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3 key lessons to avoid a quagmire in Ukraine: Insights from the Iraq War


Leaked papers from the Pentagon revealed in early April 2023 that the US is reportedly monitoring the inner workings of Russia’s intelligence operations and also spy on ukraineadding a new dimension to the United States’ involvement in the war in Ukraine.

While the US does not really declared war against Russia, the documents show that it continues to support Ukraine military intelligence like money and weapons against the Russian invasion.

There is no end in sight to the war between Ukraine and Russia – nor to US involvement. While this is far from the first time the US has become a third party in a war, this scenario is particularly reminiscent of the Iraq War.

I’m a scholar of international relations and an expert on international conflicts. A comparison with the Iraq war offers, I think, a useful way of looking at the Ukraine case.

The wars in Iraq and Ukraine have notable differences from a US foreign policy perspective – primarily thousands of US soldiers died fighting in Iraq, while the US has no ground forces in Ukraine. But assessing the war in Iraq, and its long aftermath, can still help voice concerns about the United States’ involvement in intense violence in another distant place.

Here are three important points to understand.

An Iraqi girl watches as US Army troops take cover in Mosul, Iraq, in 2003.
Scott Nelson/Getty Images

1. Intervention does not guarantee success

Around the time former President George W. Bush announced that the US would invade Iraq in 2003, Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi Arabian Islamist who orchestrated the September 11, 2001 attacks, remained free. Though not clearly related, bin Laden’s continued avoidance of the US contributed to a general sense of anger against hostile regimes. Saddam Hussein in particular challenged the US and its allies.

The Iraqi Dictator continued to evade inspections by the United Nations watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, giving the impression that he possessed weapons of mass destruction. This proved maddening for the US and its allies the cat-and-mouse game dragged on.

Bush was reportedly very concerned about it whether Saddam could use alleged weapons of mass destruction to attack the US, which did even more damage than 9/11 did.

A US-led coalition of countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, invaded Iraq in March 2003.coalition of the willing”, as it became known, won a quick victory and Saddam’s regime overthrown.

Bush initially enjoyed one spike in public support immediately after the invasion, but his polls soon after encountered a downward trajectory as the war continued.

However, the US showed very little understanding of the politics, society and other important aspects of the country it had taken the lead in occupying and then attempting to rebuild.

Many decisions, esp disbanding of the Iraqi army in May 2003 revealed poor judgment and even outright ignorance because, with the sudden removal of the Iraqi security forces, intense civilian disorder ensued.

By disbanding the army, insurgent militant forces came out. Fighting between various Iraqi groups intensified and escalated to a civil warwhich ended in 2017.

Today, Iraq is still politically unstable and no closer to democracy than it was before the invasion.

2. Personal feuds cannot justify war

During his 24-year regime, Saddam lived an extravagant lifestyle coupled with repression of civilians and political opponents. He joined genocide against the Kurdish people in Iraq. Saddam it finally was executed by his own people in 2006after US troops captured him.

Putin is equally infamous and even more dangerous. He has a long track record violent repression against his people and has benefited from leading one of the world’s most corrupt governments.

He actually owns and has weapons of mass destruction threatened several times to use them on abroad.
Saddam and Putin have also both been the direct targets of American political leaders, showing fixation to overthrow these foreign adversaries, which was clear much earlier the US actually got involved in the wars in Iraq and Ukraine.

The United States’ support for Ukraine is understandable because that country is waging a defensive war terrible civilian casualties. Supporting Ukraine also makes sense from a US national security standpoint – it helps push back against an expansionist Russia that is increasingly is aligned with China.

At the same time, I believe it is important to keep US involvement in this war within limits that reflect national interests.

People hug in front of flowers and teddy bears, in front of a building that looks partially charred.
Ukrainians mourn civilians killed in Russian attacks in the city of Uman on April 30, 2023.
Oleksii Chumachenko/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

3. It can divide the country

The war in Iraq resulted in an increase in intense partisanship in the US over foreign policy. In addition, recent opinion polls on the war in Iraq show that most Americans do not think the invasion made the US safer.

Now the US is facing growing public skepticism about involvement in the war in Ukraine, another one expensive overseas commitment.

Polls published in January 2023 show that the percentage of Americans that think the US is giving too much help to Ukraine has grown in recent months. About 26% of American adults said the US is by the end of 2022 give too much to the war in Ukraine, according to Pew Research Group. But three-quarters of those surveyed still supported US involvement.

The average American knows little or nothing about Iraq or Ukraine. Patience can clearly run out as US support for foreign wars becomes increasingly expensive and the threat of retaliation, even through tactical nuclear weapons, becomes a possibility. Aid to Ukraine is at risk of becoming embroiled in Washington’s rapidly escalating conflict over the debt ceiling.

On the other hand, if the US does not provide enough support for Ukraine to fend off Russian attacks and maintain its independence, adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran may feel emboldened to be aggressive elsewhere.

I believe the comparison between the wars in Iraq and Ukraine makes it clear that US leadership must clearly identify the underlying goals of its national security for the American public while determining the amount and type of aid it will give to Ukraine.

While many people think Ukraine deserves support against Russian aggression, current policies should not ignore past experience, and the war in Iraq tells a cautionary tale.

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