How The Ukraine Crisis Is A Consequence Of The Iraq War
At a critical moment in recent history America proved that international norms about use of force don’t really matter. Russia learned the lesson well, and today is applying it to Ukraine.
It’s kind of amazing watching pundits in bigoted American rags like The Atlantic who actively promoted the invasion of Iraq in 2003 act like Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is an aberration in world affairs.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks launched by Al Qaeda, American forces successfully routed the Taliban across most of Afghanistan by backing an alliance of anti-Taliban groups.
This all went to hell years later, but in 2002 the thing looked like a qualified success. Bin Laden had escaped to Pakistan, but a country that had defeated the Soviet Union seemed to have fallen to America and NATO without much trouble.
So the Bush Administration, packed to the gills with neoconservative advisers, decided to go on a little quest. An Axis of Evil including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea was proclaimed and targeted for regime change.
Mere months after the (apparent) victory in Afghanistan Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest decided the time had come to destroy Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Formerly a partner of America, after invading Kuwait in 1991 Hussein was accused of being the next Hitler and smacked down by a multi-nation alliance.
Then Iraq spent the next ten years getting bombed every few years by American and allied forces enforcing a no-fly zone. Vicious sanctions were applied that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many of them children. Depleted uranium exposure left thousands more crippled by birth defects.
When 2002 came around, a march to Baghdad seemed like the natural next step for a wounded America determined to never let another 9/11 happen. The result of that foolish, self-destructive crusade was the destruction of the Middle East as it had been known and a million Iraqis and thousands of American and allied soldiers dead.
The bitter truth about the American invasion and occupation of Iraq is that not only did it fail, it also demonstrated to the rest of the world that America could not be trusted. The so-called “Pax Americana” pushed by the kinds of people who thought the end of the Cold War was also the End of History and the triumph of Western Liberalism was seen by Russia and China both as a direct threat to them.
It should come as no surprise that both Russia and China spent the next fifteen years deliberately rebuilding their military forces to be capable of dealing with a future America bent on repeating Iraq somewhere else. If you look at the development of the technologies like hypersonic missiles that are being touted as game-changers today, that all ramped up after America went into Iraq.
In geopolitics, power players like to demonstrate their capabilities as part of a grand bluff designed to keep anyone from testing them. Real power is not defined by what you can actually do to your opponent, but what they think you can do.
This is a function of the fact that people behave according to their own perceptions of threat, not any hard and fast scientific rules. People hold truths to be self-evident, and not always because the evidence backs them.
For example, the United States is often described as a superpower. But what does that mean exactly?
Nobody really knows, because there is no objective scientific way to test the proposition short of a full-scale world war. Right up until its ignominious defeat by German forces in 1940, the French Army was considered the world’s finest. Few American naval experts thought Pearl Harbor was a juicy target for Japanese aircraft carriers until it was on fire.
That uncertainty is often what causes a war to break out in the first place. If everyone truly agreed on the inevitable outcome of a fight, it wouldn’t happen.
Trouble is that people are natural gamblers, prone to all the fallacies that lead to their ruin in games of chance. In 2003 America’s leaders gambled that Iraqis would all welcome American soldiers with flowers — some did, but more chose bombs.
In global power politics, most leaders try to gamble as little as possible. Even Trump’s elephant in a china shop approach to foreign policy did in fact have a coherent strategy at its heart — the Madman play, where you act unpredictable in order to convince others to give you a wide berth.
It wasn’t a gamble because the United States is at the heart of the global economy. For a brief time, America could ignore the rules of the game that its own past leaders erected to extract some short-term gains.
This strategy has consequences, however. Partners don’t like being exploited and take it as a sign something is wrong. Trump served as the final piece of evidence in the eyes of powers across the world that America was on the brink of collapse. This, coming after fifteen years of Bush and Obama era moves that looked an awful lot like America was preparing to encircle Russia and China as part of a New Cold War, altered the global calculus in a permanent way.
