A decade on, Iraq should inform our foreign policy, not paralyse it

There is little that Britain can do now to right the wrongs that took place but we can learn lessons.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. This milestone affords an opportunity both to reflect upon the consequences of the conflict on the last decade but also to draw important lessons for future years. For the UK, it was the second time since the Second World War that we undertook such a large scale military operation in the Middle East. Yet the consequences of Iraq already seem deeper and broader than those of the Suez crisis in 1956.

The publication of the Chilcot report later this year will reopen this debate but with the knowledge that there is little that Britain can do now to right the wrongs that took place. Of course those of us who voted for the intervention in 2003 can acknowledge that Saddam Hussein and his sons are no longer in power but Iraq today remains a violent country marked by sectarian conflict. The fissures and divisions within Iraqi society, repressed by Saddam for decades, were ripped open in the aftermath of the invasion, resulting in a crisis for which the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was woefully under-prepared.

The cost of the conflict was painfully high: 179 British service personnel lost their lives and while the figures are still disputed, most estimate that there were at least 100,000 Iraqi fatalities. It triggered the largest human displacement in the Middle East since 1948. In the face of such high costs, whether the country can, in time, develop a pluralistic democratic politics where people live together as citizens, rather than dividing along sectarian or ethnic lines, remains unclear today. It is true that this is not a question unique to Iraq: it dominates the aftermath of the Arab Spring in countries across the region from Syria to Egypt, Bahrain to Libya. And perhaps in another decade the situation in Iraq will look different. But most British people today judge that the fears of those opposed to the conflict have been vindicated by subsequent events.

The aftermath of the invasion demonstrated the difficulties of both effective post-war planning and prolonged occupation of another state, even for a country of the military and financial capability of the United States. This helps explain why former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told West Point Cadets that following Iraq, anyone who advises the president to send a big American land army into the Middle East should "have his head examined". Iraq showed that effective intervention relies on having coordinated and achievable goals backed up with the appropriate levels of resources and operational capabilities – and that securing this requires international legitimacy – all of which the CPA crucially lacked.

But the lessons we learn must not just be focused on the consequences of the invasion. The rationale for the vote ten years ago this week - in March 2003 - was the capture and removal of weapons of mass destruction that were later proved not to exist. The collapse in trust this caused means that Iraq has permanently raised the bar of public legitimacy for future interventions, whichever government puts them before Parliament. Today, the British public are more sceptical of the principle of committing British troops abroad, because they are more critical of the circumstances in which it could be justified.

Whether for reasons of self-defence, compelling humanitarian emergency, or following authorisation by the UN Security Council, legal and public clarity around the rationale for any action is vital. But while the experience of Iraq should inform our foreign policy, it shouldn't paralyse it. Neither neo-conservatism nor neo-isolationism is the right way forward.

The recent British military effort aimed at helping protect the people of Benghazi in 2011 - recommended by this government, backed by Labour and supported by the public – demonstrated a different approach. Libya showed that the choice is not always between doing nothing, or using force on the scale of Iraq, which saw 46,000 UK troops deployed on the eve of invasion.

A decade on, Iraq still holds difficult lessons for Labour. But they are lessons that need to be learned. It would be futile to deny history, and it would be folly to repeat it. In as troubled a world as today’s, our responsibility is to learn and apply history’s lessons.

Iraq is due to mark the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein on March 20, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.