Understanding Reality

ROSEMARY HOLLIS — The British experience in Iraq taught the UK about the region, and its place in Europe. Yet many leaders are not interested in learning any lessons. 

In 2009, The Telegraph reported that “British officials secretly discussed toppling Saddam Hussein two years before the Iraq War but rejected a policy of ‘regime change’ as illegal.” Why did the government change its view in 2003?

It is not that the British government changed its view on the legality of regime change. Rather, it argued that it was going to disarm the country. If challenged on the logical conclusion of the invasion, the answer was the toppling of the regime. But, because Blair’s cabinet launched the invasion under the premise of disarming Iraq, it avoided that question as much as possible.

Yet, a senior British Foreign Office lawyer — and for a time the Attorney General — did not believe that the country had the right under international law to invade, irrespective of whether the intention was to topple the regime or not. As a result of these differences, there were a couple of high level resignations from the Foreign Office and a few, but not very significant ones, from other branches of government.

In the interview with Sir Lawrence Freedman, he noted that “even for [Britons] who were not supportive of the war, it would have been difficult to simply stand aside while the Americans went ahead.” In the US, opposition to the war was marginalized by the Bush Administration. How was any dissent understood and manifest in British policy or decision-making processes in 2002-2003?

First about the point that it would have been very difficult for the British to stand aside. Inside Whitehall, the way that the officials handled the Iraqi situation was to say that the Americans are going to invade anyway, and by going with them, Britain might be able to make a measurable difference to the success and smoothness of the operation. As described to me by one Whitehall official, whereas before the Iraq invasion any policy discussion in the Foreign Office or Defense Ministry would have garnered a certain amount of humor, flexibility and contingency planning, the decision to be part of the Iraq invasion was made with a “heads down and get on with the job” mentality. There was very little sharing of perspectives inside government offices and a rather grim atmosphere. The sense that since the invasion was going to happen, it was better to be in the program than complaining from the sidelines, was most pronounced.

More publicly, one of the most common ways in which the government handled critics and opponents was to avoid confronting the issue at hand: The politics of invasion. In my experience being privy to high level policy and think tank discussions in the 1990s and early 2000s in the United States, issues that were examined there had to do with the day after an invasion. By contrast, in the UK, almost no politician or member of Parliament — outside closed government circles — wanted to discuss the day after. They said such a discussion would give the impression that the operation was going to happen, or that Britain was contemplating doing it. The line that these politicians wanted to keep publicly, they said, was that Saddam Hussein has the chance to stop the invasion by doing “the right thing” as demanded by the UN Security Council regarding weapons inspections. It was crucial to send the message that the invasion was inevitable, otherwise, they said, Saddam had no incentive to comply with international demands.

It was essentially a fiction that Saddam could prevent the invasion by “doing the right thing,” as UK leaders put it, but that was the line they took.

The other two ways in which politicians countered opponents were to accuse them of being anti-American or of being soft on Saddam — of tolerating his abuses — or both.

The British have a long heritage in Iraq, particularly in the South and Basra, where in 1917 Lord Cuzon established a British administration. On the eve of the 2003 invasion, many analysts compared the 1917 experience with the unfolding invasion, especially as Britain would undertake operations in the South yet again. Did British leaders in 2003 understand their role in the Iraqi War through this historical lens? 

Essentially the Blair government did not ‘do’ history. It came into power saying that Britain was ‘a young country’ and that the past (including the imperial era) was so ‘over’ that it need not be revisited in any sense. The focus was all on the future, and the sentiment that Britons were living in a brave new world. There was no inclination to learn from history whatsoever during the run-up to the invasion. Moreover, there was a desire to say that Britain in the twenty-first century was nothing like Britain in the past, that it was not imperialistic anymore.

However, there was an expectation in the Arab World that Britain, because it did something similar before, must know the region and have learned lessons from their experience there in the twentieth century. Yet if the UK had indeed learned any lessons, Blair certainly did not consider them of current value. There is a wonderful quote by a historian of British involvement in the Middle East, who said that the “occupied always remember the past longer than the occupier.”

In any case, the way the British conducted themselves in Basra was initially effective, but ultimately prone to failure. British commanders took credit in the beginning for a much more sophisticated counterinsurgency style in urban environments than that of the US, which the Brits had been learned in Northern Ireland and refined in Bosnia; it had nothing to do with previous experience in the Middle East. Over time, the British lost control in Basra because they had nowhere near enough manpower and the Americans, who had learned better tactics by then, had to rescue the Brits.

Were the British prepared to invade Iraq, or did the rush to follow the Americans preclude adequate preparations for such an operation?

First, the pretense that there would be no invasion unless Saddam Hussein failed to comply with international demands, and dispute over whether he had indeed failed to comply, meant the decision was postponed to the last minute. This situation meant that the British did not want to be seen as planning for such an operation; preparations were hampered because, according to the rhetoric, they were not supposed to be happening at all.

Second, it was anticipated that the British would enter Iraq from the North, through Turkey. It was a surprise relatively late in the planning stage that the Turks refused permission for a northern front to the invasion plan, which forced US and UK leaders to revise their plans and enter through Kuwait. It was never the intention that all coalition forces would go into Iraq on the ground from the South, but rather that there would be two fronts.

It can perhaps be said that following the 2003 invasion, Europe gained where the US and UK lost, in terms of international credibility, especially in the Middle East. Yet, for noninvolved nations, did the decision to abstain from invasion lead to any adverse ramifications in the short or long term?

The problem for Europe was that because only some Europeans were against the invasion; there has not been a net benefit for the EU in the Middle East. This reality became apparent when Europe pursued its own reform agenda in the Arab countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, called the Neighborhood Policy, as of 2004. This policy was introduced in reaction to the American announcement of reform initiative for the Greater Middle East at the G8 summit of 2004.

The history shows that the Americans invaded Iraq because they wanted to topple Saddam Hussein: He was antithetical to US interests in the region and he represented unfinished business, among other factors. Washington spun this justification as bringing democracy, and wrapped it into a program for capitalizing on Iraq’s regime change to bring change to all the other regimes in the region. By contrast, the Europeans had had a program to bring progressive change since 1995, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Program, which was designed to promote political reform, accountability, transparency, end corruption, and promote human rights in all the Arab states around the Mediterranean. This program  made a certain amount of progress on the economic front, but not on the security, political reform, or human rights fronts.

The Europeans were taken aback when the Americans announced their grand plan for region-wide regime change, and scrambled to update their own initiative in response.  There was much more money in the European reform plan than there was in the American one, but the Americans got much more attention. The European plan, to this day, is regarded relatively negatively by the Arab regimes that are now falling. It was seen as another version of the pseudo-imperialism that they felt the Americans were doing. Because of this complex background and linkages between European actors, the Europeans failed to reap any rewards for their reticence over the US-led invasion.

In the month after the 9/11 attacks, Foreign Affairs published an article that described the Middle East as full of monsters about which the West knew very little. Twelve years later, after Afghanistan and Iraq, are western leaders closer to understanding the region into which they have thrust themselves headfirst? 

Some of the military personnel and civilians who have served in Iraq know a great deal that they did not know before. Tony Blair, in terms of his environment in the Arab-Israeli conflict, claims publicly to have learned many things which he wishes he had known while Prime Minister. This learning curve, however, applies only to those who have had firsthand experience. It does not apply to leaders in general. Power politics in state capitals works very differently from the realties on-the-ground in war-torn Iraq. To get elected, to get to the top of politics in a country, learning lessons about the Middle East, understanding how the region works, is irrelevant. The one lesson to which they are paying attention is the one saying not to go into Syria.

Politicians make most of their decisions based on their career prospects in their home countries, and in the western context, not in terms of their effectiveness on the ground. These leaders will survive failures in Afghanistan and repercussions in Iraq. But it is very frustrating for people who study the region that leaders are not interested in understanding the reality.


ROSEMARY HOLLIS is Professor of Middle East Policy Studies and Director of the Olive Tree Scholarship Program at City University London. She has previously served as Director of Research and Head of the Middle East Program at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) for three years.

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