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Beyond Iraq: The future of military intervention

The Labour government’s decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 produced a trauma for both the country and the party. It played a central role in bringing Tony Blair’s premiership to an end, overshadowing his many...


The Labour government’s decision to take part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 produced a trauma for both the country and the party. It played a central role in bringing Tony Blair’s premiership to an end, overshadowing his many other achievements. The subsequent absence of the weapons of mass destruction, used as the main justification of the invasion, contributed to the wider erosion of public trust in government and politicians. The shadow of this policy failure also helped to explain why – 10 years later – Labour withheld support from the Conservative government’s proposal to launch limited air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.

Even if Saddam had still possessed some chemical weapons (as western intelligence agencies genuinely believed at the time), the intervention would have been misguided. Within months, it triggered widespread sectarian conflict, leading to millions of Iraqis fleeing their homes, and precipitating Sunni rebellions that proved to be fruitful recruiting grounds for Al Qaeda and, subsequently, for Isis. In contrast, the 2001 US intervention in Afghanistan (with UK support) had removed Al Qaeda’s main safe haven, led to a period of relative internal peace under a new government, and improved living conditions to such an extent that millions of Afghans returned to their homes from abroad.

Experience in both countries has also demonstrated the limits to how far outside powers can reshape other societies through a ‘comprehensive’ approach of state transformation, even when massive military and financial resources are applied to the effort. At times, intervening forces got the balance wrong between diplomatic, military and developmental interventions. Their lack of understanding of local history and political culture was often laughable, and the international effort helped to fuel an explosion in levels of local corruption. Even if all these problems had been addressed, however, it is doubtful whether western forces could have achieved the hubristic objectives which they had set themselves.

While these failures have been a graphic reminder of the limits of recent campaigns, however, they do not mean that military intervention, per se, has no value. Rather they show that success depends, most of all, on the ability of local actors – supported by key regional powers – to reach a sustainable political settlement. Thus the ability of the west to succeed in its campaign against Isis continues to be undermined by the reality that none of the other key external actors (Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), nor the governments of Syria and Iraq, are prepared to make the destruction of Isis their top priority. Even without recruiting at least some of these parties to its campaign, western military action is still contributing to worthwhile second-order objectives (for example, defending the Kurds against Isis in Iraq and Syria today). In the absence of being prepared to provide an occupation force, the western powers cannot achieve their primary objective – replacing Isis on the ground with a more moderate Sunni Arab alternative – without support from others.

The US and UK are right to reject the invasion option in the case of Syria. But they would be wrong to rule out ‘boots on the ground’ altogether. Capable ground forces can still have an important role to play where there is a sustainable political settlement that they can help police. UK forces can, for example, play a useful role in supporting UN peacekeeping forces in Africa. Over the coming period, American and European preparedness to contribute to peace enforcement could play a useful role in helping to guarantee a political settlement in Syria or Libya.

The auld alliance

The Iraq experience has also thrown light on the nature of the UK’s relationship with the US. This is sometimes wrongly characterised as being subordinate or even slavish in nature. In reality, this ‘special relationship’ is much more robust and dynamic than its critics claim. It has been the central feature of UK security policy for more than 70 years, not because of illusions or conspiracies, but because both states have similar fundamental security interests.

The UK’s strategic culture remains dominated by the lessons that it drew from fighting the second world war. When the country faced the prospect of possible extinction in the summer of 1940, all its major political parties joined forces to lead the struggle for national survival. In contrast to the experience of neighbouring countries, support for the armed forces is rooted in public appreciation of the central role that they played in preventing invasion at that time.

The history of the 1940s also showed how important the US was to European, and British, security. Without US intervention, Europe – and probably in time also the UK – would have fallen to Nazi or Soviet tyranny. Once victory was won, the UN was not an alternative to the special Anglo-American relationship for those who met for the first meeting of the UN in Westminster Central Hall in January 1946. Rather, close co-operation between the US and the UK was the key to the creation of the post-war liberal international order. It was the two western victor powers who led the way in creating the international institutions – the UN, the World Bank, what became the WTO, and NATO – that remain central to global and European international society to this day.

Within the broad convergence of interests between two states, however, there have often been issues – economic, social, environmental, ideological and political – where the two countries have taken different views, and where the US relationship has been a focus of controversy in the UK.

One of the most important areas of divergence, during the cold war, was in relation to US military interventions in (what was then often called) the third world. Despite its economic dependence on the US during a time of budget crisis, the Wilson government in the 1960’s refused repeated calls from President Johnson to send a token contingent of UK forces to Vietnam. Many Labour politicians were deeply opposed to the US’s cold war involvement in overthrowing democratically elected leaders, most notoriously in Iran (1953) and Chile (1973).

