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.

Iraqi soldiers. Photo: Getty
The left should stop congratulating themselves about the Iraq War being disastrous. Photo: Getty

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.

Tags:Iraq