Whatever Chilcot says, there is no denying that this conflict has shaped recent history
After Brexit, Chilcot. Britain, run by people who long presumed to teach the world the finer points of governance, is in danger of becoming a byword for broken politics and gratuitous self-harm. This inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war, chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a retired civil servant, has taken seven years and now its report finally appears, 13 years after the US-British invasion, in 12 volumes running to 2.6m words.
It is hard to imagine how much more damage can be done to the tarnished reputations of Tony Blair, former prime minister, and his lieutenants, or whether any inquiry can capture the toxic mix of naivety, vanity and obtuseness that impelled this misadventure when the UK decided to go to war alongside President George W Bush.
Yet whatever Chilcot establishes, there are at least three deeper truths about Iraq — the geopolitical fiasco as well as the destruction of a state and society already brought low by tyranny, wars and sanctions — aside from the fact that the US and the UK started this war of choice with no more forethought than the Brexiters have exhibited.
First, Iraq offered the world a pitiless spectacle of the limits to US power (Britain’s role was, in that sense, a sideshow). Obviously, America possesses military might in unique abundance. What it lacks is the ability to shape the broader Middle East, from Iraq to Afghanistan, or Syria to Libya. Conversely, the US and its allies do seem to possess the ability to help incubate worldwide security menaces. One result of Iraq is Isis, an even more savage iteration of jihadism than its al-Qaeda precursor, as we keep seeing, not just in Raqqa or Mosul, but from Dhaka to Medina, or Istanbul to Brussels; there is also regular carnage in Baghdad that rarely makes headlines.
It is no defence to keep repeating, as Mr Blair does, that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. Scores of little Saddams have taken his place. The casual upending of a millennium-old balance of power between Sunni and Shia triggered a sectarian bloodbath across the region and beyond.
Second, Iraq led to Syria. Sure, the Syrian civil war was detonated by region-wide uprisings against Arab despots, most of them aided and abetted by the west, leaving dissidents little space except the mosque to regroup — a chemically pure formula for the manufacture of Islamists and jihadis. But the sectarian parameters of Syria were set by Iraq. And western policy of outsourcing support for Syrian rebels to Turkey and Saudi Arabia not only helped create the vacuum into which Isis stepped but has helped pulverise Syria and Iraq, creating a real risk of regional implosion.
The frequent comparison of Iraq to the Suez crisis of 1956, the last hurrah of French and British colonialism, falls short. While Americans and Europeans have no plan to put a brake on the proxy warfare between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran that Iraq set in train, they have managed to make Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a predatory if subprime superpower, look surprisingly good.
Third, the recklessness of Iraq followed by the fecklessness of western policy towards Syria has led to other inescapable if unintended consequences — not least for the UK and EU. It is obvious not only in retrospect that the surge of refugees out of Syria, and the deal struck with Turkey to control it that appeared to offer visa-free travel in Europe to millions of Muslim Turks, were going to pump up the Brexit vote.
In Washington, London and other western capitals, the refrain that intervention in Syria is “too complicated”, especially in light of Iraq, has become a political jingle. It obscures the fact that the west has been intervening, just not successfully. And it becomes self-prophetically truer as the shape-changing contours of the war keep getting worse. If only Messrs Bush and Blair had thought Iraq was too complicated.
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