If Putin is the New Hitler, What Does That Make Bush?

Painting of Vladimir Putin by George W. Bush (George W. Bush Presidential Center / CC-BY)

Last Friday, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush stopped by a Ukrainian church in Chicago. When they got there, the two former presidents delivered a bouquet of sunflowers, the country’s national flower, along with some remarks denouncing Russia’s “unjustified and unprovoked” invasion. The scheduling of this photo op was bitterly ironic, as their visit came on the eve of the anniversary of another unjustified and unprovoked attack —one that Bush was personally responsible for.

On March 19, 2003, the US military launched its invasion of Iraq with a display of force dubbed “Shock and Awe.” It was scheduled during prime time, and CNN aired non-stop live coverage.

There wasn’t much to watch — just some grainy footage punctuated here and there by little pops as the bombs struck. The only evidence of their effect were plumes of black smoke barely visible in the night sky and some distant fires.

The actual content of the broadcast was the commentary, and the scenes weren’t all that different from what Russians are seeing on state television these days. Various military analysts with Pentagon ties came on to explain how these “surgical strikes” with “precision-guided smart weapons” were designed to decapitate the Iraqi military while “minimizing collateral damage.”

Those early days of the invasion were the bloodiest. All told, 3,977 civilians lost their lives in March alone. Nearly 4,000 ordinary Iraqis were killed in just 12 days. By comparison, 900 civilians have been killed thus far in the first 24 days of the Ukraine invasion, though UN officials believe the figure to be significantly higher.

While it’s too early to say what the ultimate human cost of Putin’s war will be, we know the deadly price that the Iraqi people paid for Bush’s. The Iraq war and subsequent occupation killed upwards of 209,000 civilians and created 9.2 million refugees.

That’s just death by violence. Excess deaths from the destruction of medical and sanitary infrastructure, increased mortality, and other consequences of the invasion — such as the rise of ISIS — are practically incalculable, but estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000.

A week before Bush and Clinton’s trip to Chicago, Stanford foreign policy wonk and Obama’s ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul went on Rachel Maddow’s show where he implied that, in some respects, Putin is worse than Adolf Hitler because the latter “didn’t kill ethnic Germans, German-speaking people,” whereas “ Putin slaughters the very people he said he has come to liberate.” He attributed the statement to an unnamed Ukrainian journalist.

After swarms of people blasted McFaul for trivializing the greatest genocide in the history of humankind to attack Putin, he walked his statements back.

Why did McFaul go back to 1940s Germany — and engage in Holocaust revisionism in the process — when the Iraq War provides a much better and more recent analogy for the Ukraine invasion? After all, it was an illegal war of aggression fought for geopolitical goals that involved mass civilian deaths and crimes against humanity.

Putin visits a public school in Crawford, TX (Kremlin.ru / Public Domain)

Over the course of the last 30 years, the US military has committed every war crime that the Russian army has done and then some. The Russian bombing of a civilian shelter in Mariupol has echoes of the Amiriyah shelter bombing during the first Iraq War that killed more than 400 civilians.

The Biden Administration recently condemned Russia’s use of banned cluster munitions rings. It’s a charge that rings hollow. The United States has stubbornly refused to sign onto the ban and dropped more than 13,000 cluster bombs containing 2 million submunitions in the first three weeks of the Iraq war, turning large swathes of the country into a minefield.

The United States has bombed hospitals, weddings, and vital civilian infrastructure, while troops and military contractors have carried out torture and massacres, and the US state has indefinitely detained soldiers without due process for more than 20 years.

When the United States does these things, they’re written off as tragic “mistakes.” Officials invariably claim that they intended to hit “legitimate military targets” (Russian leaders say the same).

Rather than earnestly confronting the monstrous behavior of the US state and seeing a parallel in actions of Russia, McFaul would rather make a tortured — and offensive — analogy between Putin and Hitler that minimizes the truly exceptional historical evil that the Nazi leader represented.

McFaul would never compare Bush to Putin (or Hitler) because, despite belonging to different parties, he and Bush are on the same team. They share an identical neoconservative understanding of the United States’ role in the world as a benevolent actor, a guarantor of the rules-based international order, and a champion of liberal democracy.

He even wrote an apologia for the Iraq War in 2005, arguing Bush was right to believe that regime change in Iraq “would lead to political liberalization throughout the Middle East.”

No rational person would liken Putin to Hitler based on a quantitative or qualitative assessment of the suffering they respectively caused. Such a comparison is only reasonable according to a profoundly amoral and ideological worldview, i.e., that of the US foreign policy establishment.

From this perspective, Putin’s crimes in the name of Great Russian chauvinism are unforgivable, but Bush’s mass murder ostensibly served the noble cause of “spreading democracy,” so he gets a pass.

Drawing comparisons between Putin and Hitler clearly isn’t about accurately evaluating the historical legacy of either. It’s just the standard means by which a nation primes its population for war.

The modus operandi is the same as it was a century ago when Americans were told that we needed to mobilize to stop the bloodthirsty Kaiser and buy Liberty Bonds to “Beat Back the Hun.”

Bush’s sins don’t erase Putin’s, but the reverse is also true. It’s worth keeping in mind the gruesome consequences of the Iraq War, especially when some slick think tank stooge is on cable TV talking about the need to stand against a “brutal dictator who kills his own people.”

We’ve heard that one before.

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Justin Ward

Justin Ward

Journalist and activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN, USA Today. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD