Iraq 2003, Ukraine 2022

Almost 19 years ago to this day, George W. Bush announced that the United States started “military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger”. While it is difficult to make estimates as to its casualties, since in later years it indirectly led also to the emergence of Islamic State in the Middle East, the lowest end of population—based studies conclude that it resulted in 150,000 violent deaths by June 2006 (source: Iraq Family Health Survey). If the Western media portrayal of that invasion were to be believed, its difference from the war of aggression that Russia started against its Ukrainian neighbour on 24 February is that the “Operation Shock and Awe” was almost humanitarian, led by “precision missile strikes” and with the civilians who died being the unfortunate victims of ”collateral damage” on the path of the country’s march to liberation from Saddam Hussein (who had no links with Al Qaeda) and weapons of mass destruction (which Iraq did not possess).

That one country waged a brutal war does not justify that Russia is now making use of a similar language in waging another. What it should do, however, is to put in perspective our own reaction. Make us a little more humble, reflective, less emotional and more cool-headed. Because there were no winners of the Iraq war apart from some very happy companies in the defence industry: certainly not the Iraqi people, who defended themselves vigorously, yet died in hundreds of thousands only to fall once again victims to fanatical jihadists a dozen years later. And definitely not the United States, which also lost several thousand soldiers, but above all their credibility in the non-Western world. Yet there was no one banning US companies from European (and other) markets, no one prohibiting possible explanations of the reasoning behind the US war effort (in fact, media were loudly cheering for it), no one encouraging rampant anti-Americanism and banning their films, artists or children from schools. Importantly, neither the Russians or Chinese called Bush to be a war criminal, nor for example Hussein featured prominently in foreign parliaments, urging others to militarily intervene against US soldiers and thus threaten to drag the rest of the world into a global conflict.

Bombing of Baghdad in the initial hours of the Iraq War, 2003

Past is the past and it has little sense to engage in whataboutism. But it is impardonable not only not to take a lesson from it, but to forget it, push it into collective amnesia, and then flatter ourselves with a false sense of moral superiority. Europe is not going to resolve this conflict by the spirals of sanctions, nor by turning Ukraine into a total war zone where each side will barricade behind unbridgeable ultimatums. Forgetfulness and moral platitudes lead us astray – and far away from – the only lasting solution to a conflict, which starts with engaging in a (serious) dialogue with an enemy. If the EU does not find its own, pragmatic and cool-headed voice in the middle of this terrible crisis, it might well be the ultimate straw in our continent’s political, economic and cultural suicide, of that I am absolutely convinced.

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