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.

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.