When Labour returned to power in 1997, it appeared that the wounds from this period had healed. In opposition, Labour leaders had been vocal in their criticism of the failure to intervene more decisively in Bosnia and Rwanda. When they subsequently entered government, Robin Cook and Tony Blair were united in their commitment to use British armed forces as a ‘force for good’ in preventing massive human rights abuses and defending democracy. Blair was at the forefront of European efforts to persuade a reluctant President Clinton to threaten the use of ground forces in order to force Serbia out of Kosovo. The new government also successfully used military force, or the threat of its use, to support humanitarian goals in Sierra Leone, Macedonia and East Timor. Not least, the Labour government was united in support of the US-led mission to overthrow the Taliban government in Afghanistan, after it refused to give up Osama bin Laden in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.

Yet President Bush’s subsequent determination to invade Iraq broke the consensus within the Blair cabinet, leading to resignations from Clare Short and then Robin Cook. Tony Blair believed that going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do, as much for humanitarian reasons as for WMD-related ones. But his closeness to President Bush through this crisis, and his close association with the US-led ‘war on terror’ was too much for many party members and MPs. As the situation on the ground in Iraq worsened, party and public support for the war eroded further.

Policing the rules

The Labour party and the British left has always had a strong internationalist tradition, with a particular focus on the central role of the UN and other global institutions, support for strong action against human rights abuses and a consistent commitment to high levels of aid spending.

Yet the post-1945 rules-based international order is not automatically self-preserving. The destructive forces of the past could reassert themselves, whether in the form of civil wars within weak states, a revival of aggressive militarism, or the failure of European co-operation when faced by the political challenges posed by economic stagnation and the subsequent rise of extreme nationalism as a political force.

One does not need to buy into the narrative that we live in a uniquely dangerous period of history – we do not – to understand that the international order, in Europe and more broadly, needs to be nurtured and maintained. Most of that maintenance involves economic and political work, the hard graft involved in negotiations over trade, environmental regulation and new legal instruments. But sometimes – when there is no realistic alternative – hard security measures are needed. If the international system is to be maintained, the community of responsible states – both in Europe and more broadly – needs to be prepared to provide the hard security instruments – the intelligence services, diplomats and armed forces – that are needed to reassure allies and deter potential foes, as well as to fight when necessary. The UK’s history, together with its role as the west’s second military power (and also the world’s second largest aid donor), gives it a particular importance in shaping European approaches to security and in the maintenance of global order. If the UK were now to walk away from international responsibilities, slashing its defence and aid budgets and refusing to take part in any military operations beyond purely national protection, it would leave other allies more dependent on the US. Given the unpredictability of US domestic politics, this would be most unwelcome to the UK’s allies, especially those in north-western Europe with whom it has particularly close relationships. It would also remove from the field a country that is better than most others in recognising the complementary roles of development resources and defence power in foreign policy.

The UK’s relative power has declined significantly since the glory days of empire. But it is much more secure than it was in the 1920s or 1930s. It no longer has to hold onto a worldwide empire, threatened by multiple rebellions and revisionist powers. All its neighbours are close allies and friends, as is the world’s single military superpower. Its economy derives considerable benefit from access to relatively open international markets and talent.

Not least, the UK is not alone. The strong European institutions created after 1945 – NATO and the European Union – continue to play a key role in supporting the international rules-based order. They create predictability and solidarity between European states, and have contributed to a significant denationalisation of security. While individual European states can achieve relatively little on their own in foreign policy, in combination they possess persuasive capabilities comparable to those of the US and China. While it is not always easy to achieve foreign policy consensus between the UK, France and Germany, they yield real international influence when they are able to do so, especially when they are able to bring the rest of the EU along with them. Good recent examples are recent negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme, which started with European outreach to Tehran, and the united European response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, where the UK played an important role in building support for EU sanctions.


An internationalist foreign policy has served the UK well since 1945. It needs to be adapted to cope with new threats and challenges, and to the opportunities created by the growing importance of rising powers in the international system. But the fundamentals of this ‘grand strategy’ – based on close institutionalised co-operation with both the US and our European neighbours – have proven the test of time.

In the aftermath of the worst economic recession since the 1940s, the temptations of a more inward-looking approach are strong in the UK, on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. It is a debate that will intensify as we approach the EU referendum, when the advocates of continuing membership will not find it straightforward to make the case for the compromises involved in co-operation when faced with the nationalist appeal of those who want the UK to leave. Yet, just as walking away from the EU would pose major – if extremely uncertain – risks to the UK’s security and prosperity, the abnegation of the UK’s role in international security could also have unpleasant consequences, unsettling European security at a moment when close co-operation is even more important.

It is right that today’s political leaders should examine past decisions – including the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – to understand how they may have contributed to theproblems that they face today. But the world does not allow politicians, at least if they aspire to national office, the luxury of rewinding the clock of history. Rather, the role of a responsible power, such as the UK, is to address the current problems that the international community confronts, and to see what it can do to help the collective effort to address them. There are not many international problems which the UK, acting on its own, can resolve. But it does have sufficient weight – not least as one of Europe’s leading defence and development powers – to shape international responses in a way that reflects the UK’s values and interests. When decisions are made on whether, and how, future interventions should take place, the world would still benefit from a strong and separate British voice.


Malcolm Chalmers

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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