Few recall that David Cameron led Britain into one war in Libya that overthrew Gaddafi, but was disastrous for most Libyans. Without this conflict, the drowned bodies of would-be emigrants to Europe would not be washing up in their hundreds on Libyan beaches. To get the full flavour of what went wrong, it is worth watching a YouTube clip of Cameron grandstanding on a balcony in Benghazi on 15 September 2011, as he lauds Libya’s new freedom. Then turn to almost any recent film of Benghazi or Tripoli showing militias battling in streets and buildings shattered by shellfire.
Another scene worth revisiting via YouTube is the House of Commons on 29 August 2013, when Cameron lost the vote which would have opened the door to British military intervention in Syria. Ostensibly this was in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in Damascus, but would have had an effect only if it had turned into a Libyan-type air campaign to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. There is every reason to believe that al-Qaeda-type movements would have filled the vacuum and Syria would have descended even deeper into anarchy.
What is striking here is not so much that Cameron never seemed to have much idea about what was going on in Libya or Syria as the degree to which his culpability has never been an issue. Contrast this with the way in which Tony Blair is still pilloried for the decisions he took over going to war in Iraq in 2003. Focus on the decisions taken in the lead-up to the invasion has become a national obsession in which Blair is a scapegoat, as if most of the British establishment and popular opinion did not support him at the time. Admittedly this support was partly the result of concocted evidence about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent WMD, but there is something absurd about the fact that it is almost impossible these days to meet a diplomat or a general who does not claim to have been deeply, if silently, opposed to the whole venture at the time.
A problem about this obsession with the events of 2002 and 2003 is that they have led to amnesia about what happened subsequently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the mourning for soldiers killed in these two wars treats them as if they were victims of a natural catastrophe rather casualties in conflicts which were the result of political decision-making. This is deeply convenient for the governments responsible since they don’t have to answer too many questions about their war aims and why they failed to achieve them.
The political and military failures were very great for Britain, even as a bit player in wars in which the main decisions on the Western side were taken in Washington. The British military failure may have been small scale, but it was worse than that of the Americans. The British Army moved into Basra and southern Iraq in 2003 with an inadequate number of troops and a lack of any appreciation of the strength of local opposition. I recall a former army intelligence officer saying to me: “The British boasted to the Americans about how they had fought successful guerrilla wars in Malaysia and Northern Ireland, but in both those places we were backed by the majority of the population. In Basra we had no allies.” The outcome was predictable enough. By 2005 the British were largely confined to Basra airport while Basra itself was ruled Shia militias.
It was at this very moment that the British Army, supported by Tony Blair and the government, decided that it might be better – and possibly safer – to show support for US foreign policy in Afghanistan rather than Iraq. Unfortunately, it was decided to demonstrate this solidarity in Helmand province, where the British military presence largely provoked a war with local Afghans in which 453 British military personnel were killed, 247 had limbs amputated and £40bn was spent to no particular end. It has always seemed to me that too much attention is given to the decision to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and not enough to who was responsible for subsequent policies in Iraq and Afghanistan that were based on self-serving fantasies and could only end in frustration and defeat.
British governments have got away with these self-inflicted disasters by not thinking about them very much and hoping that nobody else does. The bias against admitting that anything went wrong has even taken the extreme form of not analysing and learning lessons from past mistakes by closing down or marginalising research facilities. A curious feature of covering these wars in the Middle East since 9/11 is how many British journalists and how few diplomats and soldiers have covered these conflicts for 10 or 20 years. The failings of short-term deployment are well known but nothing much seems to be done. Well into the Iraq war a friend at the Foreign Office found that “my knowledge of Arabic and Farsi definitely held back my career as a diplomat”. Military officers leaving Helmand have similarly found that knowledge gained on the battlefield is at a discount.
The fact that Cameron suffered such little damage from his brushes with Middle East wars in Libya and Syria is indicative of a general sense that we are well out of it. True, British aircraft are carrying out strikes against Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq, but this is a largely symbolic involvement, as a glance at a list of airstrikes carried out by the RAF in March shows. The strikes are few in number and may involve eliminating a single bunker or vehicle. Given that Isis covers an area the size of Great Britain, this not an impressive record.
The Conservative government escapes blame for recent debacles in the Middle East because few in Britain want greater military involvement. But we cannot ignore the region because, while we may not go to the Middle East, the Middle East and its crises will come to us. The seven wars being fought in Muslim countries between Pakistan and north-east Nigeria are getting worse, not better. In all, seven al-Qaeda type movements are getting stronger. In Yemen last week, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized its own airport and most of a province. In Iraq and Syria, reports that Isis is getting weaker are wishful thinking as shown by its capture of most of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
Politicians may not talk about it, but these conflicts are bound to affect Britain because some jihadis will ask themselves why they should go all the way to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad when they can more easily do it at home. Attention-grabbing atrocities against targets such as Lee Rigby or Charlie Hebdo are impossible to foresee or to prevent, whatever the degree of domestic security.
The US and Europe may think they can safely retreat to the sidelines of wars in the Middle East that they have either provoked, prolonged or made no effort to stop, but they will inevitably find out that they are wrong.