Britain’s worst foreign policy disaster – Iraq or Brexit?
It’s hard to think of a more momentous political period in my lifetime than what we are experiencing now. The country is divided after the vote to leave the European Union. The party of government is rudderless and is concentrating on finding a new leader rather than guiding the country through dangerous times. The main opposition party has a leader trapped in his parliamentary bunker, deserted by his MPs but clinging on as the wider party still (he hopes) supports him. Today has seen the publication of the Chilcot Report, reminding us all of Mr Blair’s folly and re-opening political wounds. Corbyn got that call right back in 2003 while Cameron and almost every other Conservative MP backed Blair’s invasion of Iraq. The consequences of Brexit and legacy of Iraq now vie with each other for the worst foreign policy decision in modern British history.
I listened carefully to Sir John Chilcot’s calm delivery of the findings of his seven year long enquiry, with several quotes from Bush and Blair correspondence. Three words stand out as a condemnation of Tony Blair, when he wrote that he would be “with you, whatever”. Written in July 2002 it demonstrates that Blair committed Britain to war whatever the UN resolution, whatever the evidence on the ground from weapons inspectors and whatever might be the opinion of the British people.
Chilcot has concluded that the invasion and occupation of a sovereign state was not justified. In March 2003 all peaceful options had not been exhausted so war at that time was not the last resort. The evidence about weapons of mass destruction given by Blair to Parliament was presented with a certainty that was not justified. The war cost the lives of 179 British soldiers, a similar number of British civilian personnel and countless thousands of lives of innocent Iraqi civilians. The aftermath has been even worse. Chilcot has shown that the preparations for Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam were “wholly inadequate”. This failure to prepare for the aftermath has led to Iraq descending into chaos.
I believe that the Iraq war, based on what Charles Kennedy at the time called a “flawed prospectus”, has destroyed the confidence of many people of the case for a liberal interventionist foreign policy. This is shown most clearly by Syria. The collapse of order in Iraq enabled extremists to take root and then spread their poison across the desert into Syria. The Syrian civil war is a direct consequence of the destruction of order in Iraq. Our failure to intervene in even the most limited way in Syria is a consequence of over timidity after Iraq. President Assad really has weapons of mass destruction and he really has used them against civilian targets. The compelling case for intervention in Syria has been undermined by over-caution after the flimsy evidence for the war in Iraq.
The chaos on the ground in Iraq and Syria has bred terror groups that not only murder Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds but also pose a direct threat on the streets of London, Paris and Brussels. The awful truth is that while Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed against Britain in 45 minutes, the likes of ISIS do have weapons and have indeed used them against us, without even a 1 minute warning. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 has made Britain less safe in 2016.
While Tony Blair will forever be associated with Iraq, David Cameron will forever be remembered as the Prime Minister who triggered the EU referendum that led to Britain dislocating itself from its closest neighbours. I believe that the potential damage to British interests from us leaving the EU will be far more serious than the security risks post Iraq.
Breaking apart from the EU will leave Britain with a smaller, weaker voice on the world stage. Our diplomatic clout was enhanced by EU membership, it will be diminished outside. Our trading position with other large world economies will be weakened outside the world’s largest single market. Our economic growth will be held back by a reduction in foreign investment and reduced opportunities for research collaboration by business and universities. A falling pound is no longer a spur to manufacturing exports as we don’t have the mass manufacturing capability to respond. Besides, we also have put up a “go away, not welcome” sign to the skilled migrants from Europe who could most easily move here to expand the workforce. Within a few years British businesses will face higher tariffs imposed on our exports, cancelling out any short term exchange rate advantage. British consumers will fare even worse, with higher prices on imported goods. Employment opportunities for them will be fewer as investment dries up.
All of these risks from a Brexit were spelled out by David Cameron during the referendum campaign. They were warnings, not scaremongering. Some are already hard facts. Given the stark risks it is all the more unpardonable that Cameron bet the country’s future in order to placate the Eurosceptic head-bangers on his backbenches and to stave off UKIP. Party advantage trumped the British national interest. Blair may have been wrong in his judgement but his motivations were perhaps more noble.
In my view the decision to hold a referendum on a highly complex mix of issues bound up in our membership of the EU was worse than the decision to go to war in Iraq, at least for the people of Britain. But they share a common characteristic in the failure of the protagonists to prepare for the aftermath. In Iraq we sent in troops to boot the door down, smash up the house, hang around for a while and then pull out leaving a country collapsing in violent chaos. Those British politicians that actually wanted (or so they said) us to leave the European Union failed to spell out what life the other side would look like. But their deceptions and simplicities fooled just enough people to force a Brexit. Now faced with the consequences, Boris Johnson and most of the rest of them are running away from responsibility for the messy task of uncoupling Britain from the EU.
Finally, a point from my own party political perspective. In 2003 Liberal Democrat MPs were united in voting against the Iraq war. We campaigned against military intervention from the outset, at a time when public opinion was still giving Blair the benefit of the doubt. For over 50 years we have been the consistent champion of Britain being a fully engaged member of the British Union. We have made some mistakes, indeed all parties when in government make decisions that annoy people. But in the two biggest decisions about the British national interest in my lifetime so far, our judgement was right. I’m thinking today of my late colleague and friend Charles Kennedy. He was the brave party leader who spoke against the Iraq war in 2003. He was a passionate advocate of Britain in Europe. How we miss his distinctive Liberal voice today.