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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Britain must deal with the shadows of the Iraq war

Former prime minister Tony Blair cannot be blamed for everything that went wrong in Iraq, but part of the healing process within the UK must include full transparency into that crucial period in history, which cannot be swept under the rug

Former British prime minister Tony Blair led a study into terrorism. Reuters
Former British prime minister Tony Blair led a study into terrorism. Reuters

For years, different figures and groups in the international community – and within the United Kingdom in particular – have tried to launch court cases and other legal measures to hold Tony Blair to account for his role in the Iraq war of 2003. They have failed thus far, and this week's unsuccessful attempt was yet another example. Is it time to put the past behind us and focus efforts elsewhere?

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The year is 2017, and the Iraq war began fourteen years ago. Much has happened since then in Iraq, and the results have not been limited to that country. It is incorrect to blame every wrong thing in the Arab world – and in Iraq in particular – on the disaster that was the Iraq war. At the same time, however, it is dishonest and indescribably distorted to claim that the Iraq war did not play a massive role in the chaos that has unfolded and is continuing to unfold.

There are a number of problems at play in the contemporary Arab world. Two of the most prominent remain the effort to rebuild Iraq after the aftermath of the 2003 war and the continuing catastrophe that is Iraq. More generally an issue worldwide, both within the wider Arab world but also in various countries globally, is the rise of radical Islamist extremism. The rise of ISIL is only one manifestation of that, albeit one of the most dangerous. The continued attraction of Al Qaeda is yet another.

All of these issues are due to a plethora of factors. It would be false to claim the root of them all is the calamitous Iraq war – the roots are elsewhere and there are structural dynamics that predate the Iraq war. Social and economic inequalities play massive roles, as does the lack of successful political spaces where dissent and opposition can be expressed in a responsible manner. The ideological roots of radical Islamist extremism are not to disregarded – and they must be tackled thoroughly. The Iraq war, in that regard, ought not to be an excuse to ignore these tribulations.

But all too often, there are those who argue that because the problems are so complicated, we should, effectively, leave the Iraq War and Mr Blair’s role in it on the back-burner, indefinitely. To do so, however, would be a disservice – to the people of Iraq and to the people of the United Kingdom.

It ought to be clear by now that the decision to go to war was an incorrect one. It is not correct to say that thus, nothing should have been done in 2003. The people of Iraq were suffering under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and brutal sanctions that hurt them far more than they hurt the Baathist regime of the day. But the decision taken in 2003 was incorrect. Moreover, it was a decision taken under incorrect assumptions and poorly sourced information. Mr Blair bears responsibility for both decisions, as the then prime minister of the UK, as well as for the way the case was made to the British people. Far too many legitimate questions have been raised since 2003 about the latter – and those questions have yet to be properly addressed and answered.

The ramifications of how the case was made – and the final decision – still exist today. The consequences, first and foremost, were borne by the people of Iraq, but they were not the only ones. The people of Syria have suffered from the rise of ISIL, which is unthinkable in its current form without the role of former Baathists, as well as other Iraqis who were traumatised by the Iraq war. Extremism would exist irrespective of these factors – but the Iraq war aggravated its rise and gave recruiters a valuable tool. The public testimonies of extremists that have emerged since then are convincing evidence of that.

Extremism is a scourge that has affected several countries in Europe many times since 2003, and in the Arab region itself. There is one more issue as well, and that is the damage done to British democracy.

Far too many British citizens lost faith in the British political system following the Iraq war, convinced that they had been provided a false justification for war. Indeed, a convincing case can be made that the Iraq war facilitated the rise of populism, which has led to substantial damage to the UK. It will take many years before historians are able to fully analyse just how much, but the significance of the impact of that disillusionment is clear.

Mr Blair does not deserve blame for all of that – many figures and parties have responsibility that they should bear. Nevertheless, part of the healing process within the UK has to be full and complete transparency into that crucial period in its recent history. And that effort to shed light on precisely what happened should not swept under the rug at the altar of forging ahead.

There may come a time when the United Kingdom is called upon to live up to its own international responsibilities to take legally justifiable and ethically mandated military action. It won’t be able to so without thoroughly and conclusively expunging the shadow of the Iraq war and how the country was taken to war. How that is done can be open to discussion – but the question of whether or not we do so is not a subject for legitimate debate.

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