In this week’s New Statesman: Iraq – Ten years on

Was it worth it?

The Iraq War: Was it worth it?

Featuring: Mehdi Hasan, John Lloyd, Caroline Hawley, Adnan Hussein and Ian Taylor

In our cover story this week, we examine the US-led invasion of Iraq. A decade after more than a million took to the streets of Britain to voice their opposition, five writers express competing views on the conflict that toppled Saddam Hussein and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

“Iraq is worse off now,” argues Mehdi Hasan. He asserts that the justification “rhetoric” of the then political leaders of Britain and America – Blair, Bush, Powell, Cheney – was “a farrago of lies and half-truths, of delusion and doublethink”.

Not only has “every argument advanced by the hawks proved to be utterly false” but the war has brought chaos, not peace, to the region, “radicalising thousands of young men from the Middle East to the Midlands”.

The Iraq war was a strategic disaster – or, as the Tory minister Kenneth Clarke put it in a recent BBC radio discussion, “the most disas­trous foreign policy decision of my lifetime . . . worse than Suez”.

The invasion and occupation of the country undermined the moral standing of
the western powers; empowered Iran and its proxies; heightened the threat from al-Qaeda at home and abroad; and sent a clear signal to “rogue” regimes that the best . . . means of deterring a pre-emptive, US-led attack was to acquire weapons of mass destruction (see Korea, North) . . .

The greatest weapon of mass destruction turned out to be the invasion itself.

You can read Mehdi Hasan's piece here.

Writing from an opposing viewpoint, the former New Statesman editor John Lloyd argues that “Blair was right”. “I and others who supported the invasion of Iraq a decade ago,” he says, “did so because we thought that Saddam Hussein’s regime was among the worst in the world.”

Despite acknowledging “grave errors” in the early western reports on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Lloyd writes:

For the record, I believe that: a) both the US and the UK governments accepted intelligence that pointed to Iraqi possession of WMDs, but interpreted it in the way most favourable to the case for invasion and b) that Blair wished to support the US largely because he had long thought Saddam a major threat . . .

We did not anticipate that Iraqi forces who hated the US – including those loyal to Saddam – would dominate after the invasion, that the population would not be active in ensuring democratic choice . . . and that the west had limited staying power. We were much influenced by Kanan Makiya’s searing book Cruelty and Silence (1993), which detailed the horrors of Iraq under Saddam and called for intervention – an intervention that, the author argued, would be greeted with “sweets and flowers”.

Caroline Hawley was the BBC’s Baghdad correspondent when war broke out in 2003, and she stayed until 2005. Hawley writes that, at the start of the conflict, “the overriding sentiment [of Iraqi civilians] was one of joy at seeing the back of Saddam Hussein” but many have since seen “their hopes dashed”.

A decade on, it is . . . distressing to think how many horrors and burials, kidnappings and bombings lay ahead . . .

Whatever you think about the reasons that led Britain and the US to war, I still wonder how things might have turned out if only the coalition forces had been better prepared, and had been able to show the Iraqis they cared about them . . .

I never again want to see a father run screaming down a hospital corridor holding
a limbless, bloodied child. It is still happening – you just don’t hear about it much any more.

Adnan Hussein, the editor-in-chief and deputy director of the Iraqi newspaper al-Mada, contends that “the US played a damaging role” in rebuilding the Iraqi state.

Hussein describes returning to his home city of Baghdad a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein and his government:

[I told friends in London:] “The Baghdad I left was a glamorous woman in the heyday of her youth; now she is an aged creature on her deathbed.”

I imagined that Baghdad would rejuvenate itself within a few years. Like many fellow exiles, I thought the presence of international forces led by the US would help restore normal conditions in Iraq. Now, ten years on, it seems that Iraq will require another ten years to recover, given the carnage it has witnessed over the past decade.

Ian Taylor, a lecturer at the University of Leicester, offers praise for the 15 February 2003 Stop the War protest, calling it “one of those rare moments in British history when the radical left had some palpable impact on the course of political debate”.

If the march fell a long way short of achieving what so many of us desperately wanted, it wasn’t a complete failure either. This was the day when the message finally got through to Blair and the Conservative opposition that their war was going to be profoundly unpopular . . .

Blair failed to realise this in time (if he ever came to realise it). His reputation has never recovered.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

Rafael Behr: Lord Snooty v The Gimp; or why politics isn’t a game for the voters of Eastleigh

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr reports from Eastleigh, the Lib-Dem “bastion” that faces a by-election on 28 February following the appalling “shenanigans” of Chris Huhne. Behr talks to Carla and Sheena, two residents of Eastleigh, who sum up the prevailing sentiment by describing David Cameron as “snooty” and Ed Miliband as “a gimp”. Behr comments:

Journalists are the worst offenders when it comes to forgetting that most people, most of the time, ignore the minutiae of political combat . . .

What might come across as ignorance or apathy is better understood as perspective.

Read this piece in full on our website now.

 

Stella Creasy: The final frontier for women

Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, is our Diary columnist this week. An active campaigner for the global gender equality movement One Billion Rising, she writes:

A billion women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime; [the Vagina Monologues playwright Eve] Ensler wants the same number of people involved in raising awareness by dancing in public on 14 February . . .

Although we are making progress with One Billion Rising, misogyny still seeks to ground us all . . .

When 80 per cent of 11-year-olds in one study by Edinburgh University say it is OK to hit a woman if she’s late with the dinner, we know we have to ensure that every young person wants a partnership based on mutual respect.

Meanwhile, a local resident and space fanatic alerts me that Unilever is running a competition to send people into space – but it is being marketed at men only. It seems we have a new final frontier for feminism . . .

Read her diary piece in full on our website now.

 

Laurie Penny: with Tasers and placards, the women of Egypt are fighting back against sexism

Laurie Penny reports from Cairo on the rampant post-revolution rise in sexual assaults against women and what Egyptian women are doing to fight back.

She meets with OpAntiSH (“Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment”) -- “a gang of volunteers, some of them men and many of them women who’ve been raped and assaulted. OpAntiSH physically stops assaults in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas, using Tasers, spray paint, fists, force, sticks, anything they can put their hands on to protect women from ‘mob attacks’.”

Penny explains:

For the women of Egypt, freedom from sexist oppression and freedom from state repression are part of the same battle . . .

Egypt is not the only country where women are bearing the brunt of social frustration and public anger. But the women of Egypt and their allies have understood what the rest of the world has failed so far to grasp – that meaningful social progress cannot exclude women. Western journalists using the sex assault pandemic to imply that Egypt somehow isn’t ready for regime change, to imply that Egyptian men are out of control, have fundamentally misunderstood what this revolution is, and what it can be.

In the Critics

The novelist Jeanette Winterson celebrates the transgressive pleasure of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando and its origins in Woolf’s affair with Vita Sackville-West (“an unrepentant flirt”).

PLUS

  • In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Tracey Thorn of Everything But the Girl about her memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star.
  • Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, reviews John Gray’s The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths.
  • George Eaton reviews Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour
  • Alex Massie reviews On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford
  • Rachel Cooke watches the US remake of House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews This Is 40, directed by Judd Apatow
  • and much, much more...

Read our full "In the Critics this week" blog post here.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit