This article concludes by noting:
"Now, a further five years later, it is even clearer how right the Iraq war opponents were."
Whatever has been achieved in the invasion has been done at a terrible cost in lives, writes NOEL WHELAN
THE FINAL US combat brigade rolled out of Iraq this week. It does not amount to a complete American withdrawal. The remaining 50,000 US troops will continue to carry out anti-terrorist operations, the CIA will maintain an intelligence network and, in addition to the elaborate embassy/military complex in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the US state department is establishing two new consulates in Basra and in the northern Kurdish regional capital of Irbil.
At the point of this partial leave-taking, Iraq is, on balance, a better place than it was when the US and its coalition partners rolled in over seven years ago. Saddam Hussein is gone.
In the immediate aftermath, Iraq became a quagmire – a Middle Eastern theatre for daily terrorist attacks against US and British soldiers. Now in the wake of the Petraeus “surge”, a fragile democratic infrastructure has been erected and the basis for a modest sustainable improvement in the quality of life of most Iraqi citizens has been laid.
All this came, however, at an extraordinary cost. This price was paid primarily in Iraqi loss of life and suffering, the true extent of which will never be appreciated internationally. It also came at an extraordinary cost to the US and Britain in loss of life and injury to combat forces, in finance and in international prestige.
Second only to the recent economic collapse, this Iraq war will probably stand as the most significant international happening of our age intertwined as it inevitably will be in historical analysis with the events of 9/11 in 2001. Many future historians are likely to view the Iraq invasion as the action of an overconfident, traumatised US. They will despair at how the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq shattered the wide-ranging coalition of nations against terrorism which had supported tackling the Taliban, and al-Qaeda only a year earlier.
The ripple effect of the Iraq war in international diplomacy and politics has been unparalleled since the second World War. It tested the US-Europe relationship. It threatened even at one stage to divide Europe itself into Old Europe and New Europe camps. It came to define the Blair premiership and mangled his legacy. It brought about a change of government in Spain. It determined the Democratic Primary contest for the most recent US presidential election. Most importantly of all, it has impacted disastrously on the relationship between the Middle East and the western world and radicalised a new generation of Islamic fundamentalists.
The real tragedy is that it was all so foreseeable.
It seems such a long time ago now since St Patrick’s Day in 2003 when, because it was a bank holiday, those of us so inclined got to spend the day watching the live TV coverage of the dramatic House of Commons debate on the war. The debate occurred at a time when tens of thousands of British troops had already joined the US forces amassed on the borders of Iraq but formal parliamentary approval for their participation was still required.
It was an intense but dignified debate marked by many brilliant contributions. The intensity of the parliamentary exchanges reflected the extent to which the Iraq war had raised strong passions in the country and particularly within the Labour Party.
By early evening, the late Robin Cook, then leader of the commons, had resigned from the cabinet and his resignation speech was a riveting 15-minute forensic deconstruction of the case Tony Blair and others had advanced for war in Iraq
First, Cook argued the war had no international agreement and no domestic support. While complimenting Blair and Jack Straw for struggling so hard to get that second resolution, Cook wondered why they were pretending that getting the second resolution was of no importance.
Cook debunked the suggestion that France, which had in the preceding days been derided widely, was the only country which had wanted more time for inspections to work. He reminded the house that other significant powers, including Russia and almost all members of the United Nations Security Council, wanted more time given to Hans Blix who had been allowed back into Iraq.
Cook contrasted the proposed invasion of Iraq with the earlier military action in Kosovo, which had widespread multilateral support from Nato, the EU and all bar one security council members.
Cook’s principal point however – and the one which proved most prescient – was that there was no compelling or urgent reason for military action. Cook, who after all had access until this moment to cabinet-level intelligence, stated blankly that “Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term – namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target”.
The threshold for war should always be high and, in this instance, Cook argued it had just not been met. He highlighted also the irony of basing a military strategy on the argument that Saddam’s forces were weak and therefore the war would not take long while claiming he posed a real danger justifying pre-emptive action.
Cook cogently advanced the reasons why so many who were not pacifists or serial anti-Americans saw the war as unjustifiable, dangerous and likely to prove counter productive.
Since then, the intelligence on which Blair based the case for war was shown to be shoddy and it has been revealed that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. Even the legal case advanced by the British attorney general has been torn to shreds.
Although he died of a heart attack while out climbing only 2½ years later, Cook was one of those who had the luxury of being proven right in his own lifetime. Now, a further five years later, it is even clearer how right the Iraq war opponents were.