The left should stop congratulating themselves about the Iraq War being disastrous. Photo: Getty
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The answer to Iraq’s current crisis is not the left re-fighting the arguments of 2003

As soon as Iraq plunges into another disaster, the 2003 reenactment society gets back together, presenting a simple case of cause and effect  but the ISIS insurgency wasn’t inevitable.

I marched against the invasion of Iraq and I was right. Bully for me.
 
As the Sunni extremists of ISIS sweep through Iraq, the western left returns like a homing pigeon to the political battles of 2003, wrongly but understandably. Although the anti-war campaign was a defeat in practical terms, it was a resounding moral victory. We were more right than we could have possibly known. Like my fellow marchers, I knew that the war was illegal and unnecessary but I didn’t predict what a fiasco it would be. We assumed the neocons had a devious masterplan; their callous incompetence came as a shock. Whatever Blair and his dogged loyalists might say, history has utterly vindicated the demonstrators. Even Glenn Beck, of all people, has come around to agreeing with them. But that was then. What now?
 
Victory has a tendency to corrupt judgement. If not for the brevity of the first Iraq war, the toppling of the Taliban (short-lived though it turned out to be) and the effectiveness of Blair’s pet crusades in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Blair and Bush would not have been so bullishly confident about Iraq. Similarly, the left has a tendency to treat 2003 like a geopolitical skeleton key that unlocks every problem since, as if US and UK foreign policy hadn’t moved in inch.
 
In reality, the neocons have been humbled and sidelined even within the Republican party. Neither President Obama, Congress nor the American public has much appetite for another war (drone strikes, of course, are another matter). Even rapprochement with the old enemy Iran is underway. In Britain, Cameron has none of Blair’s dangerous moral conviction and nor do most of his ministers, with the notable exception of Michael Gove. The west’s most enthusiastic (and, in Mali, successful) intervener isn’t a neocon at all but France’s socialist president. It’s either ignorant or disingenuous to pretend that nothing much has changed in western capitals, let alone elsewhere.
 
What about the war’s legacy? Naturally, as soon as Iraq plunges into another disaster, the 2003 reenactment society gets back together, presenting a simple case of cause and effect. It’s a familiar dance and I know all the steps. But the ISIS insurgency wasn’t inevitable. Without the war in Syria or Nouri al-Maliki’s divisive governance, things could have been different. Conversely, there is no way of knowing how things would have unfolded if Saddam had been in power during the Arab Spring, or died of natural causes and left a weakened Ba’ath party. To hack through this forest of counterfactuals and confidently say the west caused the current crisis, or suggest that Islamists wouldn’t be pursuing their militant agenda here and elsewhere if Bush and Blair had stayed their hands, is simplistic at best.
 
The kneejerk invocation of 2003 during every foreign policy crisis has come to feel not just lazy but morally cheap. The anti-war camp won the day over Syria but the ongoing slaughter and humanitarian crisis is nothing to crow about. Might western intervention have made the situation worse? Very possibly, but the absence of it hasn’t made it better. There’s no reason to feel especially proud, unless your only concern is what the west does.
 
But then I suspect for many people it is. The solipsism of the neocons is to believe the west can and should fix all of the world's problems; the solipsism of a sector of the left is to believe the west causes all of the word's problems. Neither worldview properly takes into account the agency, history and local circumstances of other countries — the idea that they might do both great and terrible things without the west’s involvement — but each one provides a powerful sense of moral clarity.
 
Clarity is attractive. I feel confident when it comes to 2003, or the shabby Islamophobia of the tabloids, or the hysteria over the non-existent “Trojan horse” plot in Birmingham schools. It's easy to know which side you’re on. I’m almost comforted by the sporadic appearances of Tony Blair, even more grotesquely messianic now that he doesn’t have voters to worry about, because his denial is so appalling that I can say, “Ah yes, we were right. Terrible man, terrible war.”
 
But when I hear about ISIS, or Boko Haram, or Syria, or murderous Islamists in Pakistan or Kenya I just feel impotent rage and sorrow. Terrified of seeming remotely warmongering, the left hasn’t developed the intellectual machinery with which to talk about Islamist atrocities and the void is painful.
 
So I feel the tug of that solipsism and self-congratulation, nostalgic for a moment when the west was simply wrong and I felt I could do my bit by trying to prevent a useless war, because it makes me feel marginally less helpless now, even though I know it's an illusion of no real use to anyone. But I prefer honestly pained ambivalence to the hard certainty of those who obsessively hark back to 2003 in lieu of wrestling with what’s happening now and accepting how much of it cannot be pinned on western belligerence. It’s OK not to have answers to fiendishly complicated situations that bring misery to millions but the license to be smug about making the right call 11 years ago has expired.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.