Voices: The Iraq war changed us – but not in ways we might have expected
The Iraq war has faded. Most people, if they think about it at all, think that “Blair lied” and that the war was terribly and obviously wrong; but it no longer carries as much emotional weight as it did.
As Janan Ganesh wrote in the Financial Times, it has not defined a generation in the way that Vietnam did. It has not left a cultural mark in film and music. Partly, that is because Vietnam was a conscript war in which tens of thousands of Americans died; but it scarred Europe too, when no European country took part.
As each cohort of students passes through the “Blair Years” course at King’s College London that I have helped teach since Tony Blair left office 16 years ago, their objections to the war become more formulaic. They are more interested in how Blair won elections than in why he fought a bad war.
Yet the war has left its mark. Obviously, it changed Iraq and left thousands dead in the sectarian strife that followed. No one can know what would have happened if Saddam Hussein had been left alone (although Bashar al-Assad’s civil war in Syria provides one analogy); but what did happen came about because of the US-led intervention.
But it also changed us in less obvious ways. By us I mean we British; I don’t think it had as much effect on Americans. Which is paradoxical, because the one point that I hope our students will retain from our classes – apart from the fact that Blair did not lie – is that the war was a US operation that was going ahead whatever the British parliament decided.
The British decision was whether or not to be part of military action that was happening anyway. There is a British-centrism about a lot of the 20th-anniversary comment. Yesterday, David Clark wrote an article headlined: “On this day 20 years ago, Robin Cook tried to stop the Iraq war.” He tried to stop Britain taking part in the war; he couldn’t have stopped the war itself.
Blair himself encouraged the impression that it was “his war”. Hence the identification of him with it, despite the decision to join the Americans being a collective one made by cabinet and parliament – albeit in defiance of public opinion, which is where its true weakness lay.
That gap between elite and public opinion is why the war had a lasting effect. The gap was filled with stories about deception and oil and deals signed in blood, all of which helped to undermine trust in politicians in Britain even further than it had already been weakened. It didn’t have the same effect in America, mainly I think because the country felt under direct attack on 9/11 in a way that we did not. For Americans, a pre-emptive strike against possible threats made more sense and meant that the war had more public support.
Iraq had more direct effects on our politics too. It helped to “delegitimise Blair and therefore Blairism within the Labour Party”, as one (Blairite) former special adviser said to me. It freed the party from thinking it had to compete with the Conservatives for swing voters – the Tories were more pro-war than Labour was: Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all supported military action (Johnson even criticised Blair for wasting time at the UN). That led to Ed Miliband as leader and, when that didn’t work, to the quasi-pacifism of Jeremy Corbyn.
I am not sure about the theory that if someone other than the Eurosceptic Corbyn had been Labour leader at the time of the EU referendum the result would have been different but, even so, the effect of Iraq on British politics has been significant.
That is why I think the most important lesson from the Iraq war is one that is hardly mentioned in the Chilcot report. It is one that Blair himself accepted a few years ago. He set out the case for military intervention in the Chicago speech at the time of Kosovo, when Nato’s campaign saved the Kosovars from murderous persecution by Slobodan Milosevic. “War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators,” he said. But it has to meet these tests, he said: we need to be sure of our case; military action must be a last resort; we should be prepared for the long term; and it should be in the national interest.
But there was another test that any war must meet, which is that it must be supported by the public at home. Or, as Blair put it in an interview with Steve Bloomfield, formerly of The Independent, in 2019: “It is difficult to do this if it’s going to be a long-term project, and your own country is divided about it.” Iraq never reliably met that test.