The memories remain so fresh and so raw that it seems only yesterday that President George W Bush announced the start of hostilities against Iraq and Prime Minister Tony Blair defied some of the biggest popular protests this country had known to take Britain to war on US coat-tails. The early images – of the ruined presidential palace, of the toppled dictator’s statue, of the abject Saddam Hussein captured in his foxhole – have lost none of their potency. Nor have the phrases. “Stuff happens,” declared the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, of the looting of Iraq’s museums.
Yet the very mention of those names, those images and those phrases at once seems less like 10 years ago than ancient history. In so many ways, those were different times. And the misjudgements and the hubris, not to speak of the dubious legal advice, which led Britain to join the invasion of a sovereign state on a pretext that turned out to be utterly false, very soon added up to Britain’s biggest and most costly foreign policy mistake since the attack on Suez almost half a century before.
Indeed, 10 years on from “Shock and Awe”, the first massive US strikes on Baghdad, and 10 years on from the fumbled British landings at Basra, it could be argued that the Iraq war was at least as costly for Britain as Suez was. The 1956 debacle gained its landmark status as a national humiliation because it helped crush Britain’s inflated idea of its own imperial reach. By the time of Iraq, among the British public at least, there were few delusions of imperial grandeur left to be dispelled. The costs of the Iraq war lie elsewhere, as do the truths it brought home.
Joining the US invasion of Iraq cost Britain in the obvious ways of human casualties – 179 servicemen and women lost their lives – and money. A conservative estimate is that the war took just short of £10bn from the UK Exchequer. But more than 3,500 were wounded. Their care entails spending into the future, as will the mental illness suffered by many who saw combat.
Equally obvious costs include the neglect of the Afghan intervention and Britain’s view of itself as a first-ranking military power. The weaknesses of UK forces were cruelly exposed in Basra, where they forced an embarrassing exit. But the disparity in capability and equipment with US forces was glaring. Iraq has ended the notion that Britain can conduct wars simultaneously on two fronts. A small positive is that the experience of this war has convinced even a Conservative-led government that the UK must act – and plan – within its means.
Other costs are more insidious. One is the discrediting of Britain in the Arab world, which continues. Another is the diminution of trust between Britain and the US. The harm was reversed to an extent by the election of Barack Obama with his mandate for withdrawal. But any mention of intelligence-sharing now comes a cropper on the example of Iraq, where one national leader seemed to egg on another to destructive effect.
Trust in intelligence itself was also undermined. No UK government can now cite such information as a basis for military action without being ridiculed – and the distrust will last for at least a generation. Similar cynicism has stuck to politicians, and to political consensus. Only the Liberal Democrats – and a very few other MPs and elder statesmen – spoke against the war. As did The Independent, with a constancy and conviction that have been vindicated many times over.
The ease with which Mr Blair has been able to float away from his responsibility of 10 years ago and enrich himself, advising others, leaves a bitter taste. Even now, his conduct awaits its proper judgment. Successive inquiries have failed to get to the root of his historic misjudgements. And now Lord Chilcot’s four-year-old inquiry is mired in argument about the documents that we, the public, will be allowed to see. So much secrecy is unacceptable in a democracy. Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war was a thoroughly avoidable disaster which has eroded trust between politicians and public at home and undercut our standing abroad. It is nothing short of a scandal that we still have to find out exactly how and why it happened.