In the early 1990s, neo-conservatives within the first Bush administration advocated that the United States seize the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” and consolidate American global domination, creating a world where the U.S. would allow no challengers. Though Bush officially repudiated this view, successive American administrations spread U.S. military bases around the world, expanded NATO, and locked in neo-liberal economic reforms to benefit American capital. The neo-conservatives returned to the White House in the second Bush administration. The 9/11 terrorist attacks provided the opportunity to implement their larger agenda: to launch wars to reshape the Middle East, spread American-style “liberal democracy,” and set the foundation for a “new American century.”
The neo-cons were not alone. Steeped in the dangerous fantasy of American exceptionalism, the Washington bipartisan consensus has long been that the U.S. has the right and the means to rule the world.
The “Bush Doctrine” asserted the American right to launch pre-emptive wars against any perceived threat, no matter how small. The U.S. indicated that it would not be constrained by international law or norms. Most states opposed the U.S. actions—some quite loudly—but many others, while leery of what the U.S. had done, made the political decision to stay quiet or go along. Nonetheless, the “coalition of the willing” the U.S. cobbled together to invade Iraq was, for the most part, the “coalition of the coerced.”
Officially, Canada stayed out of the Iraq war. However, many Canadian soldiers were embedded in the U.S. military and allowed to stay. Canada’s Navy played a deliberately vague role patrolling the Persian Gulf, possibly supporting the American war. Canada’s presence in Afghanistan freed U.S. resources for the illegal invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011 after the protracted war. Still the “war on terror” and the global violence it unleashed has continued. More than 900,000 people were killed in the wars that followed. The U.S. invasion created the Islamic State. Since 2001, the U.S. and its allies have dropped more than 337,000 bombs on the world. Since 9/11, U.S. drone strikes may have killed 22,000-48,000 innocent bystanders. Today, millions of Afghans face starvation as U.S./Western sanctions “punish” the Taliban. Iraq remains wracked by sectarian and inter-sectarian violence. Despite this unending horror, it could have been worse. The neo-cons were plotting more wars against Iran, Syria, and North Korea.
The Iraq war proved indisputably that the U.S. abuses its global power. The U.S. used nationalist ideology to launch a war of aggression against a sovereign state to further its imperialist agenda—exactly what Putin is accused of doing. The Washington bipartisan consensus remains the same: the U.S. must control the world forever.
American adversaries cannot overlook these realities. When Russia says it fears NATO, it is considering, in part, what U.S. actions in Iraq revealed about American intentions and objectives. Russia is probably paranoid—NATO tries not to attack enemies who can actually fight back, let alone a nuclear weapon state—but its fears are not baseless. Notably, Putin justified the war on Ukraine using many of the arguments the U.S. used to justify its interventions.
When China worries about controlling the South China Sea it is responding, in part, to the U.S. Navy’s stated plan to choke off China’s maritime trade in time of conflict. China knows that international law is no defence against American aggression. Indeed, it learned this lesson about the West long ago.
The U.S. could try to make amends for Iraq. It could apologize to the world, admit it was wrong, join the International Criminal Court, and investigate the war crimes it committed in Iraq, starting with the decision to go to war. It could pledge to obey international law going forward. It could stop its assault on the Muslim world. Of course, it will do none of this.
Western states and allies, including Canada, fail to acknowledge the parallels between Iraq and the Ukraine or how American aggression laid the foundations for the Ukraine war. They avoid these uncomfortable truths, refusing to admit how the West’s violence shaped and shapes the world, including the perceptions and fears of its adversaries. This strategy of complicit, willful silence can have very dangerous consequences. It enables the U.S. to exacerbate conflicts around the world in pursuit of permanent global hegemony. It undermines Western outrage at Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine as it illustrates that, to the West, only some lives matter.
Shaun Narine is a professor of international relations at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B. His primary area of interest is the Asia Pacific region, but he has also published and taught on Canadian foreign policy.