The war that changed us

It began with a blinding flash and promises of speedy victory. Five years on the mission far from ac

The show began with blinding flashes, heart-stopping thunder, sparks which had been palaces and hovels soaring up to decorate the night sky. The Shock and Awe military tattoo had started. It was only a few weeks until its climax as the great black evil one, suddenly floodlit, bowed to the crowd and fell slowly forward on his face.

Author, director! In flier's kit, backed by a chorus line of cute American sailors, the boss advanced downstage to harvest the cheers. "Mission accomplished!" But the noise was not all applause and was not coming from the audience and seemed, improperly, to persist. Something was wrong. Would the audience please remain in their seats until a technical problem with the exit was sorted? We are still there.

What have we done to Iraq? Until we are allowed to escape from the arena, it is impossible to look back and guess. What has Iraq done to us? Here it is easier to study the damage. The fearful act of 9/11, the utter success with which that spear of hatred pierced America's heart, left the United States a smaller country. But by joining in the retaliations for that act, Britain also became smaller. "Britishness", supposed to be a brand or a list of values, was already in a poor state. Iraq - and Afghanistan - diminished the probity and reliability of the United Kingdom in almost all its overseas dealings. In European but also Atlantic affairs, the UK has become a slighter, less interesting partner in the past five years.

At home, if that's the right term for a house that has become so draughty and noisy, democracy has diminished. In the vapid lists of "British values" served up by the Prime Minister and his supporters, "fair play" always recurs. It is not fair for civilians in Peterborough to abuse RAF men and women in uniform because of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the government has not played fair with the public, or even with the politicians, over those wars. The citizens are aware that they have been lied to and misled, that the independence of the British state has been rendered hollow, that control of the executive through parliament has become an old bedtime story told to make them close their eyes, that the five-year narrative of British military success in those two countries - still ela borated every day in the media - is no more than propaganda to conceal long-term mission failure, that a people can march in millions and be ignored.

All Blair's fault? All caused by what John Major's election team used to call the "Tango Bravo Factor"? Not entirely. Every one of these offences originated before 2003, some in new Labour's handling of power from 1997 onwards and others inherent in Britain's archaic institutions. The importance of Iraq was that it violently accelerated democratic decay and linked it to a short-term crisis in government ethics. People felt the jar of wheels falling off and asked: "Why are we being lied to?" Then they asked: "Who will tell us the truth about these wars and speak for us?" It's wrong to say that nobody did. At different moments, individuals such as Sir Menzies Campbell, Robin Cook or George Galloway spoke truth both to power and to the people. But none of them was able to wipe away the sense of national and personal humiliation that Iraq has left behind. Too many big men and women, who could and should have spoken out too, kept silent.

So Britain is smaller abroad. For the first time (as many commentators have pointed out), Britain abandoned its balance-of-power tradition and identified completely with the foreign policy of a stronger state. The UK was not the victim of 9/11 and had no direct motive for armed conflict with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, let alone with Saddam Hussein. The decision to go along with American retaliation through regime change did not defend British interests in the region but sacrificed them.

Sir Geoffrey Howe, speaking a few days after 9/11, listed four conditions that could justify American military action. These were that the action should be deterrent or self- defensive and not retaliatory, that there should be hard evidence of the target's responsibility for the 2001 atrocity, that long-term international support could be guaranteed and that any attack should be accompanied by a new effort to solve the Palestine question. None was fulfilled. Blair did attempt to link a token Middle East initiative to his support for Bush over Iraq, but it was never - could never have been - taken seriously by either Israel or the United States.

In spite of these omens, Tony Blair took Britain to war. His rhetoric changed from "humanitarian rescue" to "the defence of civilisation and civilised values". Many voices, from foreign statesmen to our own Foreign Office, tried to warn him that George W Bush and the neocons were an entirely new species of American leadership. It would be a fatal mistake to think he could steer and persuade them, as he had persuaded Bill Clinton and his White House over Kosovo in 1999.

Uncritical loyalty

Blair ignored them. The statesmen shrugged. The Foreign Office put its face in its hands, suddenly feeling very old. For 50 years, British diplomats had acted as the rearguard, preventing Britain's long retreat from power from turning into a rout. Now this! In the years that followed, the FO watched Blair govern from a sofa; few if any of its careful, brilliant position papers reached him or his inner circle. The vital connections between a prime minister and the "great offices of state" - Foreign Office, Home Office, Treasury - fell into neglect.

What has Britain got out of the Iraq War? Uncritical loyalty is always abused. The June 2003 extradition agreement deman ded by the US is a horrifying abdication of legal self-respect. Perhaps the most shaming, revealing moment came when Donald Rumsfeld placed his tactless call to London on the eve of war, suggesting that British troops were not really needed for the fighting and that if Blair was under pressure at home, they could restrict themselves to rear-area guard duties. But the British did fight, and Britain's reward has been to be loathed and dismissed throughout the Muslim world as America's poodle, to suffer a small but very painful Islamic terror campaign at home, and to lose credibility in Europe. It is noticeable, for example, that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are now given much warmer welcomes in Washington than British visitors; German and French opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 turns out to have cost them nothing in American attention. (One of the most stubborn British myths is that the Americans want the UK to remain semi-detached from Europe, loyally preventing the formation of a rival superstate. On the contrary, the Americans have always wanted Britain to get closer in there, and they long for a coherent EU with a single voice.)

