The 25th anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands affords us an opportunity to reflect on the parallels and differences between that war and Britain's present imbroglio in Iraq. There are some clear similarities between the conflicts. In both cases, Britain quickly achieved its primary military objective. Port Stanley was captured on 14 June. Baghdad fell only a month after the joint US and British invasion began. The casualty rates for British troops were higher in the Falklands campaign, but in both operations they were relatively low by historic standards. And in both instances, the BBC found itself under attack from the Government over its reporting.
But the differences are starker. Iraq was a war of choice. The drum beat for the invasion started almost two years before the tanks began to roll. The Falklands were, by contrast, an emergency provoked by Argentine aggression. Diplomacy failed in the Falklands crisis. But there was no suggestion that Britain was acting illegally in sending a taskforce to reclaim the islands. The United Nations Security Council demanded Argentine withdrawal. The same Council failed to sanction a new resolution authorising force in Iraq in 2003.
In the Falklands conflict there was a clear objective, namely, to rid the islands of the Argentine occupation. The goals over Iraq were dangerously vague. Its justifications ranged from eradicating a direct threat to Britain in Saddam Hussein to establishing a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Both missions were cloaked in the rhetoric of democracy and self-determination, but the realpolitik behind each was very different. The Falklands operation was a post-imperial spasm by Britain, which won the eventual support of the US. Iraq was a neoconservative fantasy, dreamed up in Washington, to which Britain, through our prime minister, decided to subscribe. And, of course, the outcomes could not be more different. The liberty of the Falklands and its inhabitants was secured. Iraq, four years after the invasion, is a bloodbath. And British soldiers are still there.
The politics behind each mission has similarities and differences. In April 1982, parliament was recalled for a vigorous debate, full of moral gravity. There was a debate over Iraq, too. But, with a few honourable exceptions on the Labour ministerial benches, there was too little opposition to the invasion. Significantly, there was no real acknowledgement of the possibility that Britain would not "win". The British role in successful interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and the Gulf in the 1990s created an air of hubris. The situation in the early 1980s was different. There were serious doubts about Britain's capacity to reclaim the Falklands militarily.
The role of the intelligence community also seems different now. The intelligence was poor with respect to the Falklands, with the Argentinian invasion coming as a surprise. But in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the intelligence was not only poor but manipulated by the Government. The threat of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction over Iraq was grossly exaggerated.
We see different standards of political accountability now, too. The then Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, resigned even though the subsequent war was a success. Not one minister from this present government has resigned, though the invasion of Iraq has turned into a disaster. Lady Thatcher has admitted that her Government would have fallen if the taskforce had failed. Tony Blair's Iraq adventure has led to a sectarian catastrophe, but he defends his position by arguing that his intentions were good.
Thus, in a snapshot of two wars, we see the difference between two political eras. The comparison is by no means flattering to our own.Reuse content