The year 2013 will mark the 10th anniversary of one of the greatest failures of modern foreign policy: the Iraq war. One or two diehards still cling to the idea that the intervention was not as disastrous as portrayed, claiming that the removal of Saddam Hussein justified the mayhem and loss of life, but most sensible people take a different view.
So did George W Bush and Tony Blair get it so badly wrong in the principle or execution? It is important to revisit this question, not for a historical reckoning (the much delayed Chilcot report is supposed to do that), but as a reference point for future decisions on whether to intervene in extreme situations of human rights abuses.
The West appears to be closer now than at any stage to military action in Syria. After 21 months of fighting, opposition forces are encroaching on Damascus, taking a number of strategic towns along the way (although each claim of new territory should be assessed with caution). The more desperate President Bashar al-Assad becomes, the greater the attacks on civilians. The UN puts the death toll at more than 40,000, with atrocities committed by both sides. The weekend air strike on a bakery queue in Halfaya was but the latest horrific attack.
Amid the familiar sounds of “something must be done”, should the US and EU, pressed by Turkey and other regional players, seek more actively to hasten Assad’s demise? The opposition is already being heavily armed. The obstacles against going further, against using international military might, are immense. The Russians continue to provide considerable military and political support to the Syrian government, raising the dangerous prospect of a broader conflict if any Russian operative was killed inside the country.
At the UN, the Russians and Chinese will continue to block any initiative that damages their strategic ally or paves the way for a reassertion of what they see as Western expansionism. Both Moscow and Beijing felt they were duped by the Americans, British and French into limited intervention against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. The mission creep that led to and followed his removal was not, they insist, part of the script.
Domestically, there is little appetite – after all the years of Iraq and Afghanistan – for renewed conflict. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, the US public is reluctant to use force for political ends, but if Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, that view would change. Military cuts in the UK render future intervention (beyond selective air power and other logistic support) highly unlikely. The US retains overwhelming military might, but President Obama knows that, for the moment at least, the risks of action outweigh the frustration of inaction.
Each of these problems has a historical resonance in Iraq. Everyone remembers how Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were invoked as a spurious casus belli. Alongside the false prospectus for war in Iraq came the lack of preparation for the aftermath. The same applies to Syria. Beyond getting rid of a dictator (albeit a secular one), what would a post-Assad outcome look like? Would it involve greater internal stability and external security? Almost certainly not. The prospect of revenge attacks on Christians and Alawites (which are already taking place) is great. Avoiding a further conflagration will be extremely difficult.
The opposition is little more than a ragbag, for all the attempts to harness it, including the recent conference in Doha. On this score, the lessons not just of Iraq, but of Egypt, are in danger of not being learnt.
The West may not have actively worked towards the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, its old friend. But it did embrace some of the easy certitudes of the so-called “Arab spring”, failing to see that one of the early consequences of the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood might be a new constitution that takes the country back into an era of religion-based social conservatism. Nobody knows what combination of forces would come to power in Syria – or whether they would continue to battle it out for control of the country.
The cost of inaction
Yet walking on the other side, doing nothing, hiding behind the problems is also unsatisfactory. For every Iraq there is also a Rwanda and Bosnia. The lessons of the 1990s are just as pertinent as those of the 2000s.
So what are the options? If the Americans and Europeans were to recognise the opposition alliance as the legitimate Syrian government, they could legally provide it with military assistance, without the need for a UN resolution. Turkey and Qatar would provide the forward post for any no-fly zone or other specific military action. For the moment the best outcome is increased political engagement with the opposition forces, in the hope of shaping life after Assad.
Iraq has left policy-makers chastened and cautious. Both action and inaction pose terrible dangers. The one positive legacy of the shattering experience of a decade ago is that the bombast of old is nowhere to be seen.
John Kampfner is author of ‘Blair’s Wars’ and ‘Freedom For Sale’