The release of the Chilcot Inquiry report tomorrow will hopefully draw a line under a corrosive debate over Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War of 2003 that is too often misused for contemporary political point-scoring purposes.
While the findings will have to be assessed on their merit, there are key themes that can already be extrapolated. These will have an impact on the conduct of British foreign and security policy today and therefore need restating, in particular at this time of fundamental reassessment of our role in the world and alliance relationships with neighbours.
Key themes include:
- The Chilcot Inquiry report relates to one specific episode of recent British foreign policy only. It does not hold itself out to be a statement on foreign policy in general, either of the time or now. Nor can it be taken as one, despite what some critics of our recent foreign policy will claim.
- Whatever the operational judgements on this particular foreign policy episode, it cannot be taken as a judgement on the concept of Intervention as a whole. An interventionist foreign policy is a vital, valid, legal and effective tool to ensure our security at home and assert our interests abroad. It is additionally a crucial tool of the humanitarian mission our nations sets itself, as seen by the concept of “Responsibility to Protect”. Where the strategic, security and humanitarian imperatives meet, Britain must intervene.
- We are an outward facing nation now more than ever and that must include our sharing in the burden of global security. British soft power remains immense, perhaps appreciated abroad even more than at home, but our policy toolbox must always include a highly capable, well equipped and resourced ability to exert expeditionary hard power. The world is becoming more dangerous, not less.
- A clear example of the dangers of non-intervention, and their pernicious effect on our national security and international standing exists today in the Syrian crisis. Here, unlike in Iraq, Britain chose to do nothing. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced, helping to create a refugee crisis that has afflicted our whole continent, and which played a role in the Brexit debate. British born jihadists have flocked to Syria to receive military training, increase the threat of home-grown terrorism. Britain’s international standing has diminished as a consequence of Russia taking steps that we refused to contemplate. Non-intervention is therefore not a cost-free option.
- The forces that fuel the conflict in Iraq still raging today in the form of a Sunni-Shia split are not a result of Western intervention, but long predate any Western engagement, in a sectarian divide as old as religion itself. Attempts to portray Western culpability, misread these in a manner that the protagonists themselves do not claim. No local force in Iraq today claims they are fighting for a return to the status quo ante, or against “Western imperialism”.
- While it is true that al-Qaeda moved operational activities to Iraq having been driven out of Afghanistan, it is also true that this terrorist creation was largely pacified by the success of the Surge strategy which meant that by 2010, Iraq had a functioning and participatory system of government with all major factions represented, and with sharply declining levels of violence. It was the removal of the American security guarantee in 2011 that paved the way for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to try and destroy this system, and in so doing to spark a rebellion against the Iraqi state which helped bring ISIS to prominence.
- The current situation in Syria is more properly understood through the prism of the failed Arab Spring than the Iraq War. It was this movement – which had nothing to do with the Iraq War – that started the chain of events that led to the attempted overthrow of Assad’s brutal dictatorship. It was Assad’s tacit collusion with local Islamist forces that helped propel ISIS to prominence in Syria, and which helped fuel its rise in Iraq. In short, our tolerance of a failed dictator clinging to power is what created the opportunity for the cancer of ISIS to grow in Syria.
- Public opinion is a key battleground as never before. Too many voices damaging to our nation’s security remain prominent drivers of the public foreign policy debate, inhibiting our politicians’ ability to conduct policy in the national, as opposed to sectional, interest. There is a selectivity about humanitarian outrage that betrays the underlying drivers of the key voices in these movements. It is notable in this context, for example, that Stop the War and similar movements have made no calls to ‘stop the war’ in Syria. Their only interest is to inhibit our ability to act abroad, not prevent war or stop human suffering.
- It is also worth recalling the sheer barbarity of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the reality that after 9/11 a radically new security environment could not bear a threat actor of his stature and that his own Generals were convinced he had WMDs. Equally, no Iraqi today, except sections of the Sunni minority, would wish for Saddam’s regime to return.
HJS Executive Director Dr Alan Mendoza said: “There are many significant failings and lessons to be learned from the Iraq war, as with any conflict. But one lesson that must not follow is that intervention is wrong, or that we are somehow responsible for the totality of the turmoil in the Middle East today.
“Britain’s security requires us to be an outward-facing power, helping those in need and asserting our security against those who seek us harm in a world where threats are multiplying rapidly.”