Iraq War Apologism Is Alive and Well

You might think everyone agrees the Iraq War was a complete humanitarian and strategic disaster. But a casual survey of today’s politicians and mainstream talking heads reveals that many in corridors of power think the invasion was fundamentally a good idea.

Former national security adviser John Bolton speaks to reporters after speaking on a panel hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran–US Representative Office at the Willard InterContinental Hotel on August 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

“A lot of good has come out of that war.”

“Was it a good thing, was it a bad thing? It’s very hard to say.”

“It was worth it.”

Imagine if you heard or read any of this in a major US media outlet about the Russian war on Ukraine. You won’t. Yet these are all real phrases that have been uttered in just the past week — only about a different war, drawing a very different response.

Ever since Russian president Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine started last year, mainstream media and political figures who are determined to silence dissenting, often left-wing voices have spread a pernicious lie: that anyone critical of the Western response to the war or who tries to explain it by situating it in historical context is really “justifying” the war or engaged in “apologism.”

In reality, you’ll find zero prominent voices on the Western left who have ever done either of these things, let alone expressed any form of support for Putin’s invasion. Those on the other side of these smears — like Democratic Socialists of America, Stop the War, Noam Chomsky, analysts at the Quincy Institute, and a slew of other heterodox voices — all regularly and unambiguously condemn Putin’s invasion as illegal, horrific, foolish, and wrong. Having no genuine examples of prominent left-leaning voices justifying, apologizing for, or backing Putin’s invasion, these critics simply assert this is happening without providing examples, or willfully distort left-wing arguments.

But that doesn’t mean war apologism doesn’t exist in the United States today. It’s rife, in fact. Only, because it concerns the twenty-year-old US invasion of Iraq, and since those doing it are some of the most prominent figures in the US political and media establishment, it goes by without almost anyone batting an eyelid.

This sorry spectacle was inaugurated earlier this month in Commentary magazine, where Eli Lake insisted that the war “wasn’t the disaster everyone now says it was,” and that “Iraq is better off today than it was twenty years ago.” Pointing to such factors as a larger national GDP and a bigger share of Iraqis with cell phone subscriptions, Lake argues that what happened to the Iraqi people post–Saddam Hussein — including hundreds of thousands killed, nine million displaced, constantly roiling violence, electricity shortages, high rates of illness and birth defects thanks to military contamination, and so on — was actually a “bargain” to get rid of the former dictator.

David Frum, the George W. Bush speechwriter best known for placing Iraq as part of a nonexistent “Axis of Evil” with Iran and North Korea, made a similar assessment. “What the U.S. did in Iraq was not an act of unprovoked aggression,” Frum insists in the Atlantic, before pointing to “battlefield victories,” “economic benefits,” and that “thanks to the U.S. intervention, the country has for the first time in its independent history a political system that is in some measure accountable to its people,” as upsides to these human costs. Thanks to Bush’s war, Iraqis “have gained a chance,” he concludes.

Likewise, it’s hardly surprising that warmonger extraordinaire John Bolton — like Frum, another Bush official — is today unashamed to say that the war “was worth it” and that “the reasons to invade were clear and compelling.” Neither is it shocking to hear that Robert Kagan, who had demanded Hussein’s ouster as early as 1998, today thinks that the war maybe “didn’t go exactly the way we wanted it to. . . . but the objective was a worthy objective and the world is better for it.” (Kagan, incidentally, now has several acolytes in the Biden administration’s foreign-policy team).

But this opinion is shared by a surprising number of US senators, too, as the Huffington Post recently found out when it put the question to more than a dozen of them. Iraq is now “a fledgling, inefficient democracy,” says Lindsey Graham, and “that’s better than Saddam.” Washington invaded, says Chuck Grassley, to “get rid of a bad guy. I’m glad we did it.” “I feel like a lot of good has come out of that war,” says Thom Tillis. Invading was the right decision, insists Mike Rounds, who charges that if biological weapons had been found, “it would have been a clearly justified war.”

Even those senators against the war can only muster mealymouthed equivocations. “I think the use of force in the future would probably be more skepticism and more caution given that experience,” says Marco Rubio. “But I would imagine there’s a lot of people in Iraq that are happy that Saddam Hussein isn’t in charge anymore.”

“Looking back, was it a good thing, was it a bad thing? It’s very hard to say,” Bush’s former national security advisor Stephen Hadley told Christiane Amanpour. Others took a different tack to whitewash the crime and those involved. “The US Govt & my boss at the time Colin Powell did not lie about WMD [weapons of mass destruction],” tweeted Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass this past week. “The word ‘lie’ involves intent. There was no intent; we got it wrong.”

In reality, Haass’s boss had privately called the evidence he’d been ordered to present to the UN “bullshit,” before insisting to the UN and to the public that what he was telling them were “facts” and “a solid case” based on “solid sources” — about as unambiguous an example of lying as you’re likely to ever find.

The “mistake” framing is one that’s been useful for former Russia ambassador Michael McFaul, one of the most reckless voices in today’s foreign-policy discourse, and who wrote in 2003 that regime change in Iraq “must be the objective.” Given his soft support for the Bush strategy that culminated in the kind of war of aggression he now condemns in Ukraine, McFaul is today at pains to explain why the particular illegal invasion his government was responsible for is so much different.

“I think the US invasion of Iraq was a mistake,” he tweeted last March. “I also think it’s wrong to compare democratic and peaceful Ukraine to Saddam’s dictatorship which invaded Kuwait, fought Iran, and killed many of its own citizens.” Later, he further whitewashed the invasion, saying that “to equate Putin’s slaughter of innocent civilians with what the US did in Central America is just wrong,” and that while the United States “did many horrible things” there and in Iraq, it “did not deliberately kill babies with cruise missiles.”

Of course, whether the country being attacked has a democratic or dictatorial government doesn’t make a war any less wrong or criminal, given that the costs to innocent people are the same. And the many Iraqis who suffered under the bombardment of US “shock and awe” will be surprised to learn about the supposed virtue of US cruise missiles.

But this attitude isn’t limited to McFaul. Interviewing Democratic primary challenger Marianne Williamson earlier this month, ABC’s Jonathan Karl pushed back on the idea that Iraq could be compared to Ukraine. “But this is entirely different than a war of conquest, isn’t it?” he said. (Given post-war US meddling in Iraqi politics, its long-running and ongoing military occupation of the country against its will, and the profiteering bonanza for US corporations off of Iraqi resources, this may not be as clear-cut a distinction as Karl hopes).

It’s really not complicated. An illegal war is an illegal war and should be clearly condemned. Left-wing antiwar critics have done so repeatedly when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s only US politicians, intellectuals, and establishment media figures who still feel the need to whitewash and even justify Bush’s twenty-year-old war.