Stop defending the Iraq War! Revising history will only lead to more mistakes

The president's recent explanation of America's invasion of Iraq overlooks key lessons the nation must learn

Topics: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Iraq, Iraq war, Neoconservatism, Editor's Picks, Foreign policy, Crimea, Russia,

Stop defending the Iraq War! Revising history will only lead to more mistakesDick Cheney (Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing)

To anyone who lived through the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to an occupation that lasted nearly a decade, cost us more than $2 trillion, and led to the deaths of an estimated 500,000 people, it may seem unthinkable that the sordid details of how the war began could ever be forgotten. But 11 years after the first bombs fell on Baghdad, the story of that war is already in danger of being replaced by a more politically palatable fairy tale.

On Wednesday, President Obama told a European audience that America’s invasion of Iraq was different than Russia’s invasion of Crimea because America “sought to work within the international system.” Distinguishing the American war from Vladimir Putin’s crass grab for land, Obama explained: “We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory, nor did we grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people and a fully sovereign Iraqi state could make decisions about its own future.”

While there is nothing technically untrue in Obama’s remarks, they are profoundly misleading. They amount to a bowdlerized version of the war, in which the most distasteful aspects of our invasion have been omitted.

It is disingenuous to say that we “sought to work within the international system” without noting that we subsequently went to war in flagrant violation of international law. Even one of the war’s chief architects admitted that the invasion was not strictly legal. Richard Perle, one of the Pentagon’s most eager advocates of war on Iraq, said in November 2003 that international law “would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone” and that “in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing.” Even if the Bush administration would have preferred to go to war with the support of the United Nations, the fact remains that they went to war without it. Saying that the United States “sought to work within the international system” before invading Iraq is like praising a burglar because he checked to see if your door was unlocked before breaking a window.

The consequences of this reckless act go far beyond the awful human cost of the Iraq War. Our invasion of Iraq undermined the authority of the United Nations and created a dangerous precedent for other preemptive wars. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Bush’s war a “fundamental challenge” to the core principles of the United Nations and warned that it “could set precedents that [result] in a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without credible justification.” Putin himself, in defending his actions in Crimea, cited the record of the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

It is equally misleading to say that America “did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory” or “grab its resources for our own gain.” No, the United States did not literally profit from the war, but the defense contractors we hired to fight for us during the protracted occupation made billions, and concern about Iraq’s most significant resource — oil — played a major role in the neoconservatives’ obsession with overthrowing Saddam. Likewise, the line between “annexing” a piece of territory and invading and occupying it for nearly nine years is a distinction without a difference. Even Obama’s hopeful conclusion about Iraq’s ability to “make decisions about its own future” smacks of wishful thinking. On paper, Iraq has a democracy; in practice, we left them with one of the most corrupt and incompetent governments in the region — hardly an achievement we should be proud of.

So far, the most obvious difference between the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Crimea is that one of them has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. But Obama did not mention this. Instead, this intelligent and thoughtful man — himself a critic of the invasion — found himself compelled to insist that the Iraq War, however unwise, was defensible in a way that Russia’s shabby Crimean adventure was not.

It is always tempting for Americans to believe that their own motives are somehow purer and nobler than those of others, and that we can be trusted to act selflessly in a way that other nations cannot. When John Kerry condemned Russia for “invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext,” he seemed completely unaware of the irony. But this is a dangerous fantasy.

When we allow ourselves to become seduced by the idea of our exceptionalism, we find ourselves making excuses for even our worst mistakes. Eventually, we start to believe that those mistakes were not really such terrible mistakes — we meant well, after all. During the Vietnam War, its critics often denounced the war as criminal and immoral; decades later, we are more likely to remember it as a “blunder” or a “tragedy.” We are also more likely to blame the people who demonstrated against the war than the people who led us into it.

In time, we forgot the lessons of that war. Not all wars are like Vietnam, we told ourselves — and stumbled headlong into the twin disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan. Cleaning up the history of the Iraq War might make us feel better about ourselves, but it deprives us of the lessons we might learn from an honest version of that history — and sets us up for further calamities.

Justyn Dillingham is a freelance writer residing in Tucson, Arizona.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...