Mehdi Hasan: Let's not forget the true legacy of the Iraq invasion

We can't afford the hawks to use withdrawal as an opportunity to airbrush blood-drenched history.

In his column today, the Guardian's Gary Younge writes that "withdrawing the troops [from Iraq] is about the only truly popular thing Obama has done in the last two years. Polls show more than 70% support withdrawal, roughly two-thirds oppose the war, and more than half believe it was a mistake".

So it is sad and frustrating to witness Barack Obama, who opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning, referred to it as a "dumb" war and pledged to end the conflict and "bring the troops home" during his presidential campaign in 2008, now trying so hard to repackage and resell Iraq as a success story. For example, in his speech to returning troops at Fort Bragg last week, the president declared:

[E]verything that American troops have done in Iraq - all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering - all of it has led to this moment of success.

Success? Iraq is anything but a success. Yet, echoing Madeleine Albright's infamous words (on the huge numbers of Iraqi children killed by US-imposed sanctions), Obama's new defence secretary Leon Panetta claimed on Friday:

I think the price [of the Iraq war] has been worth it.

Worth it? Worth it?? Yes, Saddam Hussein is dead. As are Qusay and Uday. Good riddance. But consider the overall record of human suffering and all the other associated costs of this catastrophic conflict: millions of Iraqis left homeless, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed or maimed, thousands of western troops dead or disabled, billions upon billions of dollars squandered in pursuit of non-existent WMDs and a moral high ground lost in towns and cities like Haditha, Fallujah and Abu Ghraib.

Younge writes in his column today:

While the departure of American troops should be greeted with guarded relief (guarded because the US will maintain its largest embassy in the world there along with thousands of armed private contractors), every effort must be made to thwart those who seek to embellish and distort their lamentable legacy. You'd think that would be easy. The case against this war has been prosecuted extensively both in this column and elsewhere. (The argument that the removal of Saddam Hussein somehow compensates for the lies, torture, displacement, carnage, instability and humans rights abuses is perverse. They used a daisy cutter to crack a walnut.)

This war started out with many parents but has ended its days an orphan, tarnishing the reputations of those who launched it and the useful idiots who gave them intellectual cover. Nobody has been held accountable; few accept responsibility.

In any case, they could not have done it alone. It was only possible thanks to the systemic collusion of a supine political class and a jingoistic political culture, not to mention a blank cheque from the British government. When the war started, almost three-quarters of Americans supported it. Only politicians of principle opposed it - and there were precious few of those. When Nancy Pelosi was asked why she had not pushed for impeachment of Bush when she became speaker in 2006 she said: "What about these other people who voted for that war with no evidence ... Where are these Democrats going to be? Are they going to be voting for us to impeach a president who took us to war on information that they had also?"

The shameful, lazy, bipartisan backing for the Iraq war, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a key point to highlight and remember, and one that is often lost and forgotten in the fog of Bush- and Blair-baiting. Here in the UK, Iain Duncan Smith's Conservatives lined up behind Blair's New Labour government - and even egged it on. Only the Lib Dems, under the bold leadership of Charles Kennedy, had the guts and wisdom to stand apart from the hawkish crowd.

In January of this year, in a column for the NS entitled "We can't pin Iraq on Blair alone", I wrote:

To pin the blame for Britain's worst foreign policy blunder since Suez solely on our permatanned ex-premier - and concentrate our vitriol on Blair (or is that "Bliar"?) and Blair alone - is to exculpate all those who joined him in his Mesopotamian misadventure. It is to offer a get-out-of-jail-free card to all those stars in our political and journalistic elite who backed him, applauded him and, subsequently, apologised for him.

I concluded:

Blair isn't innocent. He was prime minister at the time and, indeed, the prime mover behind the conflict. But he had help, and lots of it. It's time to hold all of the Iraq hawks to account, not just "Bliar".

Twelve months on, the point still stands.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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