Former President George W. Bush has finally, if unintentionally, admitted his error in invading Iraq nearly 20 years ago. While attempting to scold Russian President Vladimir Putin for his ruthless invasion of Ukraine, Bush accidentally condemned his own actions.
At an event at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on Wednesday, the former president called out “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” He quickly corrected himself, saying, “I mean Ukraine,” but he proceeded to chuckle and mutter “Iraq, too” under his breath to laughter from the audience. It’s true that had his gaffe not reflected reality, it would have almost been comedic. But as a child of Iraqi migrants, the distasteful sniggering by the man who launched a war resulting in at least 800,000 estimated Iraqi deaths and the displacement of millions more is nothing short of despicable.
The gaffe by the 43rd president suggests that the Iraq invasion is still on his mind. It’s certainly still on my mind, particularly watching the Western hypocrisy in its treatment of Putin. Yes, the Russian leader should be held to account for his bloody war in Ukraine. But we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the way in which U.S. presidents acted similarly in running roughshod over the people of Iraq. In the rush to condemn Putin, the U.S. needs to pause to take a look at its own unjustified and brutal actions.
The parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the American invasion of Iraq begin with the rhetoric employed for undertaking each war in the first place. Putin has justified his war in Ukraine as a “liberation” of oppressed civilians, echoing Bush’s claim that the Iraq war was undertaken to “free its people.” But neither of these countries had a majority of citizens clamoring for military intervention from an outside power (much as some Iraqis detested their leader, Saddam Hussein), let alone asking those powers to run the country instead.
President Joe Biden called for Putin to be prosecuted at a “war crime trial” after the bodies of 410 civilians were uncovered in Bucha, Ukraine. But no such accountability has been applied to Bush and his aides.
Russia and the U.S. also both used misleading information as pretexts for war. Leading up to and throughout Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, the Kremlin has circulated a number of “false flags” — i.e. supposed hostile actions by Kyiv — as propaganda to justify its invasion. They range from claiming Ukraine is preparing to use chemical weapons, without providing any evidence, to Ukraine’s supposed sabotaging of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which has been discredited by open-source investigations.
The U.S., for its part, warned repeatedly that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction posed a threat that needed to be eliminated. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claimed to know their location, and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell misled the United Nations about the evidence in a bid to garner global support for the invasion. But the WMDs didn’t exist.
Bush and Putin also both spurned attempts by the international community to prevent the use of military force. Despite the U.N. Security Council not authorizing a potential unilateral invasion of Iraq, Bush went ahead with it. Similarly, Putin ignored a resolution from the U.N. General Assembly and disregarded sanctions to push ahead with his Ukraine offensive.
Most disturbing of all are the alleged war crimes both the U.S. and Russia stand accused of. President Joe Biden called for Putin to be prosecuted at a “war crime trial” after the bodies of 410 civilians were uncovered in Bucha, Ukraine. But no such accountability has been applied to Bush and his aides, even though the Bush administration’s own counterterrorism czar has opined they had committed several war crimes as well.
Side-stepping the questionable legality of the war under international law, alleged violations include the 24 unarmed Iraqis killed by U.S. forces in Haditha in 2005, the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah, which Iraqi doctors claim contributed to an unusual number of birth defects among children in the area, the torture of prisoners and over 260 others allegations.
Last year we saw the deaths of Powell and Rumsfeld, and it pains me to know they never faced justice for the horrors they enabled. But there is still time to bring Bush to justice rather than let him happily live out his retirement at his Texas ranch, rebranding himself as an immigrant-loving artist.
Yet it is nearly impossible for U.S. leaders and military officials to be held to account in independent courts of law, as they routinely opt for internal investigations over independent ones. We cannot ask for independent investigations of Russian crimes when Bush withdrew the U.S. from the International Criminal Court in 2002. Nearly two decades later, in 2019, the federal government reportedly prevented the ICC from investigating possible war crimes conducted in Afghanistan, from the killing of nine boys collecting firewood by a helicopter in Nangalam to the storming of an Afghan house by the U.S. army that killed five family members. (The military has apologized for both incidents.)
The rare convictions that do occur are no guarantee, either. Four former Blackwater contractors sentenced to decades in prison for their role in the Nisour Square massacre after opening fire on an unarmed crowd, killing 17 civilians in Baghdad, were pardoned by President Donald Trump in his last days in office.
There is no sign of a letup in the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy under Biden. Early on in the Ukraine conflict, Biden gave a speech referring to Putin recognizing Ukrainian separatist regions as independent countries and asking, “Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries?” Yet Biden himself had co-authored a plan early on in the Iraq war to divide the country by segregating its three main ethno-religious groups.
Bush’s gaffe serves as a reminder that whatever the differences in motivations and tactics between Putin’s war on Ukraine and America’s invasion of Iraq, there are troubling similarities the U.S. needs to confront. The truth about the Iraq war continues to haunt the former president and the U.S. military. We shouldn’t be laughing with him. We should be seeing him on trial.