At first glance the answer is very straight-forward: the Iraq War. And with the publication of the publication of the Chilcot report just around the corner, we can expect much of the blame will be laid at the feet of Tony Blair.
But I don’t expect all the time and money it has taken to compile the report, supposedly longer than all the Harry Potter books put together, to reveal anything particularly surprising. The motivations and stratagems which motivated the US to go to war in Iraq will be many and complex: looking to diversify their oil supply where they were over-reliant on Saudi Arabia, looking to bolster Israeli security in the face of an increasingly erratic and Islamist leaning Saddam regime, looking to encircle Iran, looking to shift the political organisation in the region away from militaristic strong men and towards systems of government more palatable to Western Audiences, and we can go on.
But the motivations for the UK to go into the war were very simple indeed: Britain went to war because the US went to war. Tony Blair has been one of the most ardent advocates of the special relationship in the post-war era. So much so that he had managed to build an incredibly close working relationship with George W Bush despite the fact that you would not expect them to have very much in common, either personally or politically.
Bush, Blair, Cheney and the rest are not solely responsible for where Iraq is today. They are not even, I would argue, chiefly responsibleAzeem Ibrahim
Nor is this foreign policy approach for the UK unreasonable. If the United States is, still to this day, the world’s policeman, the most internationalist position Britain can aspire to be is the Deputy Sheriff. Whether you agree Britain should play this kind of assertive role in the world or not, there is no denying that it is in this position that we have the most amount of international clout, and can exercise the most amount of influence over world events.
Of course, in retrospect, the Iraq war was a mistake. It was primarily the mistake of the Bush administration, both in the decision to prosecute this war and in the way they have gone about it. But let us not forget that Tony Blair’s government has been the chief enabler. And that it has played that role in a less than honest fashion. Whatever judgement comes out of the Chilcot Inquiry report, Tony Blair has earned the public hostility he gets these days.
But Bush, Blair, Cheney and the rest are not solely responsible for where Iraq is today. They are not even, I would argue, chiefly responsible. To be sure, the Saddam regime was not a good government. Not good for international stability, as Iranians and Kuwaitis can testify, but even less good for their own citizens – as the mass graves of Kurds can attest.
The Invasion of 2003 gave the Iraqis the opportunity to move away from government based on sectarianism and terror, and towards a government based on mutual respect and democratic negotiations between the country’s many diverse groups. They had the support of the US and Britain’s military, and of their investors, to rebuild a better country for all Iraqis.
But they have failed to take that chance in a spectacular fashion, as even Iraqi insiders who initially supported the Invasion have admitted: “Iraqi mistakes are orders of magnitude more important to what has gone wrong in Iraq than American mistakes.” Iraqis did not build political parties to take part in the democratic process based on shared visions for the future of Iraq, say based on left, right, or centrist political ideologies. Rather, they have created parties based on sectarian lines and narrow localised interests. And those parties have always looked to exclude competitors and assert their dominion over the institutions of state. Thus, the political system in Iraq was not an inclusive democracy: instead it was a sectarian exclusivist zero-sum competition for power and resources within the semblance of a parliamentary democratic system.
Fast forward ten years, and that has resulted in the de facto fragmentation of the country in the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish areas, the bitter war against the Sunni ISIS in the north-west, the atrocities on all sides of the conflict, the massive dislocation of people and the ongoing humanitarian crisis both in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria. Yet the problems of Iraq are not new ones, wrought by the American-led invasion. They are the old ones of a bitterly sectarian politics. The Invasion made a cold civil war into an overtly hot one. But the atrocities, the mass killings, the sectarian struggles had been going on long before, even when the country was nominally at peace. The problems, in other words, are not so much with what the Invasion changed – rather, they are with what has remained the same.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim