Michael Gove: Triumph of freedom over evil

The liberation of Iraq has been that rarest of things – a proper British foreign policy success

IT MADE Gordon Brown's claim to have saved the world look becomingly modest. Next to it, Alex Salmond's prediction of victory on the eve of the Glenrothes by-election seems like canny expectation management.

History is likely to record it as the most inappropriate piece of self-congratulation by any politician since Jean-Bedel Bokassa crowned himself ruler of the Central African Empire. We're only nine years in, but George Bush's declaration in 2003 that the Iraq war was over and it was "Mission Accomplished" would be most people's nomination for hubristic highlight of the century.

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When President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Lincoln, in full Tom Cruise-style Top Gun flight kit, fashioning victors' laurels for himself, the real war had scarcely begun. The celebrations that accompanied the fall of Saddam were soon to be forgotten as an insurgency erupted which claimed thousands of innocent lives.

But while President Bush's declaration of victory was to prove foolishly premature, so, equally, were the predictions of defeat which followed. Iraq has suffered terribly since 2003. And any inquiry into the war must chart in unsparing detail what went wrong. But, even more crucially, we also need to know what subsequently went right.

For several years after Bush declared victory in Iraq, the front pages carried harrowing accounts of car bombings, terror attacks and mounting death tolls which left a devastating imprint on the nation's conscience.

But now that Bush is at the fag end of his presidency, the newspapers scarcely cover events in Iraq at all. The nation's assumptions about the war are left untroubled by new information which might prompt a reassessment. Which is a tragedy in itself.

Because now that the Bush family is leaving the White House, now that the Blair years are history, now that our troops are returning at last, we can see, clearly and free of partisan rancour, that the liberation of Iraq has actually been that rarest of things – a proper British foreign policy success.

Next year, while the world goes into recession, Iraq is likely to enjoy 10% GDP growth. Alone in the Arab Middle East, it is now a fully functioning democracy with a free press, properly contested elections and an independent judiciary. The two facts, the economic and the political, are of course connected.

Sunni and Shia contend for power in parliament, not in street battles. The ingenuity, idealism and intelligence of the Iraqi people can now find an outlet in a free society rather than being deployed, as they were for decades, simply to ensure survival in a fascist republic that stank of fear.

When President Bush entered the White House, Iraq was one of the most hellish nations on Earth. Saddam's Ba'athist state was a torture chamber above ground and a mass grave below. Saddam's sons, assumed to be his inevitable heirs, were men addicted to violence as both a means of political control and a leisure activity.

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There was no security worth the name, with lives, literally, at Saddam's disposal – the only freedom from his police state was the release which death brought. Saddam was a sponsor of terror and was manoeuvring, with French and Russian help, to dismantle the sanctions regime that had held him in place since the invasion of Kuwait. Alongside Burma and North Korea, Saddam's Iraq was a nation ruled by evil.

Now, eight years on, Iraq is not a scar on the whole world's conscience but a prompt to the Arab world's conscience. The war the region opposed has led to the establishment of their first democracy.

This is now a country where journalists can fling shoes at politicians and become celebrities rather than corpses.

The credit for this transformation should go, pre-eminently, to the brave Iraqi people who defied terrorist threats to vote in their country's elections, to the Sunnis who defeated al-Qaeda in the heart of the nation and the Shias of the Iraqi National Army who broke the power of Iranian-backed militias in the south.

But their victory would have been impossible without the support of Western soldiers. And, in particular, the surge in US forces last year under General David Petraeus.

Churchill once argued that America can always be relied to do the right thing – after it has exhausted every other option. And in appointing Petraeus to lead the allied forces in Iraq, the American President at last found a man equal to the challenge – just like Grant in the war against the Confederacy and Eisenhower in the Second World War.

Petraeus showed an admirable capacity to learn from previous reverses and has established himself as the world's leading expert in counter-insurgency warfare. The myth of the American army as a collection of rednecks in body armour – the cast of the Dukes of Hazzard in the costumes of the stormtroopers from Star Wars – should now be laid to rest by Petraeus's success.

The deserved winner of Prospect Magazine's award for intellectual of the year, Petraeus is a reminder of the fatal folly of underestimating America.

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Celebrating how far we have come should, of course, never mean forgetting how far we have to go. The broader war on terror, as the horrors of Mumbai remind us, will take many more years of grim resolution to win. But Iraq has shown us the way.

A war which was assumed to be unwinnable has turned into a series of military successes, an insurgency led by al-Qaeda has been defeated, a nation assumed to be incapable of stable self-government is maturing fast and the bravery of British and American soldiers bought the time necessary to turn the tide.

It is still far, far too soon to write the story of how the West has won. But this Christmas we are closer.

Michael Gove is the shadow secretary for children, schools and families