So the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the relationship less "special" than ever. Britain is weaker and more suspect in the world, and therefore less useful to American policies. Even the promised Trident warheads, token of renewed British nuclear dependence, are held up because the Americans have apparently used the wrong detergent to clean them up. Meanwhile, British forces have retreated into Basra airbase - the longest wait for a return flight in history - and in Afghanistan they do their best in a pointless war that everyone knows will be settled by a deal between the Pashtun and the other warlords.

How about the impact of the Iraq War on Britain itself? More accurately, how has this highly unpopular war affected the political climate, especially on the left? Organised pro-test against wars, especially expeditionary ones, has a long history in Britain. None of those movements succeeded, and yet the legacy of the protest has sometimes been as potent as that of the war itself. The "pro-Boer" campaigns against the South African war were a nursery for radical Liberal and socialist policies in the next generation. The "Law Not War" protest against the Suez invasion in 1956 abruptly ended the innocence of the postwar young, who had not imagined that the police could club women or that a British government could use criminal deceit to invade another nation. The Vietnam demonstrations were an induction into the social critique of the 1960s, even if the marchers learned little about Vietnam.

But "Not in My Name" was not the same as "Law Not War". To start with, these demonstrations were far bigger. They were also peaceful, marches of the non-marchers, whereas the Suez crowds tried to storm Downing Street and fought the police. Last, but very important, the Iraq protest had almost no articulation within parliamentary democracy. In 1956, the main opposition party - Labour, headed by Hugh Gait skell and Aneurin Bevan - used the whole labour movement infrastructure to pull people out on to the streets. In 2003, the Tories completely failed to recognise that the Iraq War was not a matter of "supporting our boys", but a menace to international order and a threat to their vision of Great Britain as a sovereign and independent state. A few - Malcolm Rifkind and Geoffrey Howe among them - saw what was at stake. But by refusing to support the Liberal Democrats and Labour rebels against the war, let alone to endorse the sea of outraged citizens with banners, the Conservatives betrayed their principles and, perhaps, their country.

Hate figures

War, which had rescued Margaret Thatcher's popularity in 1982, did the opposite for new Labour. Tony Blair became a hate figure in the same working-class parts of the United Kingdom that had once anchored their politics on hatred of Thatcher. But his grand "modernisation" project has driven ahead apparently undeterred; under Brown as under Blair as under Thatcher and Major, public services continue to be devolved to private speculators in spite of an accumulating pile of failures. New Labour's migration to the right leaves formations like the Scottish National Party commanding the social-democratic heights. At the 2005 elections, this convergence with the Tories made Tony Benn write in his diaries that "it's like three managing directors competing for the job of running Tesco's".

Has the war hastened the process? New Labour operates within exactly the same dialectic as Thatcher's governments did: as the state retreats from public service, so it advances its powers of social control. More "freedom of choice" for the consumer turns out to mean less freedom for the citizen. Fewer subsidies means more policemen. The Iraq War tempted the Blair governments and especially their home secretaries to snatch up the "war on terror" fantasy and use it to justify one repressive measure after another: extended detention without trial, new powers to search, bug and deport, the national identity database scheme, the crackdowns on asylum-seekers and immigrants, and all the other threatened or real erosions of civil liberty.

No wonder Baroness Thatcher said that new Labour was her greatest achievement. No wonder Tony Benn, looking back at the long disaster of the Iraq War, observes that, for the first time ever, the public has ended up to the left of a Labour government. Could this be the same party that, within months of winning power back in 1997, boldly handed over so much of the central state's authority to Scotland and Wales?

The outlook, after five years of war in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan, is dingy. Gordon Brown has missed the un repeatable opportunity for a new prime minister to de-nounce the war and promise "never again" for a slave rela tionship with an American president. Had he done so, he would have "spoken for Britain", transforming politics and his own prospects overnight. As it is, there are actually more Establishment voices in the US confessing that the Afghan and Iraq ventures are hopeless than there are in Britain. The longer we cling to false optimism, the harder it will be to extract ourselves from this mess.

And you happy, angry millions who flooded the streets five years ago - what do you feel now? "Not in My Name"? But a few days later it was done in your name, in spite of your passion. Blair pretended to take no notice; the next election did not throw him out; the killing has not stopped.

Does that mean that it's time to shrug and move on, that all passion against unjust war is futile? I don't think so. Demonstrations frighten governments more than they admit. Those who take part in them are changed, remembering a sense of strength that can last a lifetime. Meanwhile, the world has not moved on, but continues to burn; the madmen on all sides do not shrug but are laying new plots. Marchers with a passion for justice will be needed again, perhaps sooner than we think.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror