By: Jonathan Powell
I’ll take my share of the blame for what went wrong in Iraq but doing nothing can have even worse consequences.
The point of the long-awaited Chilcot report to be published next week is not just to dole out recriminations but to draw lessons for the future, just as the Franks report did after the Falklands war.
There are plenty of lessons to be learnt from the mistakes of Iraq. But I hope one lesson people do not try to draw is that intervention in itself is wrong.
There are, of course, pacifist politicians who believe armed intervention in any form is wrong. It would be a mistake to allow them to use this report to tie our hands against any humanitarian intervention or action against a dictator.
While the Chilcot report will presumably show that there are serious consequences when intervention goes wrong, we know that we also face severe consequences when we don’t intervene. Failure to act on ethnic massacres in Rwanda, when we knew we should have done so, left more than a million dead. Failure to act in Bosnia until too late led to more than 100,000 dead and catastrophes such as the Srebrenica massacre.
Now our failure to act in Syria has led to 400,000 dead and perhaps the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with nearly five million refugees. We may have thought we could turn a blind eye to the suffering inside Syria and pass on by but now that failure to intervene has had a severe impact on us directly, rather than just morally. First, the wave of humanity desperate to escape the barrel bombs and starvation imposed by the murderous Assad regime has cascaded into Turkey, Greece and on to the rest of Europe, causing domestic panic about migration. Perhaps even worse in the long term is the threat of Islamic State based in Raqqa — able to flourish in the vacuum left by a failed state and to inspire attacks in Paris, Brussels and, before too long, London. We may have thought we were smart, learning the lessons of Iraq by avoiding involvement. Instead we have realised painfully that not intervening in humanitarian crises and dictatorships may have an even more severe impact on our lives than doing so.
In Libya we drew a different lesson from the experience in Iraq;that intervention was all right if we did it from the air and did not put our servicemen at risk on the ground.
We managed to help get rid of Gaddafi and the threat he posed to his people by some judicious bombing and a little discreet military work on the ground.
We decided the lesson from Iraq was to avoid creating another Paul Bremer, who acted as US viceroy in Baghdad, and to let the Libyans deal with the aftermath themselves.
To be fair, leaders such as Mahmoud Jibril were telling us they didn’t need our help. But Libya was a country without institutions and a uniting sense of nationhood and, left alone, it disintegrated into anarchy.
When I first went there two years ago people from all sides said to me: “Thank you, Britain, for coming to our aid in the revolution but why did you then leave us alone to our fate?” The situation in Libya today doesn’t look that much better than Syria or Iraq, despite our “intervention-lite” approach. That is why President Obama said recently that he saw Libya as one of his greatest foreign policy mistakes.
We have bounced back and forth on the issue of liberal interventionism since the early 19th century, zigzagging from being too gung-ho to too cautious
We also know from experience that military intervention can work. In Kosovo we took military action from the air and on the ground to save hundreds of thousands from being massacred by the Milosevic regime. The intervention not only saved their lives but led to the removal of Milosevic. The action was undertaken, as in Iraq, without authorisation by the UN security council because we knew we faced a veto there. It was led by the Americans, with the UK playing second fiddle. And yet it is generally seen as a success. In 2000 we intervened in Sierra Leone to save the government from collapse and the population from massacre by the rebel RUF force. Again, the action is generally regarded as a success. It is not therefore intervention itself that is unpopular but success or failure that determines the reaction. The fact that some interventions, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, are unpopular — because of the time they took and the lack of success — does not mean the principle is wrong.
Indeed, it is partly our impatience with how much time such interventions take, and particularly the painful and slow business of trying to help countries rebuild, that causes the problem. Governments then come under pressure to withdraw prematurely, leaving problems unresolved. The US pulled out of Iraq in 2011, putting the country in the hands of a sectarian government without taking steps to bring about a reconciliation between Sunnis and Shia.
It was that failure leading to Sunni grievances in the north that made Isis attractive to some segments of the Sunni population as the lesser of two evils. How else can we explain the ability of 1,500 Isis fighters to take over the city of Mosul with a population of one and a half million? The Americans have now had to go back into Iraq and extend their stay in Afghanistan because it is impossible to turn our backs on these problems.
Of course we have bounced back and forth on the issue of liberal interventionism since the early 19th century, zigzagging from being too gung-ho to too cautious. When things go wrong, for instance “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia, we retreat and allow abominable humanitarian outages such as Rwanda to happen. It takes us a long time to recover and consider intervention again, as our experience in Bosnia demonstrated.
I hope the Chilcot report allows us to get out from under the rock of Iraq and consider more clearly what our long-term national interests are and what our duty is when humanitarian disasters unfold. I am happy to take my share of responsibility for what went wrong in Iraq but it will be a disaster for all of us if the lesson we draw is never to intervene again. The choice is not between intervention and no intervention but between doing it right and doing it wrong.
Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff 1995-2007 and is writing a book on the history of liberal interventionism