Ed Miliband: too light on Iraq

UK Labour leader Ed Miliband drew a political line under Iraq in his conference speech. But a future statesman needs to answer the dilemmas posed by liberal interventionism with more thoughtfulness
John Lloyd
1 October 2010

The few lines with which Ed Miliband, the new Labour leader, dismissed the war in Iraq is a bad sign for his leadership. Unless he realizes why – and applies the lesson across the board, to other policy areas and decisions which he must take – he will be a lame leader, and the Party will suffer. You do not repudiate the past by playing to the gallery’s easy opinions: a past (and present) as complex, central to world security and as bloody as the last two decades (and more) in Iraq deserves more seriousness than that.

In the past few years, a view has settled across much of political Britain, not confined to the left, though dominant there. This is that in some form, the Blair leadership deceived the country to go to war: either by directly lying about the possession of WMD the Saddam regime, or by massaging unreliable evidence to point to the inevitability of its possession when no such certainty should have been entertained, and certainly not made into a cause of war: and thus (this is the most important, though usually unstated, part) the invasion was wholly unjustifiable, and had no grounding in reasonable calculation. Britain’s Prime Minister, it’s now widely believed, wanted to go to war in alliance with the US for a series of more or less discreditable reasons: to help prove that George Bush was decisive and aggressive in avenging 9/11; to show that he was a loyal, indeed slavish, ally; to help extend the imperial reach of the US; to appease the Jewish lobby by acting in defence of Israel; to get the oil…and so on.

This has meant that Iraq is discussed very largely in a way which confines it to moves and shifts within British domestic policy. Attention has been, since 2003, focused almost exclusively on the nature of the arguments Blair and his government used to go to war; the veracity or lack of it in speeches and documents; and the distance between private  conversations and public positions. None of these issues are negligible: on the contrary, they are important as objects of investigation and understanding. But they make little sense if they are not related to the past, present and likely future actions and strategies of the regime against which action was taken

In this, the left has gone through a curious inversion, as momentous as it is little noticed. It has labeled Tony Blair as a warmonger and deceiver for wishing to, and succeeding in being, part of a project which deposed Saddam Hussein – one of the more terrifying tyrants of the late 20th century, with his vast record of foreign aggression and domestic mass murder against which even the gruesomeness of Slobodan Milosevic paled. Here was a figure which a democratic left could be expected to wish removed from the scene: yet here was one whose intentions and activities have been presumed generally pacific – at least towards us in the West – while a Labour Prime Minister who, since the beginning of his premiership, pursued his downfall is mocked for mindless militancy, devious mendacity and a poodle-like fidelity to George W Bush.

There was a case against the war. Barrack Obama, when a little known senator, made it (quoted in an article by Anthony Barnett in the New Statesman of 8 September): the invasion, he said, would “fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, not the best, in the Arab world;  Al Qaeda would receive a large boost; Saddam posed little threat to the US; his economy and military were a shambles; he could be contained until “like all petty dictators, he falls into the dustbin of history”. Some of that is, indeed, what happened – flames were fanned, the worst were filled with a passionate intensity and Al Qaeda had a flood of recruits.

But its view that all petty dictators, undisturbed, will neatly fall into history’s dustbins is a pretty phrase disguising a hugely overoptimistic assumption. It depends what you mean by petty: Pinochet? Amin?  Pol Pot? Mengistu Haile Mariam? Omar Al Bashir? Mugabe? Some of these slaughtered millions: some merely a few thousand. Two – Mugabe and Al Bashir - remain un-dustbinned, and may have more mayhem to wreak.

And it depends what you mean by “until”. Most of these lasted long enough to pile up mounds of corpses in pursuit of proletarian or ethnic purity, or regime or personal security. That is, once the case for no action is spelled out – as Obama had the decency to do – it reveals itself as potentially as dangerous to the lives of others as action. It also contributes to the continued weakening of any resolve on the part of what’s called the “international community”: exactly what was happening in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as European leaders took the Obama view.

Ed Miliband, of course, did not go into any of this kind of detail. On Iraq, he said the following:

“I've got to be honest with you about the lessons of Iraq.
Iraq was an issue that divided our party and our country. Many sincerely believed that the world faced a real threat. I criticise nobody faced with making the toughest of decisions and I honour our troops who fought and died there. 
But I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that.
 Wrong because that war was not a last resort, because we did not build sufficient alliances and because we undermined the United Nations.
 America has drawn a line under Iraq and so must we”.

He did not say he was against all interventions: just this one. But by giving the impression – the wording was loose – that those who were “wrong” to go to war were also wrong about there being “a real threat”, he put himself in the camp of those who see the problem as being Bush/Blair, not Saddam.

It was this passage which caused David Miliband – according to the judgment of a lip reader employed by Channel 4 -  to chide deputy leader Harriet Harman for applauding, asking her why she approved a passage, having voted for an invasion. It was a good question. For the younger Miliband did not open up the issue of Iraq in order to examine it: he closed it down, approving the left line with a comment which meant, if anything, that those who saw Saddam’s posture, and by extension the possession, or wish to possess, a WMD arsenal by an aggressive dictator, were wrong to be concerned. Wrong – because Saddam didn’t have the weapons. End of story.

Here was an opportunity badly missed, the passage signalling political positioning rather than leadership, where the opportunity was to at least telegraph a few of the complexities which he, if and when a Labour Prime Minister, might have to deal. As the Israeli settler problem; or the Hamas rocket problem; or the increasing power of Hizbollah problem; or, dwarfing them all, the Iran nuclear weapons problem. These large issues of the future are what the politically engaged – as Labour Party delegates and members -  should be thinking through. Instead, the new leader gave them a pat judgement masquerading as a full stop.

No wonder David Miliband chose not to serve under his brother. To be sure, his stated reason – that the news media would ceaselessly seek divisions between the two brothers, coupled with a desire to see his young children grow up – is a reasonable position. But the casualness of his brother’s dismissal of the Iraqi issue must have played a part in his recoil from a cabinet post. If this were to be the approach taken by the Party leader to an area which a former Foreign Secretary knew something about, then so much the worse for Labour policy, and for Labour chances of future power.

Blair posed a question: it may have come from his reading of the Bible, but it remains alive in secular politics, above all in the politics of the left. A realist – Lord (Douglas) Hurd and his successor as Conservative Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, were the most prominent British practitioners of this position – would (and both of these, in different ways, did) say of Saddam Hussein: "not our business. Dreadful chap, but doesn’t trespass on our land."

Blair said: we can’t pass by on the other side – all the less, since the United Nations, created as a means of securing a peaceful order and which adopted a convention binding it to act against genocide, is being flouted. In his Chicago speech in 1999, he put this with some clarity, arguing that, under certain conditions, military intervention was necessary: one of these conditions was when a dictator oppressed his own people and threatened those around him.

This problem remains. It needs greater attention, a more far reaching debate, a more searching and serious examination of options than anything adumbrated in Ed Miliband’s conference speech. He should realise the hole he has left, and attempt to fill it.

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