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George Bush’s Iraq War gaffe is unintentionally revealing

A slip of the tongue from the former US president highlights uncomfortable parallels with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – George W Bush said what millions had been waiting years to hear. Speaking at an event on Wednesday 18 May, the former US president decried the suppression of political dissent and “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq”.

He then caught himself and said, “I mean of the Ukraine.”

The subtext, in this case, is simply text: there was, of course, a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq, but it was demanded not by Russian president Vladimir Putin, who called the Iraq War a mistake and relishes pointing out American hypocrisy, but by Bush himself, who led the United States into Iraq in 2003. It’s been estimated that roughly half a million people died as a result of his decision to do so.

There are other parallels between the US invasion of Iraq and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Bush, too, used the United Nations as a forum to justify his war, having Colin Powell speak before that august body for 76 minutes to assert that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons. (Powell expressed regret for this. Bush has, too, though, for the “intelligence failure”, not the war itself; he has also said that the worst moment of his presidency was when rapper Kanye West accused him of not caring about black people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.) Russia’s UN ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, was chairing a UN Security Council meeting as Russia invaded Ukraine this February.

The invasion of Iraq, much like Russia’s attack on Ukraine, demonstrated what happens when a leader’s personal conviction that a country must be invaded overshadows logic and humanity. And Bush and company have evaded accountability under international law, much as Putin and his ilk will likely do; neither the United States nor Russia is a state party to the International Criminal Court.

The decision of the US to invade Iraq hung over its attempt to avert a Russian war in Ukraine. Ahead of Russia’s invasion, the Biden administration aggressively declassified intelligence that suggested that Russia was planning to stage an all-out assault on Ukraine, as indeed it was. But, as Biden officials themselves knew, they were undermined by US misuse of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. “I am here today not to start a war,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken pleaded with the United Nations a week before Russia invaded, “but to prevent one.” It was impossible not to see the ghost of the war in Iraq looming behind him.

On Wednesday, meanwhile, after clarifying which brutal invasion he was referring to, Bush laughed. “Anyways, I’m 75,” he said. The crowd laughed. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who did not get to grow old were unable to share what they thought of the joke.

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