As we approach the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there are a lot of lessons on which to reflect. One of the most vital is the importance of welcoming—or at least protecting space for—dissenting views, especially when it comes to the use of military force, one of the most profound and serious issues that any government considers.
In the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion, those sounding caution were cast as “unpatriotic,” “pro-Saddam,” and worse. Those who dared suggest that the problem of international terrorism could not be easily reduced to a simple equation of Good vs. Evil were accused of being “terrorist sympathizers,” a smear that is unfortunately still in use today.
This created a political environment that constrained, if not outright suffocated, alternative views that might have arrested the slide toward war and averted the strategic disaster. The political establishment—including U.S. President Joe Biden, who as past (and future) chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should have been in a position to know better—willingly stampeded into a historic foreign-policy disaster, the consequences of which Americans are still grappling with.
Americans should’ve paid better attention. And they should pay attention today, where similar invective is deployed against critics of U.S. policy toward Russia and China.
Several weeks before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley called on the Biden administration to publicly withdraw support for Ukraine joining NATO, which he argued was a provocation to Russia (and a distraction from what he saw as the true threat: China). Then-White House spokesperson Jen Psaki responded by accusing him of “parroting Russian talking points.”
While I’m no fan of Hawley, who I think should’ve resigned from the Senate after helping the Jan. 6 insurrection, his suggestion did not merit that response. Many senior U.S. officials, including former Defense Secretary William Perry and current CIA Director William Burns, had in the past acknowledged Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion, and Russian President Vladimir Putin had cited it numerous times. While Putin’s own words and deeds in the horrible months that followed have shown that NATO is only one piece in his grandiose set of historical grievances and goals, raising it in February was not unreasonable.
While the White House has fortunately avoided such invective since then, Washington’s hawkish pundits have not. Commentary’s Joshua Muravchik condemned members of the “Squad,” the loose grouping of progressive Democrats, along with pretty much anyone who voiced any concern about the possibility of escalation toward a U.S.-Russia war (a group that would also include Biden) as “Putin’s American Apologists” who share a “contempt for America.” Writing in the Atlantic, James Kirchick simply reused an Iraq war-vintage argument, quoting George Orwell (with a line that Orwell himself later disavowed) to say that “today’s anti-war caucus is objectively pro-fascist.”