How starting – and losing – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan helped create the conditions for Brexit

Anthony Barnett discusses one of the key arguments in his new book on Brexit and Trump, The Lure of Greatness.

Adam Ramsay Anthony Barnett
Adam Ramsay Anthony Barnett
20 September 2017

Adam Ramsay: You argue that one of the causes of Brexit (and Trump) was what you call four great breaches of trust. Two of those relate to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (with the other two relating to the financial crisis and response to it). The claim that Brexit and Trump are a response to the flatling of income, increased insecurity and ballooning of ultra-wealth since the financial crash of 2007-8 is familiar. But your first two ‘breaches’ less so. Can you describe them briefly? Is it really fair to argue that Britain and America lost the war in Iraq?

Anthony Barnett: Tony Blair’s aim was for him and Bush to be acclaimed as liberators by the people of Baghdad just as he was celebrated by Muslims as a liberator of Kosovo. To grasp how badly Washington and Whitehall have lost, therefore, you need only consider what it would be like had they won as intended. Victory would have meant that today a pro-American government, established after a short war and welcomed by the Iraqi people, would be the legitimate representative of a unified, peaceful Iraq, with large US bases astride its oil-fields. There would also be a stable Afghanistan. ISIS or Daesh would not exist. Trump’s complaint that America needs to start “winning again’ would be otiose. The British belief in their capacity to project world power as a satrap of Washington’s world order would have been confirmed. Their regimes would have ‘stood tall’ in terms of their own legitimacy, lauded by the media. Calls for Brexit would have been brushed aside.

In brief the four breaches of trust are that they lied, they lost, they screwed the economy and then cashed in. The latter two are familiar, if you will excuse my vulgar shorthand: the financial crash and the ballooning of asset wealth by the ultra-rich after 2008. Together they have broken the economy hegemony – in the sense of an untouchable right to rule, there being no alternative – of neoliberalism. But the first two undermined the military political hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon order that appeared unquestionable after the collapse of Communism in 1989. The combination was fatal to their overall, global power and internal, domestic assent.

Of the first two, that you are probing, the deceit undermined belief in the integrity of the system of government. But equally if not more important, losing militarily exposed the fundamental over-reach and catastrophic judgment of those whose claim to rule was that they are wise and the streets foolish and short term.

Let me add something about the wrongdoing that led to the war. Blair knew the immediate history here. Thatcher’s complacency permitted the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands in 1982 and she should have paid for it – but victory atoned her. The Kosovo war was illegal as it had no UN sanction but success made this irrelevant. Blair and Bush knew Saddam Hussein was not a military threat, that the claim about weapons of mass destruction was contrived and that he would be easily overthrown. It was an illegal act of aggression not a defensive war of necessity. They bet on a swift and complete political victory that would then vindicate their judgment. At which point all the fuss, as they saw it, about legality and truth would become mere dust, while they, as I quote from Blair’s memo to Bush, would create a single world order centered on Washington.

Instead, as the US army swept towards Baghdad, Paul Roger’s forecast in openDemocracy a thirty-year war not a three-month campaign. He has been proved right. Trillions have been spent, thousands have died and been wounded, there is no end in sight, while Iraq has a pro-Iranian government. This is no ordinary defeat. It means that the architects of the post 1989 order: the Clintons and Blairs especially, lost their claim on the loyalty of patriots.

As for the British Army, its assignments to pacify Basra in Iraq and then Helmand in Afghanistan led to its complete humiliation.

AR: If that's the case, why has almost no one said that before?

AB: In one sense I have written The Lure of Greatness to answer just this question! It is about busting denial. With respect to the UK and Brexit, both Leave and Remain share the same culture of denial in different, opposing forms. Which is why the clash between them seemed so weird and shallow. Nether wanted to address what was really at stake: are we a European country, or rather a union of European nations? Cameron was a Eurosceptic who wanted the UK to have the best of both worlds while loathing Europe. Johnson was even more Eurosceptic yet wanted the UK to have its cake and eat it while leaving the EU. What a choice! Neither for a moment wanted to see the British become Europeans in a political sense. This would mean having European style proportional representation and an institutional and constitutional revolution. Labour and Lib Dems too have gone along with parallel forms of denial if in their own ways. Only the Greens and the SNP think of themselves as also being part of the European polity, i.e. the real world.

How does this relate to the humiliations of military Blairism in Basra and Helmand? And why does no one talk about them? How can they! To confront defeat you need a framework. Has an empire been defeated, has the country been invaded, has a campaign been frustrated? None of this describes the situation. A pretension was exposed and then spun by media handlers, leaving an after-sense like the profound smell of something rotten, along with many dead – but not vast numbers.

Let me tell you an incident I recall vividly. Memory can deceive and I’ve searched for this online and not found it. But shortly before the invasion of Iraq as the US military build-up was reaching its mighty zenith, Blair was interviewed. I think on Newsnight. The interviewer was supportive and gave the prime minister plenty of time to make the case for war. Blair was at his most eloquent about the immediate threat to our entire way of life posed by Saddam and his Iraq regime. Carried away by his prime minister’s hypnotic conviction of the imminent danger we all faced, the interviewer responded with enthusiasm and said something like, ‘So we would have to invade Iraq even if America decides not to?’

There was a silence. Suddenly both the interviewer as well as Blair realised they were exposed and it was all hot air. The curtain had been drawn back to reveal the reality by an act of accidental enthusiasm. The entire performance by the two of them was a charade. Blair flannelled adroitly, the relieved interviewer moved on. The danger passed. But for a moment reality flashed out from the TV screen: the only decision the UK could take was whether-or-not to support America. 

This is the context. the long-distance projection of serious military power by the UK is part of a larger shared fantasy. Fantasies don’t get defeated. The media and political parties are unable to address Britain’s military defeats in the way you ask for, as this would mean confronting the fantasy and highlight the 'stories' of individual heroism, scandals and sacrifice. We should, instead, be addressing what kind of country we are and can be and facing up to the end of ‘Great Britain’. Hence my book.

AR: The number of Americans who have served in these wars – literally over a whole generation – is in the millions. You make this point in your chapter on the four breaches of trust. Mostly - in both Britain and America, these are the children of the communities which have suffered most from deindustrialisation. Yet there seem to be very few films or TV series about the Iraq and Afghan wars. In both the USA and the UK, there seems to have been very little cultural processing of these calamities, beyond attempts to wave the flag and rally around the returning troops. Would a more active attempt to tell the stories of the wars - as seen with Vietnam - have helped draw the poison out of the wound in our society?

AB: I belong to the Vietnam generation and the coverage of it did not draw out the poison. But you are right that something different is going on. First, it is important to register that Vietnamese resistance was a just cause – which is why they won. Saddam was a murderous dictator. The Taliban are obnoxious. Apocalyptic Islamic caliphatism is the abnegation of human and democratic rights. Although this does not vindicate wars of intervention, they are enemies of humanity. So how you tell the story of the conflict is more complicated. There is also an important difference between the US and the UK. Here we have never had a leader in power who has renounced the Iraq war. The US had Obama, who defeated Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2008 because he opposed Iraq as a “dumb war” months before it was launched and foresaw the dire consequences of the US intervention. He then oversaw a strategic retreat shielded by drone warfare to ensure there was no Vietnam-style rout. Again, this does not make for a clear-cut story. All the more reason to tell it, of course.  

AR: You talk in the book about various "pre-shocks" to Brexit. Should the parades at Wootton Basset and the vast (5 million people) turnout at the poppy installation at the Tower of London in 2014 "blood swept lands and seas of red" be added to this list?

AB: Yes for Wootton Basset, perhaps not for the Tower of London. For readers, especially round the world, who don't know what they are let me explain. As the dead from Afghanistan were flown back into the UK their coffins were driven to the receiving place through a small town in Wiltshire: Wootton Bassett. Spontaneously, the locals began to salute them as they passed through. The gesture grew into mass public routine, turning each journey into a semi-official funeral, with flags lowered and flowers thrown on the cars and public displays of grief that got increased media coverage. It was a form of protest: that military sacrifice should not be made in vain or without good cause. The authorities were quite concerned, they understood it was a rebuke and it showed them that there was no public support for escalation. Typically, they gave the town the accolade of Royal to show appreciation for its patriotism, and its name is now Royal Wootton Bassett as they shifted the destination of coffins to another airfield thus bringing the parades to an end. The reason why this was a form of pre-Brexit shock is that it was a demonstration of unofficial, spontaneous public self-belief. It was a reprimand to the order of the day. It was a sign of the distancing of a once loyal, people from the state. The Brexit vote was the greatest of these. 

The display of ceramic red poppies at the Tower of London goes back to the extraordinary losses of the First World War and a nostalgia for a deep past and a desire for a more coherent identity, by looking back to a period when we knew ourselves well enough to say, ‘Never Again’. The display was imaginative but also officially organised and never threatening. I think it was much more a celebration of old Blighty than a reprimand.

AR: If these wars were one cause of Brexit, then surely we have to look to the causes of the wars to understand it – namely, the interactions between the long shadow of the British empire and the chaotic end of the age of oil?

AB: I’m not convinced we have to go back to the 'causes of war' to understand this specific era of the human condition. Central to my argument is the concept of combined determination. That different kinds of causes came together with equally important influences. This can be so because the fate of the contemporary world is far more dependent on willed action than pre-industrial and early industrial societies.

I see broadly three sets of causes. First the failure of the neoliberal era both in its military-political manifestation we have just talked about and in its economic and financial one. Second, the specific character of the Anglo-Saxon states and their breakdowns. The US need not have gone into Iraq after 9/11 and would not have done had Al Gore been president as he should have been. But the Bush presidency was deeply rooted in the American post-war regime. As for the Brits, I show how the ending of the old unified constitution has unleashed a national question that the structures cannot manage. England without London then took its revenge in the form of Brexit. Third, in addition the Trump response and the Brexit outcome were the result of votes that could easily have gone the other way.

This latter point is very important to hold onto but not in the way the current Remain argument seems to be doing in the UK. This is in danger of becoming a form of self-satisfied glee at the disaster the Tories are making of Brexit. But that vote was an act of democracy which must be confronted, and can only be confronted by more and better democracy. This will have to mean a rejection of what went before – which led to Brexit. They cannot be – and, as important, we should not want there to be – a return to the status quo before Brexit and the regime of Cameron and Osborne privately advised by Mandelson and Blair. They, with their sly opportunism, were the authentic representatives of a deceitful and murderous era marked by its defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Please join Caroline Lucas MP, Suzanne Moore, Anthony Barnett and others to debate ‘Confronting Brexit and Trump’ at London's Emmanuel Centre, 31 Oct 2017 7.30 to 9.15. Tickets here.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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