Still Hating War: A general reflection on British policy towards Iraq

Phil Holtam

In spring 2003, along with a few thousand other young Londoners, I took part in protests against the invasion of Iraq. We were school kids on strike, bringing noise to parliament square over a period of weeks by singing songs against Blair & Bush and on several occasions, when feeling bold, blocking the road to passing traffic. We were there because we knew, as we still know now, that a pre-emptive military strike against one of the world’s poorest nations had much more to do with resources grabbing than responding to our threatened domestic security or a humanitarian desire to topple Saddam. And we knew then that war was never going to stabilise Iraq’s society – a key slogan of the movement was “bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity”, particularly powerful to our prepubescent imaginations.

Alongside peers I was politicised by joining the anti-war movement. In some ways it was an empowering experience, but we also learnt in quite painful terms (from both police violence and by having to watch the resultant war play out on our TV screens) that Britain’s political decision-makers, even in the context of an overwhelming public pressure and more than tepid resistance in parliament, had no interest in resolving middle-eastern problems with non-military solutions. Blair and Bush might have gone, but their legacy of intervention remains intact and in many ways we are watching history repeat itself.

Since 2003, the estimated number of Iraqi civilian deaths is somewhere between 130-145 thousand; including combatants from both sides the death toll of Gulf II is close to 200 thousand. Millions of homes destroyed, families devastated and livelihoods blighted. Not to mention acts of atrocity committed by ‘coalition forces’, including torture and breaches of the Geneva convention as detailed in the wikileaks files. The long view of Britain’s involvement in Iraq is highly relevant. For much of the last hundred years we’ve either occupied or been at war with the state that we ourselves audaciously created. And throughout all that time we have prioritised one interest; the reason we marched in Baghdad in 1917 is the same reason we fight in Iraq today – the outflow of oil.

That Blair feels able comment at present is beyond ironic, it’s a crude joke. In parody Mark Steel has compared asking the invaders of 2003 Iraq how to resolve the current situation to getting the Dalai Lama’s view on a cage fight. It would be amusing in its absurdity if it wasn’t so appalling. That one of the key figures responsible for, at best, fabricating justifications for the previous invasion can once again advocate war is unbelievable. Blair exaggerated (probably lied) about the threat facing Britain and exploited the uncertainty of intelligence in order to rush to war. He was called up on this in the aftermath of the conflict when no weapons of mass destruction were found, not just by anti-war activists, but also by UN weapons inspector Hanns Blix. He may be implicated further when details of cabinet discussions in the run up to the war finally get released by the Chilcott Inquiry, but even if he isn’t, his role as a peacekeeping envoy to the middle east is utterly untenable.

Is it viable to have a decision-maker who has instigated conflict as a ‘peace-envoy’?

As a no-more-than-occasional observer (and I’d have to put myself in that group) you’d be forgiven for struggling to keep up with NATO’s response to ISIS over recent months. The brutal and shocking murders of civilian journalists and aid workers in Iraq and Syria has been acted out alongside a gut-wrenching array of other crises also occupying the world’s attention – major conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, as well as the Ebola outbreak. As Ban Ki-moon recently put it, “we’re living in an era of unprecedented level of crises”. Moreover, the complexity of the ISIS/Syria situation makes keeping track of developments almost impossible. As the West supports and arms Sunnis in Syria fighting Assad (who is backed by the Iranians) it is also deploying airstrikes to kill Sunni extremists as they fight the Iraqi government (which is also backed by Iran). As one commentator summed it up earlier this summer, “if this seems utterly incomprehensible, it’s because it is“.

One simple explanation for the present situation in Iraq is that a power vacuum was left behind when the US and allies withdrew, which was finally completed in 2011 after 8 years of occupation. Iraq’s new government, lead by al-Maliki, then attempted to stockpile roles and institutions for his sectarian allies, a move which spectacularly backfired and entrenched divisions between Sunnis and Shiites. In attempting to consolidate his own power, Maliki’s government went against the wishes of Obama’s administration, losing friends in Washington, and meanwhile losing control over north-western Iraq where ISIS has taken hold. In other parts of the country, Shiites have been taking up arms against government forces (as of early September al-Maliki is no longer Prime Minister) that continue to be supported by the US. Intervention now into Iraq, unlike in 2003, would be entering a country in violent flux with a major long-term civil war occurring in bordering Syria.

In Britain, the justification for our action in Iraq rests on the notion of nationalism. Partly this is about Britain’s increasing devotion to the armed forces, which has been described as a new tide of militarisation. And at another level, our political elites actively benefit in support and popularity from the claim that British people, values and interest are under threat from those fearsome Iraqis. In a study of public opinion in 5 different countries during the previous Iraq invasion, Per Becker demonstrated how this process of controlling public opinion occurs, with pro-war sentiments being used by politicians to shape and maintain nationalist identities and thereby increase public approval ratings.

