In a recent article for the London Review of Books entitled “The new world disorder”, Tariq Ali argues that “[t]he occupation of Iraq [was] one of the most destructive acts of modern history… Iraq was treated as no other country has been treated before.” The significance of the Iraq war – and Britain’s role within it – continues to haunt both domestic and foreign policy in the US, and has arguably been part of a wider strategy aimed at “the disintegration of the Middle East”. As the UK election looms, it is worth reflecting on the various policies and strategies adopted towards the region by the different parties vying for power, especially as, in the words of the previous head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller: “[the UK’s] involvement in Iraq has radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation.
For better or worse, Iraq will always be seen as Tony Blair’s war – or rather, as George Bush junior finishing the job his father started and for which Blair willingly supplied British arms, troops and money (all £8.4 billion of it). The Labour Party is still on some level labouring under the shadow of the Iraq war, which may partially explain Ed Miliband’s blocking of all military intervention in Syria (though the Labour leader did support the NATO-led strategy to remove Gaddafi in Libya and, more recently, has backed limited airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq).
Public opinion regarding military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere is also waning, and in 2013 a poll conducted jointly by the Guardian and ICM found that 48 per cent of respondents believed that military interventions “solve little, create enemies and generally do more harm than good”. In the same year, YouGov found that support for the Iraq war had fallen from 53 per cent in 2003 to a mere 27 per cent – a significant statistical drop.
But it is not just the phantom of Iraq that continues to haunt British foreign and domestic policy, but the legacy of the Blair years has resonance beyond the bloody borders of war-torn Middle Eastern states. What Blair brought to British politics, and what David Cameron has continued to pursue after him, is a worldview that pits the US and Britain against the rest, and in which lack of compliance or due reverence results in a swift and merciless response. Within this new world order – or rather, the new reign of “disorder and chaos” that Blair promised in his 2003 speech calling for intervention in Iraq – Britain is the faithful sidekick to the US, which exerts its various forms of soft and hard power unassailably across the entire globe as it sees fit. Despite all its fantasies of re-asserting its imperial dominance, Britain has become little more than a vassal state for American power; a convenient rest-stop on the way to Europe and the Middle East in the US’s path to global dominance.
British complicity in American foreign policy is not just evident in Iraq, but in each successive military and political intervention staged by the country since the turn of the last century. Blair may have supported the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was Cameron who threw away any pretense of British sovereignty and faithfully followed the US’s example by first supporting military intervention in Libya, withdrawing it in the case of Syria, and arguing for limited airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq. If you compare the figures for military spending on the interventions in Libya and Iraq with the amount of aid successively given to each country following the destruction of the political and social infrastructure, it is clear that any claims that Britain and its big brother the United States make regarding their role as harbingers of democracy and freedom are merely the glossy veneer to a military strategy of domination and oppression.
In Palestine, too, Britain has doggedly followed in the US’s footsteps; and although Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have thus far pursued slightly more sympathetic strategies than Cameron, there is little guarantee that these strategies might not be revised if either party actually came into power. The Liberal Democrats famously opposed the Iraq war in 2003, but Clegg more recently has shifted his position and supported military intervention in both Libya and Syria.
Across the board – with the possible exception of Ed Miliband, who despite his flaws is hardly akin to Tony Blair – support for foreign military intervention has increased in British politics at the same time as public support for such interventions has been dwindling. Indeed, public interest in foreign policy as a whole is slipping; a potentially troubling fact considering that, come May, the British public may unwittingly be voting in favour of further British military spending and intervention abroad.
For this reason, it is worth taking stock of the positions adopted by the various parties with regards to foreign intervention. As military strikes continue against ISIS in Iraq and the Syrian civil war rages on with no end in sight, British policy in the Middle East may well have the potential not only to shape the future of a whole generation of people in the region, but on a new generation of British voters too.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.