Consider how seductive those times were, from the end of the Cold War through to the day before the 9/11 attacks, which plunged the world into darkness. Consider the rhetoric in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The swagger and liberal triumphalism. The arc of history bends towards progress and enlightenment. The world is flat. Market-driven globalisation is inevitable. No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other. Economic liberalisation will lead to political liberalisation. The kaleidoscope has been shaken and now is the time to reorder the world.
We don’t need me to name names. We know who the rhetoricians were. And we all know what they got wrong, what they did not understand, what they chose to ignore. The American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq was for Great Britain the gravest foreign policy catastrophe since the Suez debacle in 1956. There were no weapons of mass destruction. British troops were sent into conflict inadequately equipped. Islamic State rose and metastasised. Liberal Democracy did not flourish in the Middle East or indeed Afghanistan. Western democracies have become self-hating and internally riven. Who now in the West speaks of reordering the world?
When I interviewed Tony Blair in November 2016, he defended the New Labour government’s decision, alongside the Americans, to invade Iraq and topple the brutal Saddam dictatorship but regretted that the “post-invasion planning”, as he put it, had been inadequate. Let’s be kind and say he was speaking euphemistically. As we know, the Western coalition had no plan in Iraq. They dismantled the Baathist state and left in its place… nothing.
Paul Bremer, who led the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, dissolved the Iraqi police force and the army as well as the security and civil services – the country’s biggest employers. The middle class were plunged into penury. What followed, in newly created zones of anarchy once occupied by Saddam’s security state, was what Robert Kaplan describes in The Tragic Mind as something far worse “than even the Iraq of the 1980s: the bloody anarchy of all against all that Saddam’s regime, through the most extreme brutality, had managed to suppress”.
Kaplan backed the war until the day he returned to Iraq in 2004 and became embedded with US marines in the first battle of Fallujah. The unremitting violence, sectarian slaughter and chaos he witnessed during the insurgency horrified him. For years afterwards he suffered with depression “because of my mistake about the Iraq War”.
Kaplan was not alone among serious public intellectuals in making this mistake. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker; Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor-in-chief of the Atlantic; David Brooks of the New York Times; George Packer; Michael Ignatieff, who later crashed in his attempt to become prime minister of Canada; Christopher Hitchens – they were all advocates for George W Bush’s war. The Observer newspaper, once the scourge of Anthony Eden over Suez, supported the Iraq War. There were fierce divisions among the staff at the New Statesman – though Peter Wilby, then editor, was unequivocally opposed and his will prevailed.
One prominent liberal intellectual who “wavered” – his own word – was Ian McEwan. He accused the hawks of evasions of their own. “There is a simple piece of arithmetic that they cannot bring themselves to do in public: given the vile nature of the regime and the threat it presents to the region, how many Iraqi civilians should we allow ourselves to kill to be rid of him [Saddam]?” he wrote on the OpenDemocracy website. He continued: “The hawks have my head, the doves my heart. At a push, I count myself – just – in the camp of the latter. And yet my ambivalence remains.” Above all else, McEwan imagined “innumerable darker possibilities”. All of which came to pass in the years that followed.
In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Marlow, traumatised by his experiences, remarks: “It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing.” The reality of the war of all against all in post-Saddam Iraq – the sectarian bloodlust, the horrors inflicted by Sunni and Shia Islamist terror groups that did not exist in the country before the invasion, the suicide bombings and beheadings – was worse than anyone could have imagined when Blair urged parliament to follow him. The fall of Saddam was not the promised end but, as it turned out, the mere image of the horror to come. “I will venture a prediction,” Hitchens wrote in 2004 on a visit to Kabul. “The Taliban/al-Qaeda riff-raff, as we know them, will never come back to power.” More than a prediction, a scoop, by any standards.
Today, grand schemes to reorder the world are no longer so seductive. “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Joe Biden said as American troops made their final chaotic retreat from Kabul in August 2021. His was the voice of pragmatism and defeat.
In 2001 Tony Blair dreamed of creating through war and regime change a new world order; in 2021 Biden finally rejected the notion. Blair was an idealist who believed we should “get actively involved in other people’s conflicts”; the world as it is requires a greater caution.
Tragedy, writes Kaplan, is “the basis of self-awareness and signifies the loss of illusions”. So much has been lost – not just our illusions – since that day in March 2003 when military operations began “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger”.
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe