Euan McColm: Past mistakes cloud Iraq intervention

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Picture: PA
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Picture: PA
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Past mistakes must not cloud judgment about intervening in Iraq conflict, writes Euan McColm

IF THERE is a case for the United Kingdom to commence new military action in Iraq, then it’s difficult to think of a worse person to make it than Tony Blair.

The former prime minister’s judgment on matters relating to that country – where government forces and Islamist-led militants are now involved in bloody battles – does not enjoy the full confidence of the public.

When Blair called last week for western governments to consider military options, including air strikes, in Iraq, his credibility was fatally undermined by the fact that a majority of people believe the UK’s last venture into the Persian Gulf was not only a mistake but that it damaged our reputation internationally.

Whether Blair has a point or not is immaterial: his presence in this debate can only be divisive. What hope of clarity about what is now unfolding in Iraq when the well-rehearsed arguments over the legality or otherwise of the 2003 allied invasion begin to bubble up?

But while the former PM may be the wrong messenger, it’s not entirely clear that the message itself is wrong. Nor is it the case that UK citizens would be certain to oppose action were a compelling argument in favour to be made.

As Ipsos Mori poll conducted last year on the tenth anniversary of the allied invasion may have confirmed that 70 per cent of people believe the UK should not have participated in the US-led action against former president Saddam Hussein’s regime, but it also revealed that three quarters were still in favour of military action overseas should either other people’s freedoms or British interests be threatened.

There can be no doubt that in Iraq, others’ freedoms are now threatened. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) has claimed responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Isis, which stakes a claim for leadership of Iraq and Syria, has taken control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, where half a million have fled their homes. And the group’s volunteers are battling with state forces for control of the Baiji oil refinery and Tal Afar airport.

And while this sectarian war – a Shia Muslim led government against a Sunni Muslim backed insurgency – may meet the test many of us demand regarding others’ freedoms, there must be a case that it also satisfies the requirements of those who would only support action should British interests be threatened.

Prime Minister David Cameron this week warned that Isis jihadis did not plan simply to carry out operations in the Gulf, but that they wished to attack the UK. Given that we have already seen a number of Islamist terrorist attacks on British soil, this is not an implausible suggestion. Doesn’t the growth of a militant group that might kill Brits qualify as being a threat to the national interest?

It is difficult to consider these issues without also considering the very strong arguments that much of the responsibility for a rise in incidents of Islamist terrorism lies with western intervention in Iraq 11 years ago. However compelling these arguments may be, however much one might believe in UK culpability for the radicalisation of some young Muslims, this uncomfortable issue shouldn’t influence a clear analysis of whether the threat to UK citizens is credible. The government cannot ignore a potential aggressor because of awkward feelings about where that aggression may be coming from.

Memories of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and its aftermath, hang heavy over all decisions being made by western leaders about what – if anything – to do now. US President Barack Obama last week announced that 300 military advisers would be sent to help the Iraqi army defeat the insurgents. This was some considerable way from his predecessor George W Bush’s more gung-ho approach.

The president was adamant that no US combat troops would fight in Iraq but, regardless, America is now playing an active part in this war.

Cameron has ruled out British military involvement while claiming that Isis represents the greatest threat to our national security. The Prime Minister, who also announced extra humanitarian aid for Iraq, is playing this fairly softly.

This is hardly surprising. We saw last year the impact the Iraq war had on politicians’ attitudes to military interventions.

As atrocity after atrocity was reported from Syria, MPs voted against any action by British forces. Even though we could see the horrific actions of the Assad regime, we chose to do nothing.

A number of politicians have told me that their opposition was motivated by concern over public opinion rather than their personal belief in whether action might, in fact, be required.

Others, I should add, have made a compelling case that it was right to reject military intervention when there was no clear evidence that acting in support of either side in Middle Eastern conflicts would ever do much to eradicate the ingrained sectarianism that exists, not only in individual countries, but plays out across the region, where Shia-dominated Iran and majority Sunni Saudi Arabia are the key powers.

Those who opposed the Iraq war in 2003 have a strong case that they were right. And, for opponents of the Labour party, Blair’s re-emergence in order to pronounce on matters is a hugely useful bit of political capital.

But the experience of Iraq – and an analysis of Blair’s decision-making before strikes began – can only inform foreign policy. It can’t be allowed to paralyse it.

It is a difficult truth that just as intervention always has consequences so too does choosing not to intervene.

Blair’s decision to speak last week set the tone for the debate on the widening crisis in Iraq. It turned things party political.

But even those politicians who believe with certainty that Tony Blair was wrong over Iraq are not absolved from considering complex questions – practical and moral – about whether Britain should ever again use military force abroad. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm