Eugene Robinson at The Washington Post argues that the invasion of Iraq has left the U.S. with a "credibility problem" in condemning Russia's military intervention in Ukraine. By invading a country ostensibly to protect its own interests, he says, Russia is acting much like the U.S. has with its invasions of other sovereign nations in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Vladimir Putin himself argues that Western criticism of his invasion of Crimea is hypocritical:
[Putin]… pointed out what he sees as a double standard by leaders in the United States and other Western countries, saying that the United States acted in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya without a U.N. resolution authorizing that action or by "twisting" U.N. resolutions. [CNN]
He's correct to point this out.
In Libya, a U.N. resolution that approved the creation of a no-fly zone was stretched by some Western governments to include bombing Libyan government targets. And military interventions by many Western countries in Iraq and Afghanistan were never approved by the U.N. Security Council.
Iraq was the particularly egregious case. After the U.S. went around the U.N. and invaded Iraq with a "coalition of the willing," the pretext for the invasion — that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction — turned out to be false. But that didn't stop the war from costing trillions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
So I do think it's naive to assume that other countries will listen to the U.S. and its allies on the importance of sovereignty and international law after they bombed the hell out of Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist.
But what relevance does this have to Vladimir Putin's incursion into Crimea today? None.
Some governments in the West may have a credibility problem, but two wrongs do not make a right. The U.S. and the rest of the West are still within their rights to criticize Putin, and to pressure him to adhere to international law and to respect Ukrainian sovereignty. Most Crimeans are against becoming part of Russia, and even if a majority were in favor, it would not give Putin the right to just seize it, as his regime did in the past with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Yes, the U.S. would be in a much better position to criticize Putin if the U.S. hadn't invaded Iraq. And yes, the U.S. and its allies' violations of international law last decade may have emboldened other regimes like Putin's to violate it. But the Western governments that went to war illegally in Iraq — principally the American administration led by George W. Bush, and the British administration led by Tony Blair — are no longer in power.
Instead it is Putin that this episode has exposed as a hypocrite. Putin's earlier criticisms of Iraq and demands for the West to adhere to international law, and respect national sovereignty — for instance in Syria last year — have been burnt to the ground.
Of course, after Iraq and Crimea, a lot of people will be left with the impression that this is just two blocs arguing in favor of international law whenever it suits their interest and foreign policy objectives — and ignoring it whenever it doesn't.
So it is essential that the Western leaders trumpeting the virtues of international law today not be exposed as hypocrites ignoring it tomorrow. Otherwise, we are in danger of turning international law into a rhetorical convenience.