The White House. Washington. March 20, 2003.
A phone call from Moscow links US President George W. Bush with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin´s chief tries to convince the American head of state to prevent what is about to happen.
“I am sorry for you. This will be terrible for you”.
Just hours before, Bush, in what would be the most controversial political decision of his Presidency, had launched his invasion to Iraq. Initiating a “preventive war” that would become a turning point in the post-Cold War global order.
A development that in turn is inseparable from the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Because the terrorist atrocity had proven that globalization also meant that no continent was completely isolated. The same day, Bush assured that he would not make any distinction between terrorists and those who had given them shelter. Soon after, in his State of the Union speech before US Congress, he announced that it would confront an “Axis of Evil” made up of the regimes of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, which put global peace and security at risk.
At the height of its power, Washington would attack Al Qaeda´s sanctuary in Afghanistan and later would launch the controversial invasion to Iraq. But unlike the first Iraq war (1991), this one would show the confrontation between the US and its European allies in the Security Council, who together with Russia would reject the operation against Baghdad.
Acting unilaterally, the Bush-Cheney Administration would deploy the most interventionist foreign policy in US history. Perhaps the new reality provided the conditions for the neoconservatives to advance. Led by the powerful Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, they would take revenge for what happened ten years earlier, when they reproached George H. W. Bush (Senior) for not having completed Saddam Hussein´s overthrow once his troops were evicted from Kuwait.
Aware of the advantages of political realism, Bush senior had limited himself to restoring Kuwait’s state sovereignty, which had been violated after the invasion of Iraq on August 2, 1990. To the point that during Operation Desert Storm, US troops had been ordered to stop ninety miles from Baghdad and prevented from destroying the Iraqi Republican Guard.
His son would launch a “preemptive strike”. A notion that challenged the very foundations of the international system that emerged in the Westphalian order of sovereign states. If one nation, no matter how powerful, were given that power, no other would be safe. But the “Bush Doctrine” would provide the rationale for invading Iraq.
On February 5, US Secretary of State Collin Powell he had assured the Security Council that Saddam possessed “weapons of mass destruction” and that his survival was a threat to global security. A historian warned that for Powell his presentation was the inverse equivalent to that of Adlai Stevenson in 1962 when the then US ambassador was able to exhibit before the eyes of the world the irrefutable evidence of the installation of missiles in Cuba, snapping at the Soviet representative: “Yes or No?, Mr Ambassador. Yes or No? Don’t wait for the translation.”
It was then that Putin -along with the leaders of France and Germany- issued a harsh anti-war message. Which he described as a military action “that cannot be justified” against a weakened country that “did not represent any danger.”
The second war in Iraq caused a collapse in the system of relations. Washington only got the support of London -its natural ally- and the Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, whose militant Atlanticism was described as “an overacting”.
Perhaps with an altruistic but imperial vision or responding to a kind of “manifest destiny”, the neocons were convinced that the US was not just another nation, but the bearer of a moral duty to be deployed through a civilizing crusade. Paul Wolfowitz let his enthusiasm flow and declared that they would make Iraq “the first democratic Arab society.” Karl Rove offered an arrogant explanation: “We are an empire, and as such, by acting we create reality.”
But Hubris was not restricted to Bush´s aulic circle. The second Clinton-era Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, had asserted in February 1998 that attacking Iraq was a possibility given that the United States was “the indispensable nation.”
Other voices opted for a prudent approach. In a Op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on August 15, 2002, Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser to Gerald Ford and Bush Sr., had spoken out against the war. He did so using a title that left no room for doubt: “Don’t Attack Saddam.” Naturally, not a few saw the President’s father wisdom behind Scowcroft´s article. True or not, the reality is that the two Bush administrations acted in opposite ways towards Saddam, as Richard Haass masterfully explained in his book “War of Necessity. War of Choice. A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars” (2010).
What followed is well known history. On March 20, the United States and the United Kingdom invaded the country in the midst of enormous international controversy.
Shortly before, Putin made a last-minute attempt. At the end of February, he sent former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad to try to convince Saddam to voluntarily relinquish power in order to avoid a bloodbath. Primakov -one of the men who knew Saddam best in the world- found himself with a closed refusal from the Iraqi dictator.
“Russia has become a shadow of the US. What they want is my country, and our oil”, he growled. “I will die here”.
Perhaps it was already late. On the same day that Primakov was conducting his mission in Baghdad, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer announced that the administration was pursuing not only Iraqi disarmament but also “regime change”.
The Azores were the chosen scenario for the launch of the operation. On March 17, Bush, Blair, Aznar and the host José Durao Barroso met in the archipelago, halfway between America and Europe, to present their decision to the world.
Three days later, the invasion was a fait accompli. Saddam´s regime collapsed soon after, and the weapons of mass destruction he was supposed to have hoarded have never been found. The US embarked on an endless war. At a huge cost in terms of human lives, taxpayers’ money and international reputation.
Twenty years later, only a distant memory remains of the brief Russian-American idyll that followed the end of the Cold War. To the point that a fundamental alteration was made in the way in which the triangular relations of the main powers of the world unfold. Giving way to the corollary of the Russian-Chinese friendship of our days. With the opposite consequences for the interests of those of us who adhere to the Western values of freedom, respect for human rights and open economies.