Bush did what Putin’s doing — so why is he getting away?
The answer: hypocrisy, even in the way the West’s narrative describes the Iraq invasion and Ukraine war.
It was disgracefully dubbed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” by the invading United States military forces, but for millions of Iraqis around the world, it was anything but.
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the start of what then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan described more appropriately as an “illegal” war on Iraq by the US and its allies.
What we did learn from the war is the abhorrent hypocrisy of labels in conflicts when viewed through a Western lens. This war has, as an Iraqi, plagued my thoughts daily since March 2003. It has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, with millions of others displaced and their lives ruined.
Images of Baghdad’s night sky lit up by flames, as bombs were indiscriminately dropped more regularly than a ticking clock on the City of Peace, are forever etched in our memories. For weeks, nights turned to day, as Iraqis would pray to make it to the morning alive.
The years that followed could hardly be forgotten, either. From an oppressive occupation to sectarian governance, the Iraq war has continued to ruin the lives of millions. My own family is now scattered around the world, from Canada to Australia, as a result of the brutal invasion.
Sadly, over the last 20 years, we have failed to see any accountability for the plethora of lies and false arguments by both former US President George W Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s governments that led to an era-defining conflict.
In contrast, it took current US President Joe Biden mere weeks to decry his Russian counterpart as a “war criminal” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Of course, Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is brutal and illegal. But what about Biden’s own warmongering? Let me remind you: Biden championed a war in Iraq years before Bush even took office.
Within a mere few days of US military action in Iraq, more than 15,000 Iraqis lost their lives in violent conflict as a result of Washington’s “shock and awe” tactic to overwhelm the country with its military might. To put this into context, and although one innocent life lost is one too many, the total death toll in Ukraine of non-combatants since the war began a year ago is an estimated 8,000 civilians.
Yet while Russia has been hit by sanctions by multiple Western nations and their allies, and the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant against Putin, we saw none of this with the US, United Kingdom, Bush and Blair.
There’s little difference even between the language used by Bush and Putin before their respective wars. Ahead of the Iraq invasion, Bush used terms like “freedom”, “liberation” and “war on terror”. Putin similarly claimed he was liberating Ukraine and curbing “terrorism” in the region.
Such are the parallels that in a moment of bizarre irony, Bush — while attempting to denounce Putin’s invasion last year — accidentally scolded his own actions, criticising in a speech “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq”.
The reality is that both leaders used false narratives to build public support for wars that have redefined their respective regions. Much like Bush’s claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Putin suggested Ukraine has ambitions to use chemical weapons.
It was Bush, however, who did use incendiary weapons in Iraq in the form of white phosphorus in Fallujah, with children to this day suffering birth defects as a consequence of the lasting effects of the chemical. Yet far from facing accountability, Bush has been allowed to redefine his own narrative as an immigrant-loving artist.
If he is not seeing out his days of retirement at his ranch in Texas, he can be found dancing with Ellen DeGeneres on prime-time television. Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, both architects of the Iraq war, passed away without facing justice. Bush must be held to account before it is too late.
Conveniently, Bush withdrew the US from the International Criminal Court in the year before the Iraq invasion, making it near to impossible to hold US leaders or military officials to account for alleged war crimes. When the ICC’s top prosecutor wanted to investigate alleged war crimes by US soldiers in Afghanistan in 2020, Washington imposed sanctions on her — much like Putin’s Russia has opened a case against the current ICC prosecutor.
Against this backdrop, the US making allegations of war crimes against Putin seems hypocritical. At least 800,000 Iraqis were killed as a consequence of Bush’s alleged divinely inspired invasion of Iraq.
Those who dared oppose the eight-year US occupation in Iraq were labelled as insurgents. Many were infamously tortured and sexually abused by US troops at the now notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Similar resistance movements in Ukraine, however, are branded as heroic for standing up to Russian occupation. Ukrainians have been celebrated for making homemade Molotov cocktails as defence weapons, but when similar acts of resistance happened in Iraq or Palestine, the label “terrorist” was used. This racist double standard has been evident throughout the past year.
The touching acts of global solidarity with Ukraine —from Premier League football matches raising Ukrainian flags to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy giving a speech at the Golden Globes this year — were never on display for the victims of the brutal Iraq war.
If the absence of support and empathy was not bad enough, the war on Ukraine unsheathed a disregard for the lives of people in the Global South suffering from deadly conflicts often plotted in Western capitals. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades,” said Charlie D’Agata, a senior CBS News correspondent, reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.”You know, this is a relatively civilised, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”
The reason Iraq has witnessed decades worth of war is directly linked to Bush’s 2003 decision to invade a country that had already been ravaged by years of brutal sanctions. The death of innocent Iraqis matters just as much as the deaths of innocent Ukrainians. Just as Ukrainians deserve life and solidarity, so too do Iraqis.
Just as we should want Putin to be tried for his crimes, we should be demanding that Bush be charged for his. We cannot wait another 20 years.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.