The "What if?" school of history seems to have run out of steam at the moment, after the briefest of flowerings over the past decade. The trouble was that it was always more of a tool for historians with strong political views (mostly right-wing), who saw in it a chance more to comment on the present than better to understand the past. In the interests of discrediting British membership of Europe, they asked what if we had never entered the First World War. In a resurgent sense of nationalism, they suggested that we could have kept the Empire if we had left Hitler alone.
Yet to ask what would have happened if our political leaders had acted differently in decisions that might have gone either way can at least illuminate the issues. Take the so-called "special relationship" with America which now completely dominates UK foreign policy. As the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and our own dear Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, traipsed around Blackburn and then shot off to Baghdad like inseparable twins, one couldn't help asking: "What if Britain had declined to accompany America in the invasion of Iraq?"
We could have acted otherwise. Harold Wilson refused to send troops to Vietnam on the grounds that his party would never wear it. Tony Blair could have refused Iraq on the grounds that we couldn't invade another country legally or politically without another UN resolution. Indeed Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, half expected us to withdraw at the last minute, and said so famously in public at the time.
Our refusal would not have made us popular in Washington, any more than Harold Wilson's refusal to send British troops to Vietnam. It would have embarrassed President Bush and left the British government looking weak. But then the US administration would have been primarily concerned that Britain did not lead the opposition to the war, which it wouldn't, not that it didn't participate. The refusal to join did Harold Wilson no harm in the long run, nor would it have done Tony Blair any great damage. Washington would still have needed friends, and Britain would have remained the most obvious one. Blair's expressed belief at the time that British reluctance to fight would have seriously damaged our standing with the Bush administration owed more to his own wish to be in the vanguard of the action than to a realistic assessment of the options.
The invasion would still have gone ahead without us. President Bush was set on it, and the US administration made it perfectly clear to British officials that our presence was useful but not essential. As for the fond belief, so beloved by the popular British press, that the British have somehow managed their bit of the occupation better than the Americans and thus saved a lot of trouble that would have otherwise occurred, there is really no evidence for this. The south of Iraq was always going to be easier to manage, being largely Shia, while the British tactic of largely leaving security up to the local militias would probably have been followed by the Americans if they had been in charge.
On the other side of the coin, it is almost impossible to think of anything we have gained out of going into Iraq which we would have lost if we had not. Our citizens were still rendered to Guantanamo Bay, our views on Middle East peace were never taken into account when President Bush declared his total support for Sharon, our position on Iran was still undermined by Washington's refusal to offer any direct concession to Tehran. When it has come to US military purchases or trade sanctions, environmental policy or aid, there is no point at which London can claim "we made the difference" or point to an American favour which has been directed towards us.
No, the real difference that a refusal to participate in the invasion would have made would not have been in our relations with Washington but in our status in Europe and the wider world. Declining to send our troops would have given us position in Europe and moral prestige in the Muslim world while still enabling us to claim a special friendship with the US. In a very practical sense, we could have acted as a bridge across the Atlantic and as a genuinely independent voice around the globe.
At no point does America need such a voice more than now. Although the presence of Condoleezza Rice at the State Department has changed the tone of Washington's policy, and put the State Department back in the driving seat of policy presentation, it has not changed policy itself. The US is mired in a deteriorating position in Iraq which its own public has ceased to believe in and its leaders have no real idea how to get out of. It has lost its control of events in the Middle East and Iran. It has become isolated from the rest of the world on the environment and become the victim of political developments in Latin America. The limits of its power are being seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. Never has the US had greater need of friends who can deliver allies and support.
Instead it has a British Foreign Secretary bouncing along as the teacher's pet of its Secretary of State and a Prime Minister who cannot, and will not, do anything that could in the minutest way be treated as a criticism of US policy. In agreeing to go to war, we betrayed not just our own principles, we failed America as a friend and as an ally.Reuse content