"To claim that Britain and the US left Iraq a better place in 2003 is delusional"by Dominic Raab / June 25, 2014 / Leave a comment
The oil refinery in Beiji, Iraq, has been a key battleground in the conflict © /AP/Press Association Images
As jihadist rebels reportedly capture an oil refinery near Baghdad, the divisive Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki wants military support to see off a fresh terrorist insurgency. Tony Blair’s call for Britain to return to the fray was punctured by the assessment of the former head of the armed forces, Lord Richards, who said on Monday that the British armed forces are “not good enough” to combat the threat of “militant jihadism.” So, what should the UK response be?
Working as a Foreign Office lawyer in 2003, I was less worried by the quibbling over UN resolutions on Iraq than the coalition’s capacity to effect positive change. Ashen-faced colleagues were dumbstruck by the lack of planning for Britain assuming the role of “occupying” power. As events demonstrated, laudable ambition was punctured by a woeful lack of the means to deliver. To claim that Britain and the US left Iraq a better place is delusional, and the conundrum today is the same. Iraq lacks leaders capable of soothing sectarian wounds, and Western attempts to pick them or force their hand invite anti-imperialist backlash.
Britain lost 179 servicemen and women and spent £9bn fighting in Iraq. It’s not unreasonable to ask how much fresh blood and money it would take to improve the current situation, or question whether air power alone would tilt the balance of fighting on the ground. If neo-cons such as Blair define themselves as “liberals mugged by reality”, loose talk of returning to Iraq suggests they need another good mugging.
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Afghanistan too remains racked by civil war, its latest election tainted by allegations of massive fraud. In Libya, despite Western intervention, former pro-Gaddafi officer Khalifa Hiftar is gathering support in his bid to quell al Qaeda inspired rebels. Meanwhile, Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad points to the barbaric terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which was banished from al Qaeda for its savage fanaticism, to gloat over the grim choice his people face.
For all its pro-democracy rhetoric, the West rolled over to military coups in Egypt and Thailand. Perhaps another bout of military dictatorship in Egypt is preferable to elected Islamists. But the West can’t take the moral high ground here when its commitment to democracy has, in the past, been less than perfect.
This is no counsel of inertia. The election of reformist President Hassan Rouhani in Iran is a genuine opportunity. Despite its nuclear ambitions, Iran remains the most democratic regime in the Middle East, bar Israel. Coaxing the leading Shia state back from pariah status would be a historic diplomatic coup. The West still has time to salvage the situation in Egypt, and there is ample scope to press the authoritarian theocracy in Saudi Arabia to reform. These are the three leading Muslim nations in the Middle East. Military entanglement with second-order regional players has distracted focus from the real geopolitical prize.
Likewise, the assertion that we need to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria to prevent terrorism on British streets is riddled with dubious assumptions. British intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan swelled the grievances home-grown fanatics fed off, while al Qaeda morphed and re-grouped in lawless sanctuaries from Somalia to Yemen. The rise in British nationals jetting off to fight in these crucibles is troubling. But, many will die on the battlefield. The rest should be prosecuted and jailed or placed under surveillance, if they return home. No, that can’t guarantee our security. But can British military intervention? As MI5 chief Andrew Parker had the honesty to admit in October last year : “In a free society ‘zero’ [risk] is of course impossible to achieve in the face of persistent and serious threats.”
Meanwhile, plans to tackle extremism by extolling the Magna Carta in schools as a beacon of British values are welcome. But, it will count for little, if we don’t practice what we preach outside the classroom. The recent decision by the Court of Appeal for a major terror trial to be conducted largely in secret, along with creeping mass surveillance is not just a threat to liberty—it is counter-productive security policy. Keeping tabs on the emails every citizen sends is a massive waste of resources that could be focused on tracking terrorists returning from jihad abroad. The former counter-terrorism chief Peter Clarke, sent to investigate extremism in Birmingham schools, has long argued that open terrorism trials are a vital weapon in countering extremism, as they demonstrate to communities the integrity of counterterrorism operations.
Britain’s broader international outlook needs a reality check too. The fragmentation of global power has brought the relative decline of the West. America seems unlikely to recover its appetite for intervention, and none of the rising powers want to take up the mantle.
At home, the British public have done the maths. Weighed down by national debt, most prefer taxpayers’ money to be spent easing pressures on the NHS, not fighting intractable wars with ebbing international support. Britons are weary, in the words of former US President John Quincy Adams, of venturing “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” It is about independence, not isolationism. The same desire to avoid being tied down in the quagmire of wars that can’t be won hankers to be free from the tightening fetters of EU integration. What does this mean for UK policy?
Britain should keep its nuclear deterrent, and maintain the ability to project force—but use it more sparingly in the national interest. It should support international peace-keeping efforts to deliver humanitarian relief and stitch up fragile post-conflict zones, but avoid wholesale nation-building. It should prioritise trade liberalisation to boost British exports and help the poorest nations develop. And it should strive for greater energy independence—through nuclear and shale—to keep bills low and reduce reliance on unstable supplies from Russia and the Middle East.
Britain can still punch above our weight, but it’s time we picked our battles with greater care