In denouncing the Russian seizure of Crimea in Brussels last week Obama contrasted the Russian invasion of the peninsula with the United States' own invasion of Iraq:
"Russia has pointed to America's decision to go into Iraq as an example of Western hypocrisy. Now, it is true that the Iraq war was a subject of vigorous debate, not just around the world but in the United States, as well. I participated in that debate, and I opposed our military intervention there."Other commentators have pointed out the absurdity of claiming the American invasion was supposedly more defensible of the two given the differences in bloodshed they entailed. The Iraq War resulted in approximately 500,000 deaths whereas the Russian seizure of Crimea resulted in the deaths of one Ukrainian serviceman and one Crimean militiaman.
"But even in Iraq, America sought to work within the international system. We did not claim or annex Iraq's territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain. Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future."
There is another aspect in which Obama's statement is perversely ridicilous. He highlights as the redeming property of the Iraq invasion precisely the notion that makes US imperialism today so aggressive and unpredictable. That is its rejection of realpolitik and an addiction to pointless and unprofitable war. When Obama says: "We did not claim or annex Iraq's territory. We did not grab its resources for our own gain," what he is communicating is that unlike the Russians the Americans did not wage a self-interested war. By invading Iraq the US was not seeking to advance own national interest.
But this is exactly what makes US militarism such a scourge. Whereas a traditional power may only wage war that will serve its real political ends the contemporary United States, which is detached from this thinking, may wage war under any number of completely arbitrary and bizarre rationales. US military action ends up being called for for reasons as sacandalous as to "be seen to be doing something", to "send a message", or simply because "[the Serbs] needed some bombing".
What should be understood is that realpolitik may serve as a restraint against the worst of great power militarism. In an enviromnent where militarists must justify a given military action as being in the national interest a case for war is not necessarily easy to make. In turn when the militarists are freed from the obligation to prove the war would provide tangible benefit to the nation this removes an obstacle in their path. They may now wage more war and justify it with more contrieved rationales.
Perversely the US now regularly goes to war in order to demonstrate its moral worth. Since US wars are no longer a means of advancing the American national interest the wars scandalously become an end in themselves. For example in 1992 Bush ordered the intervention in Somalia that would lead to the Battle of Mogadishu for no better reason than to be seen as engaging in a humanitarian intervention and to deflect criticism for not intervening in Bosnia.
Similarly in the negotations preceding NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the US knowingly escalated its demands until the Serbs could not but reject them. When it seemed the Serbs might agree to relinquish military control of Kosovo in favor of a multi-national force, the US appended its ultimatum with the infamous "Annex B" that could be interpreted as authorizing the military occupation of the entire country specifically so that the sham negotiations would fail. It was not enough for Washington that it could gain military control of Kosovo — it specifically wanted to gain control after a bombing campaign of Yugoslavia. Perversely for the US having a war against Milošević was a goal in itself at least as important as the stated goal of securing a Serbian withdrawal from Kosovo.
The mistake Obama makes is to assume a war that is not self-interested is therefore already more benevolent. On the contrary, a war that is an end in itself is likely to be all the more pointless, reprehensible and absurd. At least the Russians launched their military operation in Crimea in order to recapture a piece of land for themselves and not simply to celebrate the God of War.