Of all the strained analyses offered by the Left on the Crimea crisis, none is quite so ludicrous as the comparison of Putin’s invasion of the former Soviet territory to the 2003 Iraq War. As the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart put it, Putin is just like “the American hawks who hate him most.” This sentiment was vocally seconded by Michael McFaul, a former Obama administration official who served as a special assistant to the president at the National Security Council and as ambassador to the Russian Federation. “As ambassador, I found it difficult to defend our commitment to sovereignty and international law when asked by Russians, ‘What about Iraq?’”
Defending America’s commitment to sovereignty and international law vis-à-vis Iraq isn’t difficult at all, if one chooses to examine the facts, as opposed to the American left’s historical revisionism. To begin with, President Bush asked for and received authorization for the use of force in Iraq from Congress. Both chambers approved the measure with overwhelming majorities. On Oct. 10, 2002 the House voted 296-133 in favor, followed by the Democratic-led Senate’s vote of 77-23 a day later. “I believe it is important for America to speak with one voice,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) at the time. “It is neither a Democratic resolution nor a Republican resolution. It is now a statement of American resolve and values.” That sentiment was echoed by then-Senator Hillary Clinton, who called her vote “the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but I cast it with conviction. I want this president, or any future president, to be in the strongest possible position to lead our country, at the United Nations or at war.”
The resolution authorized the president to defend America against the threat posed by Iraq and enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs). It also required that all diplomatic efforts be exhausted prior to the use of force and that reports to Congress be made every 60 days once action was undertaken.
The key element here is the authorization to enforce the relevant UNSCRs. Beginning in the late 1990s, Saddam Hussein began serially dismissing UNSCRs, ignoring more than 17 of them and remaining in material breach of Iraq’s disarmament obligations. The last one in that regard, Resolution 1441, authorized on November 8, 2002, gave Iraq a “final opportunity to comply.”
Bush also established a coalition of 40 nations to depose Hussein, including Great Britain, Australia, Spain, Italy, Poland, 16 members of the NATO alliance, Japan, South Korea, and a total 12 of 25 EU nations. France and Germany sat on the sidelines, as did Russia, but the “nobility” of their position was belied by the oil-for-food scandal, in which a U.N investigation revealed that the three nations had paid a total of $1.8 billion in kickbacks and illicit surcharges to the Iraqi strongman.
Another inconvenient reality is that, left-wing mythology not withstanding, WMD possession was not sole premise of the Iraq War. While WMDs were one concern, many other activities of the Hussein regime posed extreme threats to international security, as articulated by Bush in his Sept 12, 2002 speech to the U.N. Aside from WMDs, Bush made clear that if Hussein wanted to avoid war he must “immediately end all support for terrorism,” “cease persecution of its civilian population,” “account for all Gulf War personnel whose fate is still unknown,” and “immediately end all illicit trade outside the oil-for-food program.”
Yet the comparison between Putin’s seizure of Crimea and Bush’s liberation of Iraq ultimately falls apart based on the simplest of realities. America invaded Iraq, disposed of a bloodthirsty dictator, did our best to establish a provisional and democratic government, and withdrew. Nor did we seek anything in the way of reparations: China has become the largest recipient of Iraqi oil, with India coming in second.
Putin, however, is not at all interested in global security or bringing an internally recognized criminal to justice. Since 2008, Putin has engaged in invasions of two countries — Georgia and Ukraine — and many of Russia’s neighbors are now fearing the same fate awaits them. That fear is driven by the reality that Putin has characterized the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” and is eyeing other conquests in his determination to build a Eurasian Union of former Soviet states. Fear of Russian expansionism is further exacerbated by Obama’s killing of the missile defense systems that were to be installed in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009, which were aborted in exchange for a “reset” in bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia.
Rather than Iraq, a far better comparison to Crimea is a more recent war, which the left was hypocritically silent to: Libya. From the very beginning, Putin has used appeals to humanitarianism as the pretext for his invasion of Crimea. He has cast himself as the “guardian” of the Russian-speaking people, even those residing in neighboring countries, such as Ukraine. For example, citing threats of violence toward the Russian-speaking citizens in the Ukraine, Putin said, “[I]f we see such uncontrolled crime spreading to the eastern regions of the country, and if the people ask us for help, while we already have the official request from the legitimate president, we retain the right to use all available means to protect those people. We believe this would be absolutely legitimate.”
In 2011, Obama used similar justifications for the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya, which at the time was in the midst of a chaotic civil conflict, not unlike that of Ukraine. “I have… stated that it is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go,” Obama said of the situation. “But when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of U.N. Security resolution 1973. That specifically talks about humanitarian efforts, and we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate.” The mission began as a no-fly zone over Libya, for the purpose of protecting civilian populations, but quickly escalated into unauthorized targeted air strikes and a manhunt for Qaddafi. While Obama and NATO were carrying out these strikes, which destroyed schools and non-governmental buildings such as the Libyan Down’s Syndrome Society, the president steadfastly maintained that intervention was necessary to pre-empt an imminent massacre by the Libyan regime. Notably, the intervention in Libya proceeded without the permission of the U.S. Congress in violation of the War Powers Act.
In the background of the Libyan war was a philosophy that is currently in vogue in the left-wing foreign policy establishment — and in the Obama administration in particular. The responsibility to protect doctrine, known as R2P, is a pet doctrine of UN Ambassador and Samantha Power and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The philosophy of R2P codifies the justification of military intervention on the basis of humanitarian reasons and rejects absolute rights of sovereignty. It sanctions “appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner” with regard to nations that fail to protect its populations from “genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.” Power even once envisaged invading Israel based on this principle.
What Power, Rice and Obama are no doubt learning from the Crimea episode is that rejection of the premise of absolute sovereignty and using humanitarian reasons for the bases of invasion and war is a double-edged sword. There will always be malignant state actors who will exploit the “responsibility to protect” for their own purposes. Indeed, Putin appears to have taken a page out of the Obama administration’s playbook — not George W. Bush’s.
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