Ming Campbell writes: Britain lost moral authority as a result of its participation in Iraq

 Some rights reserved by mashleymorgan Today is the 10th Anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. We are marking it by publishing reflections on the war and its aftermath by senior Liberal Democrats.

The second is by Ming Campbell.

It is hard now to find anyone who will defend British participation in the American-led invasion of Iraq ten years ago. Labour’s current frontbench seek now only to distance themselves from personal involvement in the decision to go to war and it has been all but airbrushed out of recent Tory history. Even in the USA it is hard to find enthusiasm for it outside neoconservative ranks.

But it is not always remembered that, even while a million people marched through the streets of London in support of the maxim ‘not in my name’, the Lib Dems stood almost alone among the political parties in voicing their opposition to the war. History has borne out our position. But ten years ago, as our Armed Forces mobilised for war and the question of finding WMDs was more a matter of when and not if, I admit to sleepless nights over our stance.

Today the magnitude of the foreign policy catastrophe that was the second Iraq war is all too clear to see on the streets of Baghdad, but the war has also cast a long shadow in other ways.  People in Britain are now much less likely to support intervention overseas, irrespective of its merits or urgency, because of Iraq. And without public approval it is a brave government that will go against this and send British troops to fight overseas.

It was Tony Blair who articulated with such clarity and force the fundamental necessity of the legal doctrine of humanitarian intervention and who went on to demonstrate its effectiveness in Sierra Leone and in Kosovo. Yet the personal conviction which enabled him to win the argument over British involvement in these conflicts was to drag his government and thus the country on an unstoppable march to war in Iraq. Ultimately, this has done more damage to the cause of humanitarian intervention than any other act of foreign policy.

Parallels are dangerous tools in the study of foreign affairs but current similarities cannot be ignored. Contemporary challenges bear comparison with the events of 2003. David Cameron showed off his use of the strategically placed political soundbite when he claimed to be the ‘heir to Blair’. He walks a dangerous path however if he seeks to bear this out in foreign policy as well as on the domestic front.  The British people are not natural crusaders. Yet when listening to the evangelical tone adopted by Cameron when justifying British assistance to French operations in Mali one couldn’t help but be struck by a sense of déjà vu.

It could be argued that the relative success of the European-led intervention in Libya has gone someway to foster confidence in an arms-length approach to intervention, one which delivers objectives with minimum loss of life. But it is worth noting that America still played a prominent role in this action. They may have taken a back seat in Libya but their support in terms of intelligence, logistics and communications was pivotal. Such assistance is unlikely to be readily forthcoming in future given Obama’s clearly signposted shift in focus to domestic issues for his second term.

A superficial examination of the West’s role in Libya has raised expectations of what can be achieved in other conflicts, most notably Syria. While there is clearly a desperate need to prevent further atrocities in that country the positions taken by those countries of the Security Council are very different to those adopted in relation to Libya.

Britain lost moral authority as a result of its participation in Iraq. Together with Afghanistan the toll in terms of blood and treasure has been far too high.  With some justification the British public will now question the basis upon which any current or future Government commits troops to military action overseas. There will be lower toleration of lengthy campaigns, no matter how legitimate.

This erosion of public support when coupled the continued pressure on our defence budget means that any proposal of significant military engagement will be difficult to carry. Iraq has changed the political imperative. A Prime Minister now needs the endorsement of a vote in the House of Commons before he or she ventures to war, as British involvement in Libya showed. This does not mean that Britain can no longer be a force for good in the world. It simply means that the cause must be demonstrably legal, just and winnable. Just as ten years ago, there remains a clear role for Liberal Democrats in making sure these requirements are met.

* Sir Menzies (Ming) Campbell is the MP for North East Fife, and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats

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10 Comments

  • Richard Dean 19th Mar '13 - 2:19pm

    I don’t know where the evidence is that Britain has lost moral authority. Did it have any previously? What form did it take? In what ways is “the magnitude of the foreign policy catastrophe … all too clear to see on the streets of Baghdad”? Do we have perfect vision to enable a comparison between what did happen and what would have happened without intervention?

    I’d say that it’s good that “the British public will now question the basis upon which any current or future Government commits troops to military action overseas” and that “A Prime Minister now needs the endorsement of a vote in the House of Commons before he or she ventures to war”.

  • Al McIntosh 19th Mar '13 - 3:00pm

    The Iraq war is a very good example of why Scotland needs a strong independent voice in the world. Only a yes vote in next year’s referendum can prevent a UK government sending Scottish forces into a war that is not supported by the Scottish people.

  • The loss of moral authority (by the UK and USA) was ALWAYS going to happen, once the decision was made to go to war without having any plans for the peace. Many voices, with experiences in other similar conflicts, said at the time that winning the war would be easy, it was winning the peace that would be the problem. subsequent history has just proved the point.

  • Firstly, great article. For me personally, the Lib Dem position on Iraq cemented their credentials as the party which does the right thing.

    It’s true that Iraq changed everything. because Tony Blair made up stuff to take us to war. So no war is justified now apparently. No matter how much a people suffer or cry out for our help. It won’t matter.

    Secondly however, I genuinely can’t believe this is being hijacked by commentators as a reason for Scottish independence. Hundreds of years of history thrown away because of Tony Blair? Wow, that man must have a lot to answer for. Scottish independence because of……….Tony Blair! Wasn’t he born in Edinburgh though? Surely the worst thing to prevent this happening again would be Scottish independence therefore, because Scotland would be stuck with him then! It beggars belief, and I’m not even going to get started on it.

  • The bottom line is that the war in Iraq was a war of aggression. It was not a war of self-defense. There were no emergent humanitarian reasons for it. There was no internal crisis or civil war that required an outside force to impose a peace. It was a muscle-flexing war, a war to remind small countries around the world that there were Great Powers that could wipe them out in the wink of an eye and never break a sweat; to get the little peoples of the world to fall in line when the big ones shout at them.

    As such, it can be fairly stated to have been an humiliating and abject failure. Yes, small countries do know that the big ones can wipe them out quite quickly; but they also know that they will break a sweat, and that the long-term political and financial costs will be extremely onerous to them.

  • Well, it’s surely true that a free Scotland would not have participated in an illegal war, so the points of view above are valid – as are those pointing out that Britain didn’t necessarily have moral authority (over whom? why?) before Blair’s error took place.

  • A Social Liberal 20th Mar '13 - 1:37am

    I asked a question on the other forum about the Iraq war, perhaps David could answer it for me (albeit with my rephrasing it a little).

    So David, in what way was the intervention in Bosnia self defence, or Sierra Leone, or Kosovo. How was intervention in Libya self defence? Korea? World War II?

    There are times when, as a country, we have to say, ‘thus far and no further’. We failed to do so in Rwanda, we failed to do so in Iraq for 12 years and the result was massacres and mass graves abounding in both countries.

    Yes, the Labour government was guilty of not fighting the peace in Iraq which allowed terrorists to murder so many (as of course were the Americans), If Cheney had not withdrawn so many troops so soon after the war fighting finished then I doubt the terrorists would have killed so many – I point to the surge to make my point. However, Saddam and his Baath party were filling those graves full of Kurds, Marsh Arabs and Sh’ia and had to be stopped.

    Is it LLiberal to stand by and allow innocents from another country to be murdered if we can do something about it? I do not think it is

  • @A Social Liberal: It appears to have escaped you that I outlined three, not one, possible scenarios in which military intervention *might* be justified:
    1) Self-defence (which includes defence of allies)
    2) Emergent humanitarian catastrophe (which includes ongoing genocide)
    3) Civil war or other internal conflict, where the goal is to end the violence (necessary to say, since some Powers have entered civil conflicts in order to prolong them).

    The war in Iraq met none of those criteria. I don’t know if some readers were too young to be aware of the situation in 2003, but I will remind you that at that point Iraq had been under sanctions for over a decade; that it had been deprived of all of its chemical weapons, which were decaying and unusable in well-inspected stockpiles; that pretensions and claims to the contrary were false, were stated to be false by UN inspectors, and were known to be false by the responsible political figures; that at the time of the invasion, the régime was in compliance with UN directives regarding its weapons.

    The war against Iraq was therefore a war of aggression which contravened the United Nations Charter, Chapter I, Article 2, Section 4.

  • A Social Liberal 24th Mar '13 - 8:03pm

    @ David

    You are wrong, the Saddam regime was committing genoside on several fronts. The Kurds in the north of the country had to suffer the ‘Anfal Campaign’, where 200,00 troops went into Kurdish areas and rounded up the local population before seperating the working age men and killing them, burying them in mass graves. The forces (I hesitate to call them soldiers) then took the very old men, the women and children and placed them in relocation camps where, in some instances, no one survived at all.

    You will no doubt heard of Halubja, but did you know there were 40 or more instances of Iraqis using chemical agents against Khurdish villages.

    Then, of course, we have the Marsh Arabs in the South. In reprisal for rising against the Saddam regime, his armed forces not only killed the inhabitants of entire villages, razing other villages and forcibly removing the population, by draining the marshes they deliberately took away the ability of the Marsh Arabs to feed themselves.

    I state once again – Saddam and the Baath party committed genoside.

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