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.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

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