Biden’s election represented a last chance of sorts for the global postwar order. By embracing an aggressive stance towards Russia and China after spending all of 2020 insisting his sole job was to repair what Trump broke, he sent a signal indicating America wasn’t willing to admit the severe damage weakening its reputation.
The persistence of Trump’s support in his party despite his bogus claims of widespread election fraud plus the Afghanistan debacle confirmed global suspicions about America’s present state. Though America’s nationalist media can’t admit it to the public, the position of the United States around the world has utterly collapsed — its superpower days are done.
What is now emerging is something I’ve expected since I was an undergraduate at Berkeley studying International Relations back in 2005: a multipolar world system. One where America is far from dominant, and instead challenged by multiple competitors.
Geopolitical tides move at a glacial pace, so you only realize things have changed after many years or even decades. But the world has shifted rather starkly since the 2000s, and failure to accept this reality and prepare for the consequences is the basic reason America itself is cracking up.
Under the hood, everything happening in and around Ukraine, the Middle East, and Asia is connected. A grand geostrategic game pitting coalitions with trillions of dollars of economic productivity and thousands of nuclear weapons capable of wiping out whole cities in the blink of an eye is growing more intense.
Right now, as Russian forces mass along Ukraine’s border with a clear intent to launch some kind of violent operation on short notice, about half of the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet is on exercises a few hundred miles from China’s coast. The ultimate nightmare Pentagon planners fear America might one day face are simultaneous conflicts in Europe and Asia, so as Russia threatens Ukraine and NATO America is keeping China on notice.
In the Middle East, American forces are routinely targeted by insurgents using drones, rockets, and roadside bombs. Israel is making noises about attacking Iran’s nuclear research program while launching almost daily strikes against Iran-backed forces in Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza.
An arc of conflict characterizes the overlapping spheres of power linking the long-term American and NATO effort to encircle Russia and China. Proxy wars have been underway for a decade or more. The tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan are just the next step in a great unraveling, the end of the Postwar Era and the American Century.
Another turning of the wheel. A paradigm shift in the world system. Apocalypse. Ragnarok.
And in such times, the potential for change is extreme. Many different kinds of worlds that could emerge from what happens over the next few years.
The contest is not, as the scions of the dying bigoted secular faith called Western Liberalism insist, a battle between democracy and autocracy. These are archaic ideological terms masquerading as scientific concepts — everyone calls themself a democracy and is to some degree.
The question is always whose votes matter — in Russia and China a small clique makes sure only the right people participate in politics. In America and Britain the media acts as the guard dog, which is why craven hacks like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson inspire such hatred from the media establishment — they break rules that empower traditional media elites.
Real democracy rarely exists in places where the national focus is on hard military power. Effective, working democracies tend to be small and not particularly interested in fighting wars beyond their borders, except to defend an ally.
America’s lack of democracy has allowed a wealthy clique of elites to dominate its foreign policy since the late 1800s. They made America a global empire and got a lot of Americans and other folks killed in the process. Then after World War Two they used the close connections between government and industry forged during the war, when all factories were basically nationalized and people’s food was rationed, to create a foreign policy machine in Washington D.C. totally insulated from democracy.
It is this organ that has stoked conflict after conflict, ruining America’s reputation across the globe. What the Greatest Generation built, the Boomers squandered in service of vain ideological tosh invoked to cover for the fact America’s leaders grew to like having orders of magnitude more power than the Founders had ever intended.
There is a reason thirty years after the Cold War ended the United States still has thousands of active nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert. For my entire life a simple dumb accident has had the potential the world as we know it and for no good reason but that a lot of people make a lot of money off America’s nuclear deterrent.
Now here humanity is, the Doomsday Clock still at 100 seconds to midnight, climate change bearing down on us and a pandemic raging, and a war is about to escalate in Ukraine. Not because it needs to, but because powerful people see potential gain by provoking tensions.
America’s media is, as usual, screaming about how evil Vlad Putin is threatening democracy. It’s painfully ironic that the same outlets that thought invading Iraq was a good idea are condemning Putin for acting as America’s evil twin.
