If there’s one phrase in particular that might be circulating the halls of the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry these days as Sunni militants tip Iraq close to the abyss, it probably would be:
“We told you so.”
In fact, it’s a phrase domestic critics of the Obama administration are using almost continuously.
With Islamist militants steamrolling military forces in northern Iraq and now menacing Baghdad, President Barack Obama’s detractors — former Vice President Dick Cheney foremost among them —are insisting the White House should have foreseen this crisis and done more to avert it.
Cheney, in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed
, characterized Obama's foreign policy as “empty threats, meaningless red lines, leading from behind, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies, or apologizing for our great nation.”
While Cheney’s comments might be dismissed as opportunistic (or rank hypocrisy, given his role in launching the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), no entity has arguably spoken louder, longer or more consistently about the dangers of intervention or regime change than Moscow.
True, Russia’s criticism diverges from that of Obama’s mostly Republican critics.
Cheney and other top officials in George W. Bush’s administration— John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz— argue the Obama White House is feckless and flat-footed, allowing the Syrian conflict to spawn the militants now storming through northern Iraq.
Moscow’s “we told you so” arguments, meanwhile, grow from the warnings made before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Just weeks before fighting started, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the Islamic world “might be swept by instability" if Washington waged war on Baghdad without international backing.
Two days after Iraq’s second largest city fell to the militants on June 12, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chose the word “adventurism” to take a dig at Washington, and London.
“This is an illustration of the complete failure of the adventurism which was undertaken by the United States and Britain, and which they lost control of,” he said.
A few hours later, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, offered a similar statement: “There is no doubt that those who invaded Iraq over 10 years ago and who continue to impose their decisions and will on the people of the region largely contributed to the launch of the processes of destabilization, the results of which are evident today in the entire Middle East.”
Alexei Pushkov, a sharp-tongued, Kremlin-allied lawmaker, offered this sarcastic tweet: “The United States has so brilliantly brought order to Iraq that the Islamists have already seized Mosul and plan to storm Baghdad. That’s what 10 years of occupation has resulted in.”
The criticism from Moscow is self-serving, said Robert Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University: the finger-wagging “we told you so” argument helps Moscow to make the case globally that its leadership is a sensible alternative to American hegemony, a concept Putin has been pushing for some time now.
“The main grounds on which (the Russians) opposed the war? That it would enhance and expand American power,” he said. However, “you can make the argument that the consequence (of the war) has been in fact reversed— it has reduced the American power.”
“In some ways, it’s an ironic twist to their statement. Yes, they told us so, but if we had listened, we’d be better off, and they’d be worse off,” Jervis said.
“Lavrov and Putin are playing a zero-sum game and unfortunately President Obama hasn’t learned this yet,” said Robert Freedman, a scholar of Middle East and Russian foreign policy and visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.
The Kremlin has specific interests in Iraq and its neighbors. Moscow is a stalwart supporter of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, has supplied lucrative nuclear technology to Iran, and wants contracts to extract Iraqi oil.
It also sees the Middle East as a place to reclaim lost clout. But it’s also fearful of hardened militants leaving the Middle East battlefield to fight in Russia’s tumultuous North Caucasus.
“Putin looks at Iraq and the Arab Spring as the same thing: empowering Islamists. That’s why he’s worried about it,” Freedman said. “But at the same time, if the Americans get a black eye, that’s a good thing.”
The Western intervention in Libya in 2011 came after then-President Dmitry Medvedev agreed not to block a Security Council vote on the matter.
When the air strikes turned from battlefield tactical to strategic, however, and the Libyan government was brought down, Russia complained that the West’s actions would make things worse in the region: something many experts would argue has happened.
Where Iraq is concerned, the U.S. military officials and Obama aides have said how surprising it is that the military wilted so quickly amid the onslaught by the militants, known collectively as ISIL or ISIS. How aware the administration was of the potency of the fighters’ abilities is unclear.
On Thursday, Obama announced he was ordering up to 300 U.S. military trainers to Iraq to help government forces. He also called on the Iraqi government to undertake reforms and become more inclusive.
The president noted the resurgence of the divisive political debate over U.S. policy in Iraq.
“Russians are strict realists, strict power analysts. They analyze the world much more realistically. This is their claim from top to bottom,” said Jan Techbau, director of the Carnegie Europe Center, in Brussels.
“But then Russia uses these arguments to justify and defend a non-democratic, authoritarian system at home that doesn’t shy away from its own interventions, for whatever suits them,” Techbau said.
“Sure, you have to give them some credit for saying [we told you so], but I’m not sure they can claim ‘we were the only ones.’ Nobody could’ve seen this would happen,” Techbau said.