Alongside the nationalism in our foreign policy is an inaccurate perception of our national vulnerability. And in today’s conflict the very same tactics to reinforce this perception are being used as in 2003, suggesting catastrophic potential scenarios that we have no choice but to prevent. Theresa May hypothesising about ISIS obtaining chemical or even nuclear weapons is an eerie (and obvious) echo of the hyped risk espoused by Blair, Huhne and Straw back in 2003. It would be reckless for anyone, not least ministers, to underplay or ignore these threats, but we have heard this narrative before and it is out of proportion with our vulnerability to the extent that it’s fictitious. I’m not suggesting there isn’t a real risk to Britain, but that this risk is being exaggerated for political means.

And in this way the war on terror has always been a witch-hunt devoid of transparency. When evidence was called upon to justify the way in which the dots between terrorists and ‘rogue states’ are joined, questions are evaded by citing “unknown unknowns“.

“All reasonable thought is being drowned out by the non-stop baying for blood”

Nationalism and domestic division

The 7/7 and Greenwich atrocities were committed by British born Muslims, brought up within and a product of, our own society, despite their hatred of it. These people committed evil acts, yet their ideology and actions emerged from a context. Our endeavours to ‘stabilise’ the world beyond our borders, through means of war, unsettles us domestically and divides our society. Rather than collective introspection regarding the clerical extremism that has festered in marginal pockets of Britain’s Islamic community, our foreign policy has played into the hands of extremists ideologically. Meanwhile action taken actions at home, such as Michael Gove’s attempt to shut down faith schools in Birmingham (that weren’t actually harbouring extremists, but perceived to be inadequately prepared to prevent them) has failed to foster trust between government and many of Britain’s Muslims. Stories of MI5 harassing and blackmailing in an attempt to recruit informants shows yet another way in which the government’s strategy is losing in the attempt to get members of Britain’s Muslim community ‘onside’.

These cases are emblematic of a wider political shift in which the major parties are no longer endorsing policies of multiculturalism. Politicians in Westminster aren’t embracing the idea that there many ways to be British, instead trying to foster identities of nationhood. With UKIP’s rise providing pressure on the government from the political right, Cameron Robust Liberalism and Miliband’s One-Nationism are demonstrations of in-group favouritism, defining a particular way of being British to be correct whilst excluding others. In effect, this is making it harder for minorities (especially ethnic and religious ones) to be British.

Recognition is needed of factors beyond religious identity, not least the intersection of class, ethnicity and poverty, as the actual sources of resentment that we see causing social friction in areas like employment and housing. Diversity isn’t the cause of social division, it’s due high inequity and increasing intolerance. We need to revitalise and mobilise around an agenda in which discrimination in all forms and racism in particular is continually undermined. We need policies that actively support multiple ways of being British, for which we need the tabloid press and wider media to go beyond essentialist and reductionist portrayals of certain groups in our society, especially Muslims. And we need to stop the lazy thinking that portrays Muslims as having some sort of shared responsibility for the actions of extremists of terrorists, because they simply don’t.

Britain’s moral high ground. Cameron actively promotes Britain’s weapons manufacturers to Gulf states that continuously flout human rights.

Military intervention leads to further instability

Returning to the Middle East, we need to realise that the 3rd war against Iraqis in as many decades is simply not a viable strategy. As vile as Saddam was, as disgustingly brutal as ISIS are, and for that matter, as atrocious as Al Assad is, sending in cruise missiles or ground troops will not lead to security, stability or peace, in the long or short term. Military interventions only make the current shit-show all the shittier, while also leading to eventual outcomes that can only be beyond the control of NATO. As political elites try to mask their decisions in verbose language, it’s worth remembering the shocking horror that underpins the reality of war.

I’ve been driven to write this piece because it saddens and angers me how little has changed since 2003. The same demons in the desert caricatured by the media. The same vacuous notions of moral high ground espoused by the Westminster elite. And the same violent mistakes.

The decision is framed for us as a choice between doing nothing or using military force. Popular debate is over whether it’s sufficient to merely bomb ISIS from above with cruise missiles and airstrikes, or whether ‘boots on the ground’ are also necessary. Other responses are not on the table and I feel very strongly that this is a dangerous error. As much as anything it demonstrates a lack of learning from the past and a lack of imagination for a better, safer future. What are the alternatives? I can’t say I know. What I do know for sure is there are other options to the two we are forever presented with: standing idly by or blasting the enemy to high heaven.

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