When American talking heads go on about some kind of “rules-based international order” or yammer about the supposed virtues of “The West” over everyone else all they’re doing is mimicking what Russia Times spews at its readers. It is this arrogant blindness to reality that is ultimately what makes America fail abroad, yet it never, ever goes away.
The Biden Administration in America is quite clearly playing a cynical game in this crisis. Ukraine has essentially been abandoned by its supposed allies in NATO.
Lots of hay is being made over shipments of some minor weaponry like a few more Javelin anti-tank missiles, some Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, and British NLAWs, which are basically modern bazookas. The American media is talking up the possibility of a blood-drenched occupation featuring a US-backed insurgency fighting block to block in Kyiv.
Behind the scenes, the memory of Iraq hangs over it all, despite the extreme differences between Iraq and Ukraine that make both a large-scale invasion and long-term insurgency less likely in the latter. Americans generally don’t realize that this insurgency was triggered by both too few boots on the ground and critical mistakes like disbanding Iraq’s armed forces, leaving huge numbers of angry, trained, and equipped soldiers with nothing to do but to fight the invaders.
As I’ve written, Putin doesn’t need to launch an all-out invasion to destroy Ukraine and split NATO. This is the least likely scenario as Ukraine can probably be neutralized or even taken over by simply ratcheting up pressure in multiple domains and letting NATO show how little it can or will do.
To defend Ukraine the country needs anti-missile defenses, a modern air force, and long range precision fires. Javelin missiles allow infantry to hold off tanks, but they can get shot down and the people shooting them obliterated by artillery seconds after firing. Stinger missiles are only good against low-flying helicopters and drones, and can’t stop incoming tactical missiles or high-flying jets. And NLAW systems… Britain is almost insulting Ukraine there. These are short-range weapons Ukraine has plenty of already, and if there is an invasion and widespread insurgency Ukraine has already lost.
The only way to get Ukraine the equipment it needs in time to prevent a Russian attack is an immediate deployment of a combat brigade and aviation assets directly from the United States, moving too suddenly for Putin to act before they arrive. This would potentially spark an open war between Russia and NATO that the latter will never risk, so it isn’t happening — and Ukraine stands alone.
Asking Ukrainian soldiers to die in a fight that can’t be won is the epitome of callous elite thinking. Threatening to fund an insurgency when you won’t put your own people’s lives on the line is the ultimate cowards’ move.
Which is exactly why America’s foreign policy elite caste pushes it in the media. It lets them pretend they’re being tough while in fact leaving allies out to dry like they always do.
I’m not necessarily saying America should drop a brigade from the 82nd Airborne west of Kyiv to hold off any attack by Moscow, just that if America’s leaders had any honor that’s what they would do. If you call someone an ally, you protect them, or your words cease to have any meaning.
And in the logic of power relations, deterrence only exists if your opponent believes you’ll make good on threats. The fact that China and Russia are well aware America and NATO are not prepared for a major war means that they have every incentive to press both to their limit just to see what happens.
Pundits either want to call Putin crazy and unpredictable or an evil genius bent on world domination. In reality he’s both exceptionally predictable and his aims are limited, even if they absolutely violate the rights of the Russian people and Russia’s neighbors.
And because America has absolutely no idea how to handle systemic problems, this won’t end well for the so-called West. Team Biden dreams of splitting Russia from China, but there are few more potent displays of trust and friendship than moving a powerful chunk of your military away from one frontier and to another.
Make no mistake — Russia is repositioning its entire military along its western frontier for a reason. A signal has been sent: the long tension that characterized Russian and Chinese relations over most of the past two centuries is gone. Putin is prepared for a new Iron Curtain to fall — and this time, Stalin and Mao’s personal issues won’t get in the way of a Eurasian alliance free from the threat of Western intervention.
Deterrence has already failed. The Postwar order is gone. America will slowly be separated from a Europe it has no idea how to defend.
And so the final consequence of the invasion of Iraq snaps into place. Another great power falls, the wheel of history has turned once more.
Woe unto all who must live through such interesting times. May those who created this miserable present suffer justly in the days to come.