As the United States warns the world of the serious possibility, and consequences, of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, its own past botched invasion of Iraq continues to hang around its neck.
On at least two occasions, President Joe Biden’s administration officials have had to answer questions about why anyone should trust what the United States is saying about Russia when its intelligence to justify war in Iraq was fabricated.
And on Thursday, a top official had to address the elephant head on, in front of the international community.
On Feb. 3, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the United States had information that Russia was “planning to stage fabricated attacks by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces as a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine.”
A reporter sounded a skeptical note, pressing Price on the evidence to back up his comments, saying, “I remember [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq. … So where is the declassified information other than you coming out here and saying it?”
A week later, a reporter similarly asked national security adviser Jake Sullivan whether the administration should show more underlying evidence to prove Russia’s escalation, considering that “this is a country that went through Iraq.”
“In the situation in Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war. We are trying to stop a war, to prevent a war, to avert a war,” Sullivan replied. “And all we can do is come here before you in good faith and share everything that we know to the best of our ability, while protecting sources and methods so we continue to get the access to intelligence we need.”
Sullivan further said that in 2003, the intelligence was about whether Saddam Hussein secretly had weapons of mass destruction, a “hidden thing, stuff that couldn’t be seen.”
“Today, we are talking about more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed along the Ukrainian border, with every capacity out there in the open for people to see. It’s all over social media. It’s all over your news sites,” he added.
There isn’t really much comparison between the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Ukraine, as national security experts acknowledge. But the fact that it keeps coming up nevertheless shows how much the 2003 invasion lingers, and how much it battered U.S. credibility.
“There’s no doubt that Iraq did unfathomable damage to America’s reputation and trustworthiness,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who focuses on Russia.
The comparison is present enough that on Thursday, in his remarks to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken addressed it. It was the same place where Colin Powell, then President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, laid out his inaccurate presentation making the case for war with Iraq almost exactly 19 years ago.
“Now, I am mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out,” Blinken said. “But let me be clear: I am here today, not to start a war, but to prevent one. The information I’ve presented here is validated by what we’ve seen unfolding in plain sight before our eyes for months.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told HuffPost that Iraq and Ukraine are “apples and oranges.”
“We’ve had more than one view, having met with people from the Baltic [countries] to Great Britain,” she said Thursday. “It’s not like it’s just us who has this intelligence.”
Biden has said he does not plan to send U.S. troops to Ukraine, although he has approved training Ukrainian troops and transferring weapons to the country. And he has warned the American public that they may feel some economic pain at home, including higher gas prices.
On Thursday morning, Biden gave some of his strongest comments on the likelihood of a Russian invasion into Ukraine, saying he believed it could come “within the next several days.”
“Comparisons to the present between this crisis and Iraq need to get things straight,” Bergmann said. “This time it is the United States, which is desperate to avoid a catastrophic conflict, while it is Russia that is threatening to conduct a disastrous war of choice to invade Ukraine.”