There is a slight whiff of the summer of 1914 to Westminster at the moment. The garden party season is in full swing and the chatter is all about who is up and who is down. In the Commons chamber itself, domestic political argument dominates. You would not know that a vicious sectarian war is raging in the Middle East. At the first Prime Minister’s Questions after the fall of Mosul to the terrorist group ISIS, no one asked David Cameron to explain the government’s policy on Iraq.
The situation in Iraq is dire on both a humanitarian and a strategic level. ISIS, an organisation so extreme that even al-Qa’eda criticises its tactics, gleefully posts pictures of the mass graves of the Shi’ite soldiers that it has slaughtered. It is opposed by an Iraqi government that is increasingly sectarian and has invited an Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander to Baghdad to oversee the defence of the capital. Whatever happens, one of the West’s great strategic fears will come to pass. Either terrorists will obtain a base in the heart of the Middle East or Iraq will become an Iranian client state.
Despite this, there is no rush to action in Whitehall. No one is trying to shake Washington out of its strategic torpor. Instead, the government’s priority is hosing down any suggestion of British military involvement.
To be fair, this caution is politically understandable. A British prime minister who suggested getting involved in Iraq again would be putting his own position in grave peril. The House of Commons has already made clear that it is not interested in the current conflict gripping the Middle East; last summer it voted down a proposal to seek UN authorisation for strikes against those who had used chemical weapons in Syria.
Britain’s passivity about what is happening in Iraq is a legacy of the Iraq war. The Chilcot Inquiry might not have reported, but the political nation has already drawn its conclusions about that conflict. The received wisdom is that Tony Blair stretched the truth to take the country to war and compounded that sin by failing to plan properly for what to do after Saddam fell; and all this was the biggest foreign policy blunder since Suez.
Blair is currently mounting his own impassioned defence. He has written a long essay arguing that neither he nor the war bears responsibility for what is happening in Iraq now. Like his 2003 speech urging the Commons to vote for British involvement in the invasion, it’s a reminder of what a brilliant advocate he is. But few are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt now.
Making Blair the sole scapegoat for Britain’s turn against intervention would not be right, though. There are other factors at work. The most important of these is growing pessimism about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.
Optimism about the region was not entirely snuffed out by Iraq. When the Arab Spring started, there was a hope that this was the Middle East’s 1989. Aides in No. 10 were quick to draw parallels between the crowds in Tahrir Square and those in Wenceslas Square. As Britain joined other Western countries in withdrawing support for Hosni Mubarak in 2011, there was much talk of being on the ‘right side of history’.
But three years later, Egypt is once more under the rule of a military strongman. Last year, the democratically elected government was removed by General el-Sisi. The West’s condemnation of this coup was mild. Statements of regret at the military’s involvement barely drowned out sighs of relief that the bungling Muslim Brotherhood government was no more. Sisi did subsequently get himself elected but only after banning the Brotherhood.
The next factor is the financial crash and the budgetary belt-tightening that came after. With fiscal restraint at home, expansionism abroad is far from appealing. No Westminster party wants to commit to the kind of spending increases that would be needed to put the armed forces back on a proper financial footing and the top brass are increasingly clear that they can’t continue to fight wars on peacetime budgets. Indeed, research commissioned by senior military figures and leaked to the Financial Times this week shows that Britain will be spending only 1.9 per cent of GDP on defence by 2016, below Nato’s 2 per cent target.
Finally, there is the crisis of faith in intelligence that Iraq has produced. When David Cameron presented the case for strikes in Syria to the Commons, he strained every sinew not to sound like Blair. He emphasised the caveats to the intelligence and that this was ultimately a matter of ‘judgment’. But his cautious tone only made MPs more sceptical.
The government was caught unawares by the ISIS surge into Iraq, and it was not alone in this. When representatives of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff came to London recently, Iraq was very low down their agenda.
What makes this intelligence failure particularly alarming is that we are relying on the security services to keep tabs on those who have travelled from this country to join up with ISIS. William Hague told the Commons on Monday that he believed 400 Britons to be fighting in Iraq and Syria. When you consider that senior figures in the government reckon the authorities have lost track of one in four of those who have gone from Britain to fight in Syria and then returned, one can see the security problem that this country is about to face.
It is tempting to conclude that we have entered an era of limited British involvement in world affairs. But this is not necessarily the case. Nearly all prime ministers are increasingly lured by the use of military force the longer they are in office. When Cameron was in opposition, few would have imagined that this cautious Conservative would have got so far ahead of his party on military intervention that he would lose a vote in Parliament on it in his first term.
The other thing to bear in mind is that much of Britain’s withdrawal from the world stage is because it is following America’s lead. But if a new US president pursues a more active approach, then Britain maywell return to its best supporting actor role. Those who imagine that post-Iraq America is different, and will never again want to be the world’s policeman, should remember that there were less than 16 years between the evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon and US tanks liberating Kuwait.
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