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The lessons from Iraq

If we do not learn the lessons of the Iraq war, we are doomed to further conflict and chaos

Montage: The New European

José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, once said: “Man’s real treasure is the treasure of his mistakes, piled up stone by stone through thousands of years”. For Ortega, to remember the past in all its messy complexity is what separates us from the lesser apes. The foreign correspondent and author Robert Kaplan wryly observed that by Ortega’s logic, the Iraq war, which began 20 years ago in April, should rank among the crown jewels of foreign policy knowledge.

The war destroyed the treasures of Iraq, from the looting of the national museum to the bombing of the golden dome of the al-Askari shrine, to the destruction by Islamic State of the Temple of Baalshamin at Palmyra. Did the war also provide lessons for the very different geopolitical challenges of today?

Multiple inquiries into the war have highlighted the many failures. Each failure provides a lesson on what not to do. The most substantial inquiry, the Iraq or Chilcot Inquiry, named after its chairman, Sir John Chilcot, completed a seven-year investigation in 2016. Its conclusions were damning: Saddam Hussein did not pose an immediate threat to the UK; intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction was presented by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) with unwarranted certainty; although military intervention might have been required in the future, an adaptive strategy of containment was still viable, therefore war was “not a last resort”; the process of identifying the legal basis of the war was “far from satisfactory”; and lastly, the post-invasion planning was woefully insufficient and lacking in clear objectives.

All this meant that the UK and the US had undermined the authority of the UN security council, which supported the continuation of weapons inspections and monitoring. It also meant that the war, which had cost 185,000–208,000 civilian lives, was unnecessary.

Intelligence agencies, individual government departments and the military have learned from some of these findings. New processes and procedures have been built, case studies are discussed at staff college, and guidelines and principles have been redefined. Unlike the ministers who now determine our foreign policy, many of the current senior leaders of these agencies, departments, and the military had direct experience of Iraq. The stain of those experiences is hard to erase for those who saw the consequences firsthand.

The policymakers who did not have to witness the carnage learned less. But there is a more profound shadow that Iraq has cast over the UK’s foreign policy decisions. As much as Iraq is haunted by the ghosts of those killed in the bloody insurgency, the sectarian violence, and those being killed over and over again in the uploaded videos that still haunt the fringes of the internet, Iraq haunts our national subconsciousness.

The persistence of that memory was evident in Britain’s foreign policy decisions on Libya and Syria. Before the debate on Syria in 2013, the then Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg felt the need to send his party members an email with the title: “This is not Iraq.” However, MPs from all parties cited concerns around the intelligence that was being used to justify intervention in Syria. Some wanted more intelligence to be published before making a decision, others wanted a clearer military strategy. A number simply did not want to be involved in “mission creep” that would drag the UK further into another war in the Middle East. David Cameron’s bill for intervention in Syria resulted in the first British government defeat in parliament on a matter of war since 1782.

The fact that neither campaign saw significant troop deployments seems to suggest that lessons had been learned from Iraq. However, while Iraq put troops on the ground with no solid plan for what would happen after the initial intervention, for Libya, instead of remedying the mistake (no plan), there was no deployment of troops and no plan for what would follow the initial air strikes. Libya is now arguably much more of a mess than Iraq. Although the UK and its allies did not claim to be attempting regime change, they fatally undermined Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, which collapsed into chaos. Ten years on, Libya is a failed state, ruled by warlords and Islamist factions. A parliamentary inquiry in 2016 tried to identify the reasons for the failure. A noted Libya expert expressed shock at the lack of awareness of the “history and regional complexities” of Libya. It was a repeat of one of the biggest mistakes made during the Iraq War.

Kaplan initially supported the Iraq war, but came to deeply regret his advocacy. He claimed that of all the places he visited across eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, nothing “was more terrifying than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iraq then was one vast prison yard lit by high-wattage lamps.” Iraqis were tortured on an industrial scale. After visiting post-Saddam Iraq, however, Kaplan believed the biggest lesson from the war should be that order, even highly autocratic order, is often better than the sort of bloody chaos that can replace it. Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of people beyond initiating the Iraq-Iran war, but removing him caused even more civilian suffering and destabilised the wider region.

As we look at Russia today we need to remind ourselves of this lesson. A Russia without Vladimir Putin would not necessarily be better for Russia or the west. There have only been two periods since 1900 when Russia was not ruled with an iron fist. They were the chaotic and horrendously violent years of the civil war, and the chaotic and lawless years at the end of communism. Towards the end of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, the state was dominated by criminality and corruption, and ordinary Russians sold their belongings on the street to fund their next meal.

Part of Putin’s domestic appeal was that he brought order to the chaos of post-communist Russia. But now, any new regime that follows his downfall could be even more autocratic and bellicose. Chaos in a nuclear state could be even worse. Our lack of a long-term policy on Russia has helped to lead us to where we are now. The decisions on how to manage Russia going forward are complex, will require nuance, an understanding of the psychology of Russia’s leaders, and a deep understanding of Russia’s history and geography.

The invasion of Iraq marked the beginning of the end of the era during which the US was the unchallenged global promoter of liberal democracy. We are now in a multipolar era of competing global and regional powers, at the same time as the effects of climate change, resource scarcity and technological advancements are fuelling tension. The interests of competing nations are held in balance by the necessities of trade, finance and the demands of international law. Despite the tense state of international relations, neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer included any reference to national defence or security in their recently produced five-point “missions” or “pledges”.

The debate around the Iraq war and the other post 9-11 Middle Eastern wars focused on whether to become involved. But conflict is not always a matter of choice. Kaplan believes the current failure of policymakers to grasp the geopolitical reality is because they have lost the ability to think tragically. Current policymakers have lived through a period of relative peace and predictability. They therefore assume the future will also be peaceful and predictable, while we are crossing a threshold to a multipolar, unstable world where conflict risk is rising.

In his soul-searching about his role in encouraging the Iraq invasion, Kaplan has referred to Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone which depicts, among others things, the conflict between loyalty to the family and loyalty to the state. In the play, Antigone is forbidden by the King from burying her brother, as he is considered a traitor. She buries him anyway, but is caught and charged with undermining the state. In her defence, Antigone claims there is a higher justice that dwells with the gods. The moral substance of the story reflects the conflicting impulses at the heart of Greek tragedy that were identified and explored by Nietzsche. On the one hand there is Apollo, representing reason and structure, and on the other, Dionysus, representing intoxication, passion and unity with nature. These two intertwine and conduct a dance through all of the tragedies, often representing the perpetual tension between civilisation and savagery.

Human affairs are rarely binary. And yet, the post 9-11 geopolitics from which the Iraq war emerged was founded on the notion of the good guys versus the “axis of evil”. When six of the country’s leading experts on Iraq went to meet Tony Blair, then prime minister, in 2002 to warn him about the consequences of his actions, instead of asking about the country’s complex religious faultlines, one of the few questions Blair asked was: “But he [Saddam] is evil, isn’t he?”

Since Iraq, western societies have become increasingly polarised, politics more tribal. Policymakers are just as prone to forgetting that many things can be true at once. It can be true that the Ukrainian Azov Brigade in its early incarnations had members associated with the far right (the British army has had this, too). It can be true that, as former members of the USSR aligned themselves with the EU and Nato, we were at best ignorant of the growing, smouldering anger of the Russian political class and security apparatus, and at worst actively encouraged this growing rage and insecurity.

But at the same time it can also be true that the war in Ukraine is caused by Putin and Russia’s illegal invasion, and both the Russian army and the private military companies that support it, like Wagner Group, have links to neo-Nazis. For Kaplan, the battle of good versus good means accepting a certain amount of evil, and righteousness, however morally satisfying, can be the enemy of wise statecraft. He cites the approach of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger forming a truce with China, even as the depredations of the cultural revolution were still in progress, in order to balance against the USSR, and even as they achieved détente with the latter. This accomplished the highest moral goal of the cold war – to keep it from turning hot – through a favourable balance of power. In the near future we will probably have to deal with leaders who offend our moral sensibilities.

Kaplan shows how Sophocles’ Oedipus the King teaches us that catastrophe can strike the most successful at any moment. From this we should further learn humility. In Greek tragedies it is often ambition that leads to chaos. In this way the Iraq war was a quintessential tragedy. There was no doubt that Iraq’s oil reserves were part of the US strategic decision-making, but the invasion had ideological motivations, too. We had convinced ourselves that, as well as making the region safer by seizing Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, we were there to save the people of Iraq from their own government and replace it with the single best way of organising all societies: liberal democracy. This feeling was so persuasive that it led to many troops feeling that the Iraqis were somehow ungrateful when they started to shoot at us for invading their country. We attempted to force liberal democracy on people who had no cultural or historical links to its development. This unleashed long-suppressed and highly destructive old enmities and loyalties.

Kaplan urges policymakers to adopt a position of “anxious foresight” to guard against hubris. This recognises the importance of thinking through the worst-case scenario of any policy of action or inaction, the limitations of our knowledge, and the risk of unintended consequences. Kaplan prioritises on-the-ground knowledge. Foresight of any kind has been absent from our foreign policy in recent years. The continued shrinking of the diplomatic service and reduction of diplomats seems unwise.

If, as all the polls and pundits suggest, Labour will be forming a new UK government after the next general election, there will be heavy scrutiny of the first foreign policy decisions they make. Iraq will loom large again. While they should adopt a foreign policy that avoids the hubris of the Blair years, at the same time, they should not overcompensate for previous mistakes. Guilt over the first world war influenced the British ruling class’s appeasement of Nazi Germany – for fear of another catastrophic world war. Guilt over Iraq has the potential to influence a new Labour government. It is always a matter of balance. We are a medium power with an exceptionally professional (although increasingly underfunded) military and diplomatic service, and have a strong global cultural influence. There are many injustices in the world we are powerless to address, yet isolationism is unsustainable in an increasingly interconnected world. Despite the empty rhetoric of the post-Brexit “Global Britain”, we have in recent years turned inward on ourselves. Many around the world will be relieved, after Iraq and the other post 9-11 wars, that we have focused on creating chaos within our own borders, but as our early and effective support of Ukraine showed, UK foreign policy can still positively contribute to maintaining international order.

A final lesson from Iraq should be that we do not have to make difficult foreign policy decisions alone. Foreign policy is managed through networks of alliances and coalitions. In the build-up to Iraq, only one alliance mattered. That was the special relationship with the US. Iraq showed that standing unquestionably with the US on foreign policy issues is not always the best approach. The US remains a key ally (and our most powerful ally) whose values closely align with the UK’s. However, over the next decade the US could lurch between a Democratic foreign policy focused on Asia and a Republican foreign policy, vulnerable to foreign influence, at best isolationist, at worst manipulated into support of anti-democratic forces. While even under a Labour government Brexit will remain the elephant destroying the room around us, we must not let it blind us to the fact that geopolitically our key security relationships are tied to the continent. The UK needs to seek out a series of deep engagements with Europe’s more capable militaries, which will make it easier for a future government to pursue a comprehensive security deal with the EU. While Nato will remain important, a patchwork quilt of bespoke security arrangements with diverse allies on specific challenges will also be key.

Both Putin and the Chinese premier, Xi Jinping, initially learned from Iraq and the other post-9/11 wars that if they framed suppression of Muslim minorities in their countries as counterterrorism they could largely get away with it. Putin’s hubris in his attempt to walk into Kyviv demonstrated that he had not learned some of the other key lessons from Iraq. Xi will have done. In November 2003, six months after the invasion of Iraq, a Politburo study session heard from two historians on nine empires that had risen to global dominance and then declined. The last one covered was the US. The Chinese political elite have long paid attention to the lessons of history and used the resulting insights to make long-term foreign policy. The tragic lessons from Iraq of overextension and hubris leading to decline will be counterweights to Xi’s clear desire to reunify with Taiwan (many senior leaders in both the American and British militaries expect an attempt by China to invade Taiwan within the next five years). Lessons from Ukraine will be prompting Xi to recalibrate the predicted western response to his future foreign policy, and new reviews of the capabilities of the unproven Chinese military.

There are limits to what we can learn from the past. Maybe the only thing we ever really learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. The army is often accused of preparing for the war it has just fought, not the one it is about to fight (this may be more a fault of Byzantine military procurement than strategy). Not every villain is Hitler, and not every situation is 1939. However, as well as still influencing our national subconscious, Iraq continues to provide useful lessons for us. We need to make sure that we benefit from the treasure that is ours. If we do not learn from our own mistakes, the tragedy of Iraq will be doubled, and the risk of further chaos increases.

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