The Iraq war of 2003 was a different matter altogether. In Tony Blair’s eyes, this was the epitome of moral foreign policy.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision to invade Iraq, Britain was deeply divided. That, in itself, is sufficient to condemn Blair. As with the Boer War, the country was uncomfortable with undertaking a war of aggression. There was no weak nation to protect, no unprovoked invasion reluctantly requiring the UK to step up to its international obligations. It was not only with hindsight that the justification for war – intelligence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction – was weak (in reality, it was non-existent); it was unconvincing at the time. Blair and Bush failed to gain United Nations backing for the war. They pressed ahead, determined that removing Saddam was justification enough.
Historians in the future will be truly baffled to understand the war – huge popular protest, particularly in Britain; the resolute opposition of allies like France. The pretext was that there were weapons of mass destruction. Evidence was presented to the United Nations yet was openly criticised as thin and of uncertain origin. There were UN inspectors in Iraq. They were not denied access so why on earth was an invasion necessary? The war only makes sense if the following is understood – the US remained emotionally distraught after 9/11; the conquering of Afghanistan was insufficient. America was still angry and needed to lash out. Saddam was a legitimate target as he was anti-American irrespective of the coherence of the pretext presented to the UN. Blair believed it was essential for Britain to support the United States in whatever they wanted to do and removing Saddam was the right thing to do even if the legalities were suspect.
Rather than extolling a moral foreign policy, the Iraq War of 2003 proved its fatal flaw – morality is in the eye of the beholder. In by-passing the UN, in failing to overwhelmingly persuade the country, its morality was as bankrupt as that of the Boer War and the “methods of barbarism” (concentration camps invented by us) that forced the Boers to yield.
No war should be fought without popular support being overwhelming. If the justification isn’t patently clear to a clear majority of the electorate, then it should not be pursued. As Neville Chamberlain, would have told him, you cannot get a war wrong.
In a bizarre way, we have acted more like Lord Palmerston, the long-serving Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister from the 1830s to his death in 1865, than Gladstone. To conduct a moral foreign policy without clear parameters is no different to Palmerston’s gunboat diplomacy – Britain knows best. When he blockaded Athens in 1850 in retaliation for the attack on Don Pacifico, born in Gibraltar and thus technically a British citizen, Palmerston famously declared he was defending British citizens as in the days of Rome – “civis romanus sum”. Blair would have perhaps rephrased it as “civis moralis sum”, but the principle is the same; acting as you see fit irrespective of whether you are enforcing or complying with international law.
Blair’s moral foreign policy commenced prior to 2001. The lines have been blurred since September 11th and understandably so. Al Qaeda fundamentally changed the rules. The enemy was no longer a nