Russia on Iraq: ‘We told you so’


An image made available on the jihadist Web site Wilayat Salahuddin on June 11 shows an explosion as militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria allegedly seize an Iraqi army checkpoint in the northern province of Salahuddin. (Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

As the situation in Iraq begins to looks more and more like a complete state meltdown, Russia has stepped in with a familiar refrain: "We told you so."

"We are greatly alarmed by what is happening in Iraq. We warned long ago that the affair that the Americans and the Britons stirred up there wouldn't end well," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday, according to Voice of Russia. He also described the Iraq war as a "total failure" and said Russia was sorry that its forecasts had come true.

It's hard to deny that Russia was vocal in saying that the Iraq war was a bad idea. In March 2003, just as the invasion began, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly criticized it. It was the "most serious crisis the world has faced since the Cold War," he told the Duma, adding that the fighting would be "fierce" and "drawn out."

At that point, it was a somewhat surprising move (remember, we were then less than three years into the Putin era, now in its 15th year). These days, we're pretty used to Russian criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, and the finger wagging that comes afterward: Russia loves to remind the United States that it warned against its international follies.

For example, when the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi was attacked in 2012, claiming the life of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the immediate reaction across Russia was neatly summed up by the New York Times' Ellen Barry as "We told you so." And even after the Boston Marathon was bombed by two Chechens last year, killing three people and injuring dozens, Russia again responded pretty much with "We told you so," the New Republic's Julia Ioffe noted at the time. "Putin has repeatedly said there is no such thing as our terrorists and somebody else’s,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “One must not differentiate between them, deal with some and condemn others."

There's an obvious logic here. Russia's repeated use of "We told you so" also allows it to say: "You didn't listen to us then, so you should listen to us now." Putin has brought up his warnings against intervention in Libya and Iraq as a way to defend his positions on Syria.

Even so, it's tempting to look at Russia's positions on various conflicts and wonder whether there was something to it. With the events of the past few days, a lot of people probably feel that Putin may well have been right about Iraq (as John Nagl, an Iraq war veteran writes for The Post today, "This is not the end state my friends fought for and died for"). Meanwhile, the chaotic state of Libya today certainly makes you question the path taken there, and as the Syrian war drags on past its third anniversary with no end in sight, perhaps Russia's calls for more dialogue with Bashar al-Assad weren't so terrible after all.

There are clearly some other factors at play, of course. Critics might also point out that in Iraq, Libya and Syria, Putin has been unusually vocal in his support of strongman leaders — like supports like, you could say. And, of course, economic issues and a dislike of American hegemony no doubt play a role in Putin's criticisms. Plus, Russia's more recent actions in Crimea make criticisms of U.S. intervention look hypocritical.

But it's also worth remembering that Russia's tone on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has been more measured. Putin was an early supporter of George W. Bush's war on terror, though Russia's involvement in the Afghanistan war was limited to help with supplies and Putin did later express some criticism. Despite that, just last year, Putin said he hoped the United States would keep its military bases in the country after 2014. Writing in the Moscow Times, Michael Bohm argued that this rare acceptance of U.S. military reach was a sign that Russia was concerned about the security situation in the country to its south and wants the United States to deal with it.

So perhaps Putin's foreign policy is all based on a jaded realism. But sometimes, in hindsight, jaded realism looks better than the alternative.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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