John Baron MP: Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, the British electorate does not want war
This week’s foreign policy column is by John Baron MP, who resigned from the Front Bench to vote against the Iraq war. He believes valuable lessons from this foreign policy experiment still have bearing today.
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the debate in the House of Commons which sanctioned the invasion of Iraq. I was fairly new to Parliament, having joined with the 2001 intake, and was a shadow health minister. However, I could not support the war, and resigned from the Front Bench to vote against my Party.
At the time, I did not believe Saddam Hussein possessed the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that were at the heart of the case against him. I, and many others, wholly supported the desire of Hans Blix and his team to have more time to verify this fact. No-one could or would answer my questions. We now know we went to war on a false premise – there were no WMD.
Many valuable lessons from this foreign policy disaster are relevant today. The war threw into stark relief the importance of basing our foreign policy decisions on firm evidence. The intelligence on Saddam’s WMD and his links to al-Qaeda, used to varying degrees as the pretext for hostilities, was infamously described by Tony Blair as ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’: in reality, they were anything but. The 2004 Butler Review demonstrated this was a gross overstatement.
The British intelligence community failed to approach the Iraqi material with its customary thoroughness, and consequently allowed space for the Government to meld the evidence to suit its purposes – with disastrous results. Sections of the community became the mouthpiece of Government, rather than its eyes and ears.
This detail is important. On 24th September – when Parliament was recalled by Tony Blair – we were encouraged to believe the dossier accurately reflected the assessments of the intelligence community. We now know this was an untruth. The dossier upgraded or exaggerated assessments made by the JIC, whilst intellectual ownership of the dossier did not reside with the JIC alone, if it did at all. Indeed, the final dossier was not approved by the whole JIC.
The lesson from all this is that we must be wary of Government spin and spin doctors when addressing foreign policy issues. Instead, we must focus on the evidence. In the case of Iran, no intelligence service – whether American, British or Israeli – has yet been able to produce any hard evidence that the Iranian leadership has decided to build a nuclear weapon or even has the capability to do so. Nevertheless, this has not prevented our policymakers from painting a very different picture, and tensions are running high as a result.
The Iraq war is also a reminder that interventions often produce unintended consequences. A woefully inadequate post-war reconstruction helped to usher in a vicious civil war. Iraq became a honey-pot for extremists worldwide. In a bitter irony, al-Qaeda only gained a foothold in Iraq after Saddam’s downfall, and proved difficult to eradicate. Minorities suffered. The Iraqi Christian communities, resident for centuries, suffered immeasurably in the wake of the invasion, and are now a fraction of their former size.
Meanwhile, the invasion radicalised elements of the Muslim world against us. Scandals such as Abu Ghraib reinforced this alienation. As Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, put it, the invasion “increased the terrorist threat... [and] spurred some British Muslims to turn to terror.”
But the invasion also ignored the lessons of history. Western interventions have tended to backfire against us. Communism, for example, has survived longest in those countries where the West took up arms – China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam. We had still not learnt this lesson when, having successfully chased al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, we then allowed ourselves to be drawn into a confused mission of nation-building – we have been fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country ever since.
Iraq itself has certainly suffered. The peer-reviewed study in the Lancet estimates 600,000 more people died in Iraq as a result of the invasion. Today, the country looks into the abyss because of economic failure, sectarian violence, and political turmoil and corruption. Prime Minister Maliki, having centralised power, is supportive of President al-Assad, and a new wave of sectarian unrest seems imminent. Furthermore, there is little doubting the removal of Saddam fundamentally altered the regional balance of power, to the advantage of Iran. We are still living with the consequences today.
One scratches around for positives from the period. If al-Qaeda was indeed one of the reasons for the invasion, then it is now abundantly clear the Iraq War was a 19th Century colonial-style response to a 21st Century terrorist threat. Instead, our efforts against international terrorism must be more nimble and flexible – focusing on intelligence-led operations, supporting friendly governments in their anti-terrorist endeavours, applying properly resourced special forces. It must also better focus international aid on the poverty and grievances which al-Qaeda and others have all too readily fastened upon in the past.
Perhaps there is a more general lesson to be learned. We failed to carry the international community with us, and in doing so lost the moral high ground. The view adopted by the US and the UK was ‘might is right’. This sets a dangerous precedent: The coming decades will see the emergence of new superpowers perhaps eager to flex their muscles. Meanwhile, the invasion showed international law proved to be no guarantee of sovereignty or security, and may have encouraged some countries to seek other guarantees. Our invasion will make condemnation of any future aggression by others less effective.
Certainly, the neo-con dream of establishing a liberal democracy stands in tatters. The seeds of democracy are flourishing in North Africa (where Western support has been minimal) and not in Iraq or Afghanistan (which has cost us many lives and billions of pounds).
But perhaps the biggest positive is that the war may have served to lay to rest, once and for all, the view that the British electorate would instinctively support politicians advocating intervention or war. Blair was never trusted thereafter. As David Cameron considers possible responses to Syria and Iran, he would be wise to reflect on this.