Twenty Years On, the Long Shadow of the Iraq War

Twenty years on from the US and British-led invasion of Iraq, YF International Network Chair Myron Michalides reflects on the consequences of the war.

This month marks 20 years since the Coalition led by British and US forces invaded Iraq. I was born a few months after the invasion and yet the event is still one of the most important in the development, not only of British foreign policy but of how the left, especially the Labour Party, for the last twenty years has defined its role in the world. What began in 2003 was a series of Coalition missteps, insurgencies and sectarian chaos within the Iraqi government that while not equaling the oppression of Saddam failed to turn the nation into the beacon of liberal democracy that America and Britain promised. 

The consequences of Iraq, however, went far greater than the country itself or even the Middle East. Widespread opposition to the war and its perceived role in bringing down the last Labour government created resistance to  foreign intervention of any type within Labour, either out of principle or political pragmatism. In my view, this has helped lead to the invasion of Ukraine and the global economic and political consequences it has brought.

Many lessons can be learned from Iraq: the value of building International coalitions, post-conflict planning to win hearts and minds as well as battles, and a genuine focus and respect for the intricate cultural, tribal, ethnic and sectarian structures of the countries our armed forces find ourselves in. But rather than engage with how to overcome these problems, the response of the general public, the political left and Labour was to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Fearing any intervention of any kind could end up as another Iraq, Labour abandoned a policy of humanitarian intervention that had stopped the genocide in Kosovo and brought democracy to Sierra Leone and East Timor. Instead, it adopted an almost pacifist strategy, resisting any use of force unless absolutely necessary. The party voted for intervention in Libya but didn’t argue for the long-term presence needed to stabilise the country which would look reminiscent of Iraq. We voted against military action against Assad in Syria in an attempt to be seen as  “learning the lessons of our past including Iraq”  This allowed not only flagrant human rights violations and the power vacuum for ISIS (which in 2015, large parts of the party voted against attacking in Syria) to fill but also for Putin to militarily prop up his man in Syria with the knowledge that the west would not stop his aggressive expansion of power, an assumption vindicated in Crimea when, supported by Labour, the west decided to use diplomatic and economic rather than military pressure. Such non-intervention reached its zenith when in 2018 when the then shadow home secretary stated Labour would only support military action in a world war two scenario.

In an attempt to avoid a second Iraq, we created a world in which dictators act with impunity, we’ve created a left that says human rights matter and should be fought for and protected and says never again to the atrocities of the past…but then baulks when sanctions and condemnations can’t deliver. We’ve allowed refugee crises that emboldened the far right in and across Europe and most of all by focusing so much on the west’s agency in world politics we forgot that others such as Putin’s Russia have agency too and how inaction can embolden those that will gladly intervene where we do not. It is not only the Iraqis who are paying the price for a war that started 20 years ago, but the Syrians, Ukrainians and all others who asked for our help but, in our fear of repeating 2003, heard no answer.

It’s for this reason that the response to Russian invasions in 2022 and the unanimity within the west and (with some disappointingly predictable exceptions) the western and British left broadly has been so encouraging. With the current leaderships commitment to Ukraine but also NATO Labour is starting to realise the enormity of suffering, domestic and foreign, that inaction can cause and that while diplomacy should be the favoured way to defend our values the use of military force whether against Spanish and German fascism in the 1930s and 40s or against modern Fascists in Kosovo, Bosnia and in my view Ukraine, still has its place.

Thus, the lessons from Iraq are twofold: not only how a poorly planned unilateral invasion with no concern for the people that it wants to liberate can fail, but also how a reflexive desire to avoid such a war can  create equally vast human suffering. Only by learning lessons about the judicious use of war and peace can we truly call ourselves internationalists.

Myron Michaelides is chair of the Young Fabians International Network. He studies Politics and International Relations at SOAS.

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

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