In the run-up to the election, the British public should not forget the lessons of Iraq


This year’s election has been one in which foreign affairs has been conspicuously absent from the media narrative and, possibly, the public’s minds. Received wisdom would tell us that the two things most people are interested in are the state of the economy and its recovery and general apathy with politics leading to a deep distrust of politicians in the wake of the expenses scandal and Lobbygate.

Important though these issues are, it serves any country well to consider its role in the world at the time of an election and it was probably one of the saddest moments of the election campaign that the ‘national security’ debate contained little mention of Afghanistan and only one sentence on Iraq – in which Nick Clegg briefly referenced its illegality.

The question on Iraq is crucial. What this election presents the public with is a real chance to have a referendum on Britain’s role in the world, its complicity with international rule of law and its willingness to scrutinise itself. The Iraq inquiry was an attempt to lamely offer some sort of oversight, but it didn’t. Nobody making statements to the panel was required to be under oath and legal expertise was absent from the whole proceedings. The silence was deafening,

There is a fairly widely-accepted legal consensus that, in choosing to side with America over the invasion of Iraq, the UK acted illegally. Under international law, force can only be given legal approval in either cases of self-defense or with UN security council approval. Britain claimed that the approval given for the first Gulf War had been ‘revived’, but it’s generally thought that this is a bogus argument used to hide the fact that there was in fact no actual legal justification for the war itself.

The foreign policy surrounding Iraq and the British government’s shady complicity in the torture of illegally detained terrorist suspects has been one of the darkest periods in UK executive action in recent memory. Yet throughout the election campaign nobody seems to be asking or answering the question sufficiently of whether or not we want to move Britain into a role in which it eventually complies with international law.

It’s a real shame that the debate on the 22nd April contained more discussion of immigration than of government policy surrounding Iraq or Afghanistan. Just a few years ago, with Tony Blair still in office, the British public was bitterly hostile to Blair for having deceived them into supporting a war that had no justification and phony legal backing. When the economy collapsed, it seems that anger would be put on hold. Yet what better time is there to remember past grievances than an election?

This isn’t a partisan issue, and there was support and opposition for the invasion of Iraq on both sides of the House. Both the Conservative and Labour parties experienced resignation from ministers, although arguably Labour had the most important opposition in the form of Robin Cook’s emotional and morbid resignation speech, videos of which can be found on youtube and which is eerie in its relevance and prescience – it’s as if fate found a way to travel back in time and scream its warnings of what would follow. “The international partnerships most important to us are weakened. The European Union is divided. The security council is in stalemate. Those are heavy casualties in a war in which a shot has yet to be fired.” Hear hear, Robin.

The Government would subsequently ignore Mr. Cook’s resignation and continue doing what it was always planning to do and commit itself to a unilateral invasion of a country it barely understood. Saddam was easily toppled, but what was left was a society in which a venomous and bitter lust for power by various religious groups would lead to a civil war resulting in the deaths of thousands of British and American servicemen and women and an the deaths of an estimated one million Iraqi civilians. In what sense can this be said to be supporting the troops or bringing peace to the Middle East?

What has happened with Iraq is truly saddening in that a frightened and confused post-9/11 Britain was told systematic lies about the threats that lurked overseas and frenzied them into supporting a bitter and bloody war that was never legal in the first place. Now, after a deeply depressing death toll, the foreign secretary, David Miliband states that the public has “punished us [the government] enough” over Iraq. On the contrary – the punishment hasn’t been great enough.

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