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15 March 2023

In its pursuit of Russian regime change, the West is doomed to repeat the errors of the Iraq War

A new generation of liberal hawks views Ukraine as the pivotal battlefield in a global struggle for democracy.

By John Gray

The invasion of Iraq resonates so strongly, 20 years later, because its lessons have not been learnt. Many of its critics have seen it as an oil grab, or a dark conspiracy of some sort. In fact it was mainly driven by ideology. The message of the Iraq War is that, except as a limited measure intended to stem worsening violence, liberal intervention is a self-defeating project.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship was followed by the rise of Islamic State, a savage theocracy that at its height controlled around 40 per cent of the country, and the effective secession of the Kurdish territories. Fundamentalist Iran is now the dominant force in Iraqi politics. If it was intended to install a democratic regime friendly to the West, invading Iraq was one of the most spectacular debacles in modern history.

[See also: The Iraq War exposed the liberal delusion of remaking the world]

Yet the fantasy of regime change did not dissipate in the turbulent years after Iraq was occupied in 2003. It was re-enacted with the overthrow of the Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and infused two decades of vain American-led state-building in Afghanistan. Eighteen months after the humiliating withdrawal of US and allied forces, an even more grandiose fantasy possesses the West. From being designed to assist Ukraine in defending itself against Vladimir Putin’s barbaric “special military operation”, the goal of Western policy has become regime change in Russia.

According to a mind-numbing cliché, the American mission in Iraq failed because of inadequate post-invasion planning. No doubt avoidable mistakes were made, but if ten consecutive minutes had been spent reflecting on the origins of the country, the invasion would almost certainly not have been launched. Democracies are products of long periods of historical development and cannot be created by fiat. Pieced together in the colonial era and ruling over a diverse population of sectarian, clan and ethnic groups, Iraq was not built for self-government. The British archaeologist and political officer Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), more than anyone else the architect of the state of Iraq, was clear that it would fall apart if it ever became democratic. When, some years into the chaos that followed the invasion, I mentioned Bell to one of the neoconservatives who orchestrated the war, he looked at me blankly. I feel sure he had never heard of her.

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For the coalition of neocons, hawkish liberals and military bureaucrats who launched the invasion, any detailed knowledge of the people they were liberating was a distraction. It was self-evident that Iraqis, like all other human beings, yearned for American-style democracy. Liberal values were universal. All that was required for them to prevail was to sweep away tyranny.

But for many, 21st-century America looks like a failed experiment. Few countries would wish to import the American mix of racial tension, culture wars, urban lawlessness and risk of civil war (if the results of the next presidential election are not accepted by the losing side). The model that neoconservatives aimed to export was always idealised. Today it no longer exists.

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[See also: Vladimir Putin is afraid of his own people]

Despite this, in Washington there is now a new generation of liberal hawks who view Ukraine as the pivotal battlefield in a global struggle for democracy. It is no longer enough to contain Russia. The imperial Russian state must be demolished. There may be little truth in Putin’s claims regarding Western plots against Russia in the years after the Soviet Union imploded. Even so, the recent shift in Western policy must have confirmed Putin’s most paranoid fears.

As in Iraq, the end of the Russian state would be followed by a period of anarchy. Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia could break away, and there would be the prospect of full-scale war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The five “stans” of central Asia would aim to increase their autonomy in what has been a Russian zone of influence. The chief beneficiary would be China, which could achieve its long-held ambition of gaining control of Russia’s abundant resources. If a shrunken Russian state survived the break-up of its empire, it would most likely be led by a radical anti-Western nationalist. As in Iraq, the notion that a Russian majority is longing for Western-style democracy is baseless.

For Europe, inflicting a crushing defeat on Russia means a major escalation of the war. There is much that Putin can do to intensify the conflict short of using nuclear weapons, including an all-out blitzkrieg on Ukraine’s cities. If allied air power is used to prevent Russia ratcheting up its campaign of terror, the war risks spilling over into neighbouring countries. Poland, which is rapidly building the biggest army on the European continent, already regards itself as effectively at war. If China and Iran respond by increasing their aid to Russia, a widening European conflict will become a global conflagration.

War in Ukraine has become an existential struggle for both Kyiv and Moscow. The West cannot back down for fear of encouraging further Russian expansionism in Moldova, Georgia, Serbia and other countries. Putin cannot afford any retreat that might threaten his control of Crimea – for him (and any Russian leader) an overriding geopolitical imperative. The stakes could not be higher.

The course of events in the coming months is deeply uncertain, but in the enveloping darkness some things are clear. We are witnessing the definitive end of the post-Cold War global order, and the beginning of the end was the invasion of Iraq.  

[See also: The Western mind no longer understands Putin]

This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe