We shouldn’t be weary of humanitarian intervention in Iraq today because of a strategic mistake made over a decade ago
The savage execution of American journalist James Foley by a suspected British Jihadist has caused uproar abroad, and a sense of tightened security at home. But well before this callous display of medieval brutality, the Islamic State (IS) had been cleansing innocent civilians in a manner not witnessed since the age of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Here in Britain, the government assures us it will not stand idly by. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, David Cameron argued Britain must display a ‘firm security response’ against IS, including the possibility of ‘military action to go after the terrorists.’ The Prime Minister is willing, but can he take his people with him?
There is an instinct of inaction running through our collective conscience. Britons were made sceptics of intervention ever since Tony Blair’s war on Iraq in 2003. As Parliament vetoed David Cameron’s game plan against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, so concluded a chapter of humanitarian intervention in modern British History. As Steve Richards noted in The Independent last week, Cameron was ‘most Blair-like’ in his airstrikes on Libya, only to find himself in retreat from interventionism having failed to persuade his party to follow his instincts over Syria.
Richard’s analysis stands accurate, and his words are very telling of our politics and people. ‘There are no answers to the nightmare in Iraq but the current messy expediency is preferable to the shallow evangelism that preceded it,’ wrote Richards. Apparently, his solution to correcting the mistakes of 2003 is by not doing anything at all. Ludicrous as it may seem, this is the creeping tide of opinion that has haunted Britain over the past decade. As a recent YouGov poll confirmed, most Britons think the invasion of Iraq in 2003 worsened the situation in the Middle East, with opposition to an airstrike mission stuck at a stubborn 36%, while 44% disapprove of arming the Kurds. A similar poll by ComRes also shows a staggering 63% opposed to British troops on the ground.
Yet two wrongs do not make a right. Supporters of this view fail to grasp the reality of IS’ brutality and the imminence of the current humanitarian crisis. The last Iraq War was fought on a false premise, but a continuous quarrel on whether Blair was a liar in 2003 serves no purpose today. In fact, as The Independent on Sunday’s John Rentoul explained on Newsnight, ‘the causes of ISIS are not necessarily to do with the intervention of 2003, they are much more to do with our failure to intervene in Syria.’ If we were wrong to topple Saddam, because consequentially we created a haven for Islamist terrorists, how is it right for us to send signals of encouragement to these terrorists, by ruling out to strike against them?
What is more, it pains me to see the public’s apologetic attitude whenever a crisis erupts in the Middle East. Agree with Blair or not, no one can repudiate Iraq’s economic and democratic progress since 2003. Its economy has revived and its oil revenue, contrary to conspiracy, is finally serving the welfare of Iraqi civilians, rather than Saddam’s. Its democracy is unripe and troublesome, but nevertheless survived and delivered an unprecedented degree of liberty despite both Sunni and Shia terrorist hostilities. Those who indulge themselves in pessimism and melancholy are in no way ‘taking a stance’ against Blair or the invasion of Iraq, but are deniying the efforts and achievements of both coalition forces and Iraqis since 2003.
Let me take a step back and concede for one moment, for the sake of argument, that it would have been in the interest of the Iraqi people to have Saddam still in power right now. Would the catastrophe of IS have been avoided? Again, this counterfactual argument neglects why the idea of humanitarian intervention and ‘ethical foreign policy’ emerged in the first place.As John McTernan, Blair’s former strategist, reminded us, it was those conflicts where we did not bother to moderate, such as the tragedy of Rwanda and bloodshed on the Balkans. ‘It (Britain’s inaction) was not just shameful, it was a deliberate abandonment of the promises we made after the Second World War,’ wrote McTernan, ‘We cannot look at evils being perpetrated in another country and say that is their matter and no concern of ours. Bloodless pragmatism has had its day. ’ In other words, the choice of the 21st Century is not to choose the lesser of two evils, but to confront all evils.
Across the political divide, Britons should stand united today behind the government’s decision to intervene in Iraq. The British people must understand that to intervene is not imperialist, but to recognise that today’s security threats cut across borders. Isolationism does not rise above that challenge. While Mr. Cameron insisted British ground troops will not return to Iraq, any military action without popular support will prove detrimental politically. Parliament is not required to be recalled for air action, saving the Prime Minister from another embarrassing episode akin to Syria. But public opinion will continue to reflect our moral compass, which has frankly been pointing at the wrong direction for far too long.