British Foreign Policy Since 1940 is As Much to Blame For Iraq As Tony Blair

What the Chilcot report got wrong was to declare the Iraq war as exceptional and place blame only on one man. Both Iraq and Blair are part of a historical pattern within an imperial world view.

British soldiers are seen in the Iraqi city of Basra in 2005. Credit: Reuters

British soldiers are seen in the Iraqi city of Basra in 2005. Credit: Reuters

The Chilcot report on the Iraq war has rightly criticised former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair for misrepresentations on a consistent basis. Blair exaggerated threat levels of non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, backed the US’s war plans regardless of diplomatic initiatives seeking peaceful outcomes and improperly equipped British troops once the occupation of Iraq began. This has led to the denunciation of the war as neo-colonial by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and renewed calls for Blair to be charged with war crimes or crimes against peace by others.

While Blair was pivotal in British decision-making that led to aggression against Iraq in 2003, he was hardly alone in promoting a close alliance with the US and the case for outright military intervention for regime change. Not only did the Tory opposition at that time support the war, Conservative leader David Cameron endorsed violent regime change. Indeed, apart from Robin Cook, who resigned as leader of the House of Commons in opposition to the ‘false prospectus’ on which the Labour government pinned its strategy, support for the war was strong throughout the political and state elite – military, intelligence and other. Besides, Iraq was hardly the first time Britain had hitched its war machine to the US.

The Anglo-American bond

Indeed, if we place Iraq in the sweep of post-1945 history, and in the context of a powerful British foreign policy establishment that sprang from the imperial era and became allied with US power elites after 1940, Blair appears as another example of the Conservative and Labour leaders’ attempts to hang on to global influence through a one-sided ‘special relationship’ with the US. Far from being exceptional, as Chilcot claims, the Iraq War stands in a long line of Anglo-American imperial violence in the global south in increasingly desperate bids to maintain Western supremacy. We need only to think of the Korean War, the Vietnam War (in which Labour leader Harold Wilson provided diplomatic and other support to the US), the first Gulf War and support for repressive regimes the world over, including the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and ensuing chaos in Libya since 2011, to see that the Iraq war and Blair are part of a broader pattern of Anglo-American military violence. Focusing on Blair alone obscures the bigger picture and makes impossible, by venting against one man alone, a truly illuminating understanding of British foreign policy.

“The UK’s commitment of resources – financial, military, diplomatic – in support of US global priorities remains unparalleled,” said a (Wiki)leaked US state department cable. Britain, it went on, is able and willing to fight wars in faraway lands alongside the US and mobilising allies. This makes Britain almost indispensable to the US. To former Conservative foreign secretary William Hague, the US was the “essential” nation to which Britain turned. The Anglo-Saxon powers had broadly shared interests in the global order, which, after all, they had constructed during and after the second world war – Bretton Woods, the UN, IMF, World Bank, Marshall Plan, NATO, among others. While these arrangements suited the West, global poverty in the third world continued apace.

The foundations of the post-1945 order were laid during the second world war. According to cabinet papers, the key decisions were made in 1944 over whether to pursue a pro-empire or pro-American foreign policy. Choosing the empire “will be regarded by the Americans as a Declaration of War…” at a time when the empire itself was disintegrating and its parts leaning towards the US. And the US would “certainly make economic war upon us. So much has been made clear to us. And the armoury of the United States is a very powerful one”. Britain signed up to the US-dominated Bretton Woods system because it seemed the best means to preserve its global influence as its imperial power waned.

This is why ‘socialist’ Labour leader Clement Attlee sent to Korea thousands of British servicemen despite the military chiefs of staff indicating that Korea was of little economic or strategic value to British interests. The war – waged under the banner of the fledgling UN – lasted three years and led to over 3 million Korean and Chinese deaths, tens of thousands of American and British fatalities. It ended in stalemate – a ceasefire remains in place today dividing the north from south. Attlee announced that Britain would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US – words Blair echoed in 2003; wherever the Stars and Stripes flew, the Union Jack would be alongside it. Thus we saw two imperial powers – one in denial about its decline, the other hubristic and inexperienced imperial masters of the universe – trying to force the world to maintain a ‘liberal order’ through unrestrained violence (featuring napalm and relentless aerial bombing of a rural country with rudimentary weapons) teaching the communists a lesson and repeating the same thing in Vietnam a few short years later.

Decades later, not much had changed. Concluding his unofficial enquiry into the first Gulf War, former US attorney general Ramsay Clark declared the Anglo-American bombing campaign as “the most sophisticated and violent air assault in history against a virtually defenceless people”.

Chilcot’s narrowness of vision is probably understandable – one could hardly expect it to look at a broader pattern of history or the place of Iraq in the world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But on that basis to declare the Iraq war exceptional and therefore no source of lessons for the future, and to focus so intently on the person of Blair, pivotal though he was, is a major flaw both practically and for our understanding of the dynamics of Anglo-American power. It renders Iraq unique and places blame on one man, when it is plain to see that Blair’s behaviour fits a long historical pattern within an imperial world view that continues to saturate the British foreign policy establishment.

 Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City University London.