Britain's Costly Iraq Blunder

News Abroad
tags: Iraq, United Kingdom, Great Britain, Iraq War, Linda Colley


Linda Colley is the Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University. She is the author of many works on British history, including "Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850"

Credit: British Ministry of Defence.

I opposed the Iraq war and Britain’s share in it, mainly in the pages of the London Guardian. I did so partly out of humanitarian objections to an unforced war, all the while recognizing that revulsion at brutality was prompting others to back the outing of Saddam Hussein by almost any means. Nonetheless, a photograph featured in the British press just before shock and awe descended on Baghdad reinforced my views. It showed a bedraggled group of Iraqi military bandsmen playing antiquated musical instruments. These, like the men’s dusty uniforms, evidently dated from the period of British hegemony in Iraq. I still wonder about the fate of these men, ordered to squeeze out rousing tunes from onetime imperial cymbals, triangles, and pipes, in support of an impending war over which -- like most of us -- they had no choice. But I never doubted that, given Britain’s past involvement in Iraq, its participation in a new invasion was imprudent as well as wrong.

Some have suggested that the often indirect quality of British involvement in Iraq before the 1950s, exercised mainly through docile Arab monarchs, oil companies, and airbases, may have rendered it less disruptive than this last, far more idealistic, but also more through-going Western incursion. Possibly so. But -- as generations of Iraqi schoolchildren have been taught -- the British record is still a disturbing one that sometimes involved aerial bombing of civilians. (Lawrence of Arabia argued for the use of poison gas.)  It was never very likely therefore that a new wave of British invaders -- albeit dwarfed in number by Americans -- would be unambiguously welcomed as liberators.

So it was particularly unfortunate that the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, had no interest in history, and indeed had convinced himself that history did not matter. “There has never been a time,” he told Congress during a 2003 visit to Washington, “when…a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day.” Like Bush, Blair believed passionately (and apparently still does) that 9/11 had ushered in a whole new world in which novel extreme solutions were inescapable and good.

Yet, just like the rest of us, Blair was actually hopelessly entangled in history. Britain has an even longer tradition than the U.S. of regarding itself as a Protestant Israel and as a beacon of liberty, law and good governance. In London, as in Washington, these ingrained (sometimes legitimate) complacencies have often worked to buttress the belief that invading and re-arranging other countries is only doing them a favour. Unlike the U.S., however, Britain is in conspicuous decline: and this exposes its leaders to particular trials and lures, especially if they are as brilliant as Tony Blair. London, like Vienna, is visibly a grand imperial capital whose empire has gone; and British leaders must always wrestle with the temptation to cut loose from the unsatisfactory bickering and minutiae of domestic affairs, and try once more to play the great game on a global stage.

Yet, of course, the Iraq War was never going to be a British great game, only, in Noah Feldman’s words, “an American show with British input.” The recent public inquiry into the war led by Sir John Chilcot in London has confirmed, for instance, how easily Blair and his henchmen were sidelined and shut out by the long-running feuds and policy differences between Donald Rumsfeld and the U.S. State Department. It is rumoured that Chilcot’s forthcoming report will come down hard on Blair, thereby confirming the damage to a political reputation which -- before the war -- was generally and deservedly a high and positive one.

This is not the only, and certainly not the most important respect in which the legacy of the Iraq War for Britain is likely to be long and unfortunate. To begin with, there is the matter of the war’s cost, not just in terms of British lives lost in the conflict, but also in terms of treasure. Given the depth of Britain’s current economic predicament, it is hard to believe that the pounds sterling soaked up by the war and its aftermath could not have been better invested.

But perhaps the most negative effect of the war as far as the the United Kingdom is concerned, has been its damage to public trust in politicians. The rising electoral performance in recent years of UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) is commonly attributed simply to British, mainly English unhappiness with the European Union. The rise of UKIP has however also been a consequence of public alienation from the main parties at Westminster, all of which (though not unanimously) backed the Iraq war. Before it started, Blair used all his televisual and explanatory gifts to cajole a fairly skeptical British people into believing that Saddam did indeed possess WMD that he might use; and he came down hard on the BBC for daring to question the validity of these claims. It was not the BBC that turned out to be mistaken.

There is obviously a danger that -- because of memories of Iraq -- British prime ministers will in the future find it harder to mobilize national consensus for military action, however justified that course of action might be. It is even possible that future prime ministers will not anymore have a “Britain” to mobilize. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, is currently promising Scots a written constitution in the event of their voting to secede from the Union in the fall of 2014. One of the provisions of this future constitution, he has suggested, will be a right for Scots to vote in advance of any controversial military action. It is not at all clear how such a constitutional provision could actually be drafted or how it would operate in practice.  But Salmond’s typically clever chutzpah in this regard does suggest one way in which Britain’s participation in the Iraq War might, just, be turned to some good. One of the more unhappy aspects of Britain’s uncodified constitution is that the powers of its prime ministers can at times be very great and dangerously unconstrained. The sad story of Tony Blair and the Iraq War could usefully result in the making of some durable constitutional adjustments.

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