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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.

Neither neo-conservatism nor neo-isolationism is the right way forward.
Iraq is due to mark the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein on March 20, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.