Before we move forward against ISIL in Iraq, we have to learn from our past mistakes, or we will be doomed to repeat them.
So here we are again. Parliament has voted to back military intervention in Iraq. In fact it is not so much as here we go again, as back to business as usual. Since 1990 we have been militarily involved in the country every year apart from 2012 and 2013. That in itself should give us pause for thought.
It’s certainly the case that the most recent Iraq war has left a deep scar on British politics. Cameron is clearly all too aware of that with his statement that we should not let the mistakes of the past affect decisions about the future.
But the mistakes of the past are much broader than the “dodgy dossier”. What the rise of ISIL shows is that the implementation of our entire defence strategy has been mistaken. The stated aims have been to tackle instability, identify security risks, to exploit influence to manage risks, to help resolve conflicts and strengthen international norms.
Does giving ISIL what it wants with a scrap in their own back yard achieve any of this? Plainly, no. US and UK strikes pave the way to further undermining the territorial integrity of Iraq, the precise opposite of the motion agreed.
At the risk of repeating what I have been saying for months now, the only way we can move forward is by honestly facing up to our past. This government has resolutely refused to do that. The most obvious example is the kicking of the Chilcot report about the 2003 Iraq conflict into the long grass. This has apparently been done so it doesn’t affect the General Election. Frankly, it ought to be right at the heart of the General Election, particularly now that we are at war in Iraq once again.
I have been appalled by the brutality of ISIL, the persecution of the Yazidis, the targeting of Christian homes. The question is whether what was voted on in Westminster will do anything that will stop this cycle of brutality. Past form shows, heartbreakingly, no. Because we are repeating the patterns from before. If we can indeed learn from the mistakes of the past, UK military action may become possible, even necessary, when we are faced with real existential threats. I’m certainly not a pacifist or ruling out action under any circumstances. But for now we are trapped by political expediency and symbolic gestures.
What we have ended up with on the UK side is indeed a token gesture, much as happened in Libya, whose government is now currently meeting on a boat. This is because we have neither the real capacity nor the political backing for anything more. This is what our foreign policy has become: the fig-leaf doctrine. We’re basically there so the Americans can say that a bunch of other countries are involved. But what practical point does this serve? We have had coalitions of the willing for decades now and that hasn’t stopped groups like ISIL springing up, or people being radicalised in the West for that matter.
The inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition to be involved in action was spun as vital and significant. But yet again, it is bizarre to present this as something that will change how people on the ground will see military action. After all Saudi Arabia was involved in operating the no-fly zones and, well, Syria was on-board for the 1990-1 Gulf War. This has not prevented extremists nurturing hatred for the UK and US. It has to be up to Arab countries to take a lead, for their own good and ours.
The incursion of ISIL shows that what we have failed to win all too many hearts and minds. We can only hope to know why that is and heal the scars of that period unless we have a thorough, open and transparent assessment of all we have done in the Middle East. Warts and all.
Until that time I can’t support further UK intervention in Iraq.