The World

Why Did Obama Just Defend the Iraq War?

This person smiling at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels on March 26, 2014, looks like Barack Obama but sounds a little like George W. Bush. 

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s speech in Brussels was always going to be read as something of a rejoinder to Vladimir Putin’s defense of Russia’s actions in Crimea, so it’s not surprising that the president chose to refute the notion of “double standards” that has become a central talking point in Russian rhetoric during this crisis.

On the so-called Kosovo precedent, which Putin has repeatedly invoked, Obama had this to say:

In defending its actions, Russian leaders have further claimed Kosovo as a precedent, an example, they say, of the West interfering in the affairs of a smaller country, just as they’re doing now. But NATO only intervened after the people of Kosovo were systematically brutalized and killed for years. And Kosovo only left Serbia after a referendum was organized not outside the boundaries of international law, but in careful cooperation with the United Nations and with Kosovo’s neighbors. None of that even came close to happening in Crimea.


This is reasonable. As Obama noted elsewhere in the speech, whatever the legitimate grievances of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, there’s little evidence to suggest “systemic violence against ethnic Russians inside of Ukraine.”

But Obama’s next point was a bit odder:

Moreover, Russia has pointed to America’s decision to go into Iraq as an example of Western hypocrisy. Now, it is true that the Iraq war was a subject of vigorous debate, not just around the world but in the United States, as well. I participated in that debate, and I opposed our military intervention there.

But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq’s territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future.


This is all theoretically true (though we can debate the degree to which the Bush administration genuinely “sought to work within the international system”), but it seems a little strange that Obama would choose this speech as a venue to defend a war he vigorously opposed—opposition to which in fact largely defined his rise to national prominence.


It’s true that Russia opposed the war in Iraq, but it hasn’t actually featured that prominently in recent Russian rhetoric compared with, say, the intervention in Libya, which Obama would likely be more comfortable defending. It certainly seems like Obama could have defended the U.S. from charges of hypocrisy without defending something he is famous for opposing. 

It may be that the contrast is something senior U.S. officials have spent time discussing. In a New York Times op-ed earlier this week, recently departed Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote, “As ambassador, I found it difficult to defend our commitment to sovereignty and international law when asked by Russians, ‘What about Iraq?’ ”


In any case, Obama’s notions on international law and working “within the international system” have seemed to move toward something a bit closer to those of his predecessor. Discussing the possibility of intervention in Syria in September—in St. Petersburg, no less—he said in a speech:

I would greatly prefer working through multilateral channels and through the United Nations to get this done. But ultimately what I believe in even more deeply, because I think that the security of the world and my particular task looking out for the national security of the United States requires that when there’s a breach this brazen of a norm this important and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn’t act, then that norm begins to unravel.

Obama probably still believes Iraq was a “dumb war,” but judging by recent statements and the fact that—without any real need to—he chose this speech as a venue to defend it, it certainly seems like his views have evolved in the 12 years since he warned against going into Iraq “without a clear rationale and without strong international support.”