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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad