As the invasion of Iraq was about to commence in March 2003, Colonel Tim Collins addressed his men of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment gathered on the Iraq-Kuwait border: “We go to liberate, not to conquer… .We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own… . Iraq is steeped in history….. Tread lightly there.” But lightly the coalition forces did not tread on history and the results are for all to see.
The UK has released the results of an inquiry by Sir John Chilcot, a retired civil servant and diplomat, into the decision-making that led to the Iraq war. It criticises British policymakers, including the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, for exaggerating the strength of intelligence on Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction programmes, not properly preparing for the conflict, and failing to exhaust diplomatic options before resorting to the use of force. The report concludes that the British government accepted inaccurate assessments and poor planning from Washington and deliberately inflated the threat posed by Iraq in the weeks preceding the invasion. The invasion was planned “before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”. All in all, it is a damning indictment of the UK’s role in the war against Saddam Hussein.
Yet, the Blair government is cleared of one of the most controversial charges: That it deliberately manipulated or “sexed up” the case. The inquiry concludes that “there is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that Number 10 improperly influenced the text”. Blair has responded by maintaining that he “made the right decision and the world is better and safer” but that he has “more sorrow, regret and apology than you may ever know or can believe”. The Chilcot report itself is unlikely to change any views either about Blair or the Iraq war. But the Iraq war and its aftermath has had a highly deleterious impact on the self-confidence of the UK as a nation.
The Iraq adventure was meant to be the first step towards the transformation of the entire region as an answer to the Islamist radicalism being spawned by its authoritarian regimes. The neo-conservatives seemed to have succeeded where the liberals and the realists of yore had failed — in blending American values with American national interests. The Iraq war confounded most ideological categories and shattered a lot of myths about the use of force as liberals found it hard to oppose a war that would remove a genocidal regime. After all, liberals had been advocating a global interventionist agenda throughout the ’90s. The realists meanwhile found themselves isolated in a post-9/11 strategic environment where their argument for maintaining a balance of power as the best way to serve American
national interests in the Middle East was fast losing currency.
The idea that democratisation of the Middle East would be the best antidote to Islamist extremism seemed like an idea whose time had come. Ideas, however, have strange ways of manifesting themselves in reality. Today, democratisation of the region is on no one’s agenda. Instead, the authoritarian regimes of the region — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria — are all stronger than before, with repression at an all time high. The Shia-Sunni rivalry is at its most ferocious with this year’s Ramzan one of the bloodiest ever. Iraq continues to struggle for survival burdened with an incompetent political elite and lack of interest from regional and global powers.
If the US-led coalition would have been successful in giving a modicum of stability to Iraq, and left with a region relatively at ease with itself, the mistakes of American and British policymakers would have been viewed in a kinder light. The West, however, decided to leave Iraq with various factions fighting each other for political spoils and an entire region in turmoil as a result. In the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs fiasco, Arthur Schlesinger complained to John Kennedy, “We not only look like imperialists… we look like stupid, ineffectual imperialists, which is worst of all.” Post-Iraq, the West has been looking precisely like a “stupid, ineffectual imperialist.” As a result, domestic politics in London is now becoming so inward-looking that even Western Europe looks a part apart from middle England.
History has a brutal way of making arrogance recognise its importance. Treading lightly is often the best alternative, something Collins remembered but Western policymakers did not.