Did George W. Bush Set the Stage for Putin? A Concern, not an Apology or Whataboutism

 by Michael C. Dorf

The Soviet Union was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. Interestingly, in a move that gave the Soviets three rather than just one seat in the UN, so were two Soviet republics. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia took the primary Soviet seat (including as a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council), while the successors to the other two Soviet seats were Belarus (now reduced more or less to a Russian puppet) and Ukraine (currently the victim of Russian aggression). As a member of the UN, Russia has bound itself to the UN Charter, which states, in Article 2, Section 4: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations."

Accordingly, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, its recognition of independence for Luhansk and Donetsk, its prior support for separatists fighting there, its prior invasion of Crimea, its current claims to Crimea, and just about every other aspect of its threats and use of force against the territorial integrity of Ukraine are blatant violations of international law. This is not a close question. Nothing I say below should be taken as casting any doubt on the illegality or immorality of Russia's moves against Ukraine.

Is there a lie one can tell that, if true, would make Russia's actions legal? Putin could lie and say that Ukraine was in the process of attacking Russia and that therefore his use of force was an exercise of Russia's "inherent right" to use "self-defense" against "an armed attack," pursuant to Article 51 of the Charter. And indeed, along with the long distorted account of the fraternal history of Ukraine and Russia, the projection of all of Putin's own evils on the Ukrainian leadership, and just heaps of general-purpose lies, Putin's address on Monday did include a particular lie that, if not a lie, could be thought to invoke a Russian right of self-defense. He pointed to western support for Ukrainian defense against Russian aggression as evidence of an insidious plot to attack Russia.

Putin did not go quite so far as to say that such an absurd attack by Ukraine against Russia or Russians was underway, but anyone who has been paying attention for the last couple of decades will have heard in Putin's speech (as one apparently hears expressly in Russian state media) an echo of George W. Bush's case for pre-emptive war in Iraq to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring and using weapons of mass destruction.

Here was Putin earlier this week:

If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia. We cannot but react to this real danger, all the more so since, let me repeat, Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.

Sound familiar? It should. Although some revisionists talk about an "intelligence failure" that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a more accurate description would be an "honesty failure," or in more direct terms: Bush, Dick Cheney, and others in the administration lied about the scope of the Iraq weapons program, both making some claims with much greater certainty than warranted by the evidence and greatly exaggerating others. For example, in August 2002, Cheney said that "there’s no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

It was hardly just Cheney. From Condoleezza Rice worrying about a "smoking gun" that could be a "mushroom cloud" to Bush claiming that Iraq was training al Q'aeda to Donald Rumsfeld assuring everyone that Saddam already had chemical weapons and was close to having nukes to Colin Powell's disastrous speech at the UN, the Bush administration beat the drum for war with lies and gross exaggerations.

That's not the only parallel between the Bush justification for the Iraq invasion and Putin's lies about Ukraine. Bush and his allies also cited Saddam Hussein's oppression of his own people as a justification for war. Yet, as a 2004 Human Rights Watch report explained, that was plainly pretextual. Saddam was in fact a brutal dictator, but most of his worst abuses occurred long before the 2003 invasion, including during periods when he was deemed a US ally against Iran.

Putin also claims bogus humanitarian grounds for intervening in Ukraine. Those grounds are much less substantial than those offered by Bush for the Iraq invasion, because Saddam Hussein was indeed a violator of human rights, whereas Putin and the Russian propaganda machine have simply been lying about supposed Ukrainian attacks on Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Still, the use of the pretextual playbook is apparent.

So, what am I saying? Am I an apologist for Putin's whataboutism? No, no, no, a thousand times no. Putin is a ruthless monster. The attack on Ukraine is horrific and should be condemned and resisted in every way possible short of igniting an all-out major power conflict.

Maybe Putin would have attempted what he's doing now had SCOTUS never made George W. Bush president and thus unleashed a war of choice that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. But in that alternative universe, there's at least a possibility that the system of international law would have been stronger and thus better able to respond to clear violations of the UN Charter.

Donald Trump repeatedly lied by saying that he was against the Iraq war from its start. Joe Biden has unpersuasively tried to minimize the significance of his 2002 Senate vote to authorize the war in Iraq. Not all of us were taken in. In March 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq, I actually did say that the coming war likely violated international law. And I issued a warning:
One impact of a war of dubious lawfulness may be the continued erosion of respect for the United States as a nation committed to principles of justice under law. President Bush says that he is justified in using military might because his cause is just. To much of the rest of the world, however, it looks the other way around: that the U.S. and its allies act as they wish because, in the American view, might makes right.
Might does not make right. Neither do two wrongs. Thus, President Biden is justified in condemning and (to the extent possible) resisting Putin's aggression. I just wish he and our allies were not even a little bit vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy.