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Labour hasn’t learned the right lessons from Iraq

The last of Britain’s troops left Iraq last Sunday with just a cursory mention in the press. What a contrast to eight years earlier, when they poured across the border with Kuwait in a hail of missiles, bombs and bullets, the international media following their every move.

It’s true that a national debate on Iraq has raged ever since it was clear that London and Washington were determined to take the country by force. But I still don’t think that Labour has learned the right lessons in its whole approach to foreign policy.

It’s worth noting the role that Labour members played in the struggle against this bloody and unjust war. Activists across the country marched against the war. Such was the strength of the mood in the party that 139 Labour MPs – in the face of huge pressure from the party leadership – voted against the war. British bombs only fell on Iraq on the back of Tory votes.

The war was a damning indictment of Labour’s Blairite faction. From the beginning they claimed to be moderates, pragmatists, those who resisted the supposed unbending extremism of left-wing ideologues. And yet they wholeheartedly backed a war initiated by the most right-wing US Presidency of modern times; a war that was in direct violation of international law – as former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan has pointed out.

The pretext for war – the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction – turned out to be entirely false. Although most of us have taken it for granted for a very long time, it has become increasingly clear that the government was always hell-bent on going to war, and assembled a case to justify it long before British troops were sent into battle.

We talk about the expenses scandal undermining the public’s faith in politicians, but we forget that the rot started because people felt they were lied to by their rulers in order to justify going to war. Even at the last election, some seven years after the war began, people still slammed their doors in my face over Iraq. According to one poll, almost four in ten Britons felt that their former Prime Minister should stand trial for war crimes – a truly stunning finding in a Western democracy.

It was a war that drowned Iraq in blood and chaos. A 2006 study by medical journal The Lancet suggested that over 650,000 Iraqis had died as a direct result of the war. There was much controversy over its findings, but there are few grubbier debates than counting body bags: it’s clear that hundreds of thousands have perished since 2003.

Iraq was turned into al-Qaeda’s playground, as the growing pool of aspiring jihadists descended on the traumatised nation. Around 5 million Iraqis were (to use a horrible euphemism) displaced. Former Blair political secretary John McTernan makes the startling claim that “There may be only one country in the world today where a majority – the vast majority – of the population still support the invasion of Iraq: but that country is Iraq itself.”Repeated surveys of Iraq show otherwise, and no wonder.

Although rebellions against the occupying armies were portrayed as a purely Sunni affair, there were repeated uprisings among the Shia majority – not least the Sadr army, whose political wing now finds itself in government. And if there has been any power that has done well out of the invasion, it’s the US’s old foe Iran, whose influence in the Middle East has expanded dramatically since the 2003 invasion.

One of the reasons that Ed Miliband’s victory in the Labour leadership was so important was that he disavowed the Iraq war. It was in contrast to his brother, who refused to properly repudiate his support for the illegal invasion. Given the role Iraq had in alienating so many natural Labour voters – and in boosting the Lib Dem vote at the general election – this was absolutely key. But Iraq is treated as a bad egg, an exception to the rule. Labour is far from questioning the general direction of Western foreign policy.

For example, Labour remains committed in its support for the war in Afghanistan. Yet polls show that this unwinnable war in support of Hamid Karzai’s corrupt, undemocratic regime is deeply unpopular. Above all, this is the case among Labour’s natural supporters. Opponents of Western wars are often portrayed as sandal-wearing middle-class liberals living in Islington. For example, former New Labour minister Kim Howells once responded to a question by anti-war MP Paul Flynn as follows: “It is not enough to assume that if people eat the right kind of muesli, go to first nights of Harold Pinter revivals and read the Independent occasionally, the drug barons of Afghanistan will go away. They will not.” He might have been surprised to read a Ipsos Mori poll that revealed that, while 52% of the top social category backed the war, just 31% of the bottom category did likewise, compared to 63% who opposed it.

Similarly, Labour uncritically backed the Libyan war – which continues to drag on without end – despite a whole host of good reasons for opposing it.

Although most activists accept that Iraq was a disaster, a genuine debate over foreign policy has yet to begin within Labour’s ranks. But we desperately need it. It’s not just the fact that the legacy of Blairism’s pro-war extremism continue to hang over the party. Unless we learn from Iraq, it is a catastrophe waiting to be repeated. Never again.

This article first appeared at LabourList

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