Again, the Iraq War was more popular than you remember

Vladimir Putin celebrated his country’s middling performance at the 2022 Winter Olympics by invading Ukraine, which is more or less also how he celebrated his country’s middling performance at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, maybe your country shouldn’t be allowed to go to the Olympics anymore.

It’s not the only repercussion faced by Russians, who have watched their access to global financial markets cut off, their ability to participate in Eurovision squashed, and a slew of industrial and economic restrictions on companies big and small. All of these have spurred a question from armchair historians: hey, what gives?

After all, Russia is hardly the only great power to invade a smaller country in the history of the world. The United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively, and while the invasion of Afghanistan was linked to that country’s sheltering of Osama bin Laden, who helped orchestrate the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and D.C., Iraq’s crime was a lot harder to pin down. Sometimes, the Bush administration alleged it was, too, linked to 9/11. Other times, it was a question of weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam Hussein’s government was allegedly developing and would use, possibly on civilians. Iraq unquestionably had possessed chemical weapons in the 1980s. While WMDs were discovered in Iraq, nearly all of them were in waste sites where they had been dumped to ensure compliance with international rules restricting chemical weapons. The rest were mainly in facilities that had not yet been decommissioned, but the weapons were relics of the 80s and could not have been used by the time they were found. The entire Iraq War is widely seen, both in the U.S. and abroad, as a mistake of one kind of another: either the U.S. arrogantly believed it was right and would find WMDs despite a lack of evidence to support it, or the U.S. wanted to invade Iraq and damn the consequences. Both look bad.

This looking back can cloud what life was like in 2003, when it was less certain that the U.S. would find a whole lot of nothing in Iraq. Forty-nine countries openly backed the U.S. war effort and many of those participated by providing troops, materiel, or diplomatic aid. Opposition mostly came from the decision by the Bush administration to move forward with war despite reluctance from the United Nations. European public opinion mostly opposed the war but did not necessarily oppose the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, a contradiction that helped the U.S. score early political victories as it steamrolled and underwhelming Iraqi military and deposed a longtime despot.

In the middle east, leaders often publicly denounced the U.S. while providing covert assistance. Nowhere was this more prevalent than Saudi Arabia, whose leaders said they would not support the war – but then did, by providing special air rights to the U.S. military and creating designated areas where American troops could stage before conducting incursions into Iraqi territory.

While Iran never helped the U.S. in its war effort, the overthrow of Hussein was a key foreign policy goal of Iran and it quietly embraced the U.S. invasion of its neighbor. Indeed, Iran made good use of the political instability that followed the invasion, hoping to turn Iraq into an ally.

What truly defined the Iraq War was not its popularity but the lack of unpopularity. Opposition to the war grew as it went on, but in the early months it was either popular with those who wanted to see Hussein ousted or it represented American arrogance. It contrasts sharply with the Russian invasion of Ukraine: the stated goal of that invasion is to undermine Ukrainian independence, while the stated goal of the Iraqi invasion was… something.

It turns out the nebulous nature of the Iraq War was a great boon to the Bush administration, which found it easy to pitch the war as whatever it needed it to be. In all likelihood, it was not over 9/11, or oil, or WMDs, but over the political history of the Bush family and President George H.W. Bush’s involvement in the earlier Gulf War. It was a deeply personal move meant to get rid of a guy that Bush had been raised to distrust, and that makes it kind of heartbreaking because: it worked. George W. Bush is never going to see the Iraq War as a failure because all he really wanted to do was oust Saddam Hussein and he got his wish.

The terror, the hardships felt by everyday Iraqis, were a side effect of achieving the goal of removing Saddam Hussein from power. Now, Bush would say, the Iraqi people can have their own democratic government, which they kind of do? And if that government decides it doesn’t like the United States anymore, well, tough, because our military is still there. Which seems like maybe an imperialist thing to do, yeah?

But, again, we’re nearly twenty years down the road from when the conflict started. The apples-to-apples comparison doesn’t work. The sanctions against Russia are widely supported, while Europeans of 2003 would not have felt that shutting the U.S. off from buying Nokias and Volkswagens would have been an appropriate response to the war.

In Africa and South America, which have a long history on the receiving end of the colonialist stick, outrage was far stronger. Costa Rica ultimately withdrew its political support for the war, while the African Union lobbied hard for a response to what it called American aggression. The African Union had the same response to Russian aggression, and have demanded that European states including Ukraine recognize the right of Africans to leave combat areas. There’s something to be said for the African Union’s ability to get it right two out of two times.