Our 24-hour news cycle is filled with disturbing images. Millions of people fleeing the deliberate and unstoppable destruction of their homes and communities. The identity of the aggressor is clear; much less is known about what specifically triggered the aggression, and why it is happening now.
In the United States as in much of Europe, emotions run high: indignation, sorrow, desire to help fellow human beings in distress. Every report from the front lines, in Ukrainian cities and at check points along the border, reinforces the emotions. We are reacting as if we never experienced a situation like this.
But we have, and our experience stretches back two decades. More precisely, it stretches back to the spring 2003. Operation Shock & Awe was launched for the purpose of toppling and replacing an Iraqi government that we had once supported but that had ceased to be useful. As expected, use of superior air power made short shrift of the opposing armed forces; an American-led government replaced the disgraced former ally. But conquering territory is not the same as governing.
The 24-hour news cycle delivered plenty of images of a country torn apart, its economy in shambles, its cities destroyed by American bombs or by local guerrillas. And every day we saw images of civilians killed, injured, driven from their homes.
Apparently we did not learn what happens when unpopular or uncooperative governments are toppled by force, with no plans for what might happen next. The Iraqi experiment was replicated in Syria, where we fought a war by proxy, supporting a motley coalition of opponents of the government. A major and predictable disaster happened because other countries in the neighborhood, Turkey and Russia, had vital interests at stake, and intervened to protect those interests.
The 24-hour news cycle gave us gruesome pictures of devastation and of refugees trying to escape to Turkey and Europe. Our reaction by and large was that “our guys” would have won, except for Turkish and Russian intervention. As for millions of refugees … that was an issue for the European Community to deal with.
Our EU allies did their best. But they also found time and resources to engage in their own regime-changing project. NATO, well practiced by interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria (only one justified by Article 5 of the original treaty) toppled a sometime uncooperative Libyan government.
The 24-hour news cycle did not show many pictures of Libya, because there was no mass exodus of residents. But it did, and still does, cover daily rescues of refugees from the waters of the Mediterranean — pretty much the major occupation of Italy’s Coast Guard and Navy . In the absence of a functioning government, Libya became a booming hub of human trafficking.
None of the images that appeared on our screens over two decades evoked the universal and deep emotions that are so much in evidence in the Ukrainian crisis. To find a comparable reaction we need to go all the way back to the Balkan war of the 1990s, and to images of refugees from Kosovo and Bosnia.
If we align images (and commentaries) from the 1990s and from the first two decades of the 21st century, two things stand out. One, compassion and solidarity flow abundantly if the casualties of war are white (and preferably not Moslem). Two, compassion and solidarity flow abundantly if we can blame others for wars of choice and for related man-made disasters.