diffident assistance of Belarus’s Lukashenko, a man with a developed sense of self-preservation, is discounted. That is not to say that he wants for sympathy. The states which abstained in the United Nations vote of condemnation represent most of the world’s population. Those sanctioning him outside Europe are a small minority. China is a non-combatant, but a friendly one.
Finally, an important difference. When the bombardment hit Baghdad we were invited by the media and politicians to be awestruck by US military power. Today, we are supposed to be horrified by Russian-wrought destruction. And in Ukraine, the civilian dead are being counted.
In sum, the Iraq war was an aggression by a hubristic hyper-power, intoxicated by unipolarity. The Ukraine conflict is an aggression by a far weaker player, struggling to impose locally what the US assumes the right to dictate globally.
This sketchy comparison does not exhaust the connections between the two wars. Most obviously, the Ukraine invasion takes place in the world the Iraq invasion made. Much of the actual international community—as opposed to the whites-only community invoked by the Anglo-American liberal commentariat—has not hesitated to draw attention to this point. It will be decades more before the invaders of Iraq can consider claiming the moral high ground.
If a ‘rules-based order’ collapsed, it was in 2003. Recall that Russia had cooperated fully with the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. Putin still hoped to be taken seriously back then. The illegality, mendacity, and brutality of the Iraq invasion and occupation was the moment the ‘new world order’ of supposedly benign US hegemony erected in the aftermath of the Cold War turned into the law of the jungle. Turns out there was more than one big beast.
Jungle it has been since. Anxious to avoid re-running the errors of 2003 diplomacy, Britain and France connived at securing UN sanction for the 2011 bombing of Libya by fibbing about their regime-change intentions, a dissimulation that Russia, again, did not forget. That war did not go well either, and Libya has no more recovered than Iraq has.
Today Yemen endures a British-armed, British-funded and British-protected bombardment by Saudi Arabia and its allies. 377,000 Yemenis at least have died as a result, perhaps one hundred times the civilian deaths in Ukraine. It is not whataboutery to point this out; it is racism not to.
There was never any question of sanctioning the US and Britain for their lawless behaviour—as if! Neither Blair nor Bush have been summoned to the Hague for their crimes. The invaders did not achieve their strategic objectives, since it can be assumed that enhancing the power of Iran over its neighbour was not among them. Britain, in particular, slunk away from the occupation humiliated. But unrepentant, the great western powers got away with it. We live with the consequences.
Stop the War Coalition was the main organisation campaigning against the Iraq invasion in both the run-up and the aftermath. The movement against the war was a vast democratic expression of the British people’s opposition to a war of choice by a leader who had previously been a pretty popular Prime Minister. That movement became a defining political experience for a generation, and its impact resonates to this day, despite many political vicissitudes since 2003.
Stop the War is still, evidently, the spectre haunting imperialist social democracy. As I have previously written here, Keir Starmer has literally had nothing to say of any substance about the Ukraine conflict other than attacking the anti-war movement and its supporters in the Parliamentary Labour Party. For him, far more than for Blair, politics reduces to his internal war with the party’s left-wing and, indeed, its membership.
It is a backhanded compliment to Stop the War. All that can be said for it as a political strategy is that it cuts with the grain of a war psychosis of enveloping hysteria, erasing all dissent from the official narrative and seeking to censor any voice raising awkward questions.
But the larger question remains—have any lessons been learnt this last twenty years? Gordon Brown tiptoed away from Blair’s entanglements about as swiftly as he decently could. Ed Miliband admitted that the war had been wrong, and avoided a repeat imbroglio over Syria. Jeremy Corbyn, of course, was a lifelong champion of the peace movement and had a different vision of the uses of power altogether.
Will Keir’s retro-Blairism, his Bevin-before-Bevan nostalgia, lead him to emulate Blair’s warmongering? It is far from certain that he will get the chance, of course. But it may be that still more blood will be spilt to prove the Labour Party’s imperial virility. The ghosts of Iraq are unquiet.