I’ve been putting this post off for just about forever. It’s almost impossible to write properly, such is the jumble of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. I don’t know why I’ve chosen today to sit down and finally write it, but I think it’s important that Labour try to work through its feelings on this topic, and given I’m quite good at loudly demanding the Party behaves in one way or another, it would be hypocritical of me not to attempt to do the same.
I was against the war in Iraq from the start. I had a number of reasons for being so, not all of them noble. I marched and chanted, I wrote to my MP and to Tony Blair outlining why I thought action was wrong. I had long passionate arguments with people on both sides (of which more on the anti-war side later).
I am not a pacifist. My Mother is. My Father isn’t so it was a discussion I was used to having by the time I was creating my own set of beliefs from the foundations they gave me; and I saw that war can rarely but sometimes be the lesser of two evils. Having been extemely concerned about the plight of the Afghan people since my attention was drawn to the terrible treatment of women by the Taliban. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that, as an internationalist, my feminism and sense of solidarity with oppressed people should not stop at my own borders. So after the 9/11 attacks made it clear that there would be a war in Afghanistan, I supported that action.
But I wanted that war to be conducted well and with full respect to international law. So when the rumours started that vital resources that should have been poured into what was already a very difficult conflict were going to be moved to support a new war, one for which I did not feel the justification or the timing was as strong, I was dismayed.
None of that is to say that I felt that Saddam Hussein should not have been removed if at all possible. Nor that his sons would have been an improvement. Saddam was a brutal dictator, and I know that the choice I would have made by not going to war, had it been up to me, would have left people suffering. That is the kind of decision making you have to accept if you are a nation’s leader, and no one does so lightly. But whereas above I said I felt war could sometimes be the lesser of two evils, here I felt that prosecuting one war well while not intervening elsewhere was the right thing to do.
I realise this all sounds like hindsight. I am confident in myself that it is not, and that I was making these arguments at the time, but I would utterly forgive scepticism on this point. However, things having happened as they did, and the Iraq war being a drain on resources having happened as it did, this must be part of any future consideration of conflict.
One thing to consider, when thinking about why the Labour Government, and Tony Blair in particular brought us in to this war, is what would have happened if Britain hadn’t joined in. I personally don’t believe that it would have stopped America going to war. I don’t think anyone could argue that would have been the case. They’d just have stopped eating English Muffins (what are these, crumpets? Muffins? Scones?) or renamed them “Freedom Muffins” It would have been a huge diplomatic incident, but it would not have stopped the war.
Here’s something I believe: Tony Blair thought (probably rightly) that the war would be better prosecuted if the American troops were softened by force with a better record of community engagement. I think Blair thought that the British army could soften the bullishness of the Americans and bring about a more liberal engagement strategy. Essentially, I believe – and always have – on Iraq, that Tony Blair did the wrong thing for good reasons.
Now I really wish I had posted this before the election, becuase this next paragraph is going to look like pure opportunism.
I would like to ask the Liberal Democrat who read this blog if they can now – after all that they’ve been through propping up the Tories in the belief that in doing so they softened them – understand a bit more of what Blair’s thinking process was. When people say that tuition fees could be your Iraq, we know people aren’t dying over tuition fees, and that as such it makes it on a superficial level an odd comparison. But here you have a leader, claiming to fervently believe in a policy that is tearing his party apart, the justification for which is that their involvement is what makes that a better policy than it would have been otherwise. I don’t ask you to forgive Blair for Iraq, but perhaps now you do have a greater understanding of why we ended up there – despite so many in the Party telling Blair how damaging it would be to us as a Party.
You see, I told you not all my reasons for not wanting to go to Iraq were noble. At least part of me didn’t want us to go because I knew that the decision to do so was already tearing the Party apart and that could only get worse the longer we were in conflict. So I believed that going to war in Iraq would damage the Labour Party, and our ability to govern and campaign effectively. This has – of course – been true, but basing decisions about going or not going to work on domestic political concerns – while a regular occurrence – is not exactly morally spotless.
So that’s why I went out on a freezing day in February 2003 to March with 2 million others who had come to the same conclusion through a variety of different routes.
The problem with doing so was that it put me down as a fellow traveller of some people for whom I have very little time. I don’t believe one should follow the old adage the enemy of my enemy is my friend (look how well that turned out with Osama Bin Laden for a start), and I am not happy to call the vast majority of what’s left of the Stop the War Coalition my friends. I have no time for George Galloway or the SWP, nor of the black and white way they tried to fight this argument. When I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 I was disgusted by the depiction of prewar Iraq as a sort of pre-Blue Meanies Pepperland. I felt it debased me and the complex nuances I was trying to argue. I know that as a result of being publicly anti-war, part of my choice was to be considered a fellow traveller of these people. I can only hope that those who get to know me know that I am not a Saddam apologist and never have been.
So where do we go from here? In many ways it’s almost a moot point. The failures in Afghanistan and Iraq have rendered the doctrine of liberal intervention if not dead then in for a very long period of hibernation. If another war comes it will likely only follow such an immense and clear act of aggression that few will be able to discount it (though some numpties will try) and the case for war will be far clearer. Labour need to reclaim a mantle of international law enforcement that we gained in Kosovo and had severely tarnished through our engagement with Guantanamo Bay and other failures. We need to have a stronger doctrine of saying no to our stronger allies where we feel it is important to do so. This need to be written into our understanding of foreign policy. We must have red lines here too.
So there you have it. One woman’s attempt to understand where we went wrong, explain her own position and examine where we go next. It’s not complete and I suspect no one will agree totally with my thinking or analysis but it’s the best I can get from the morass of thoughts that have been accumulating in my head on this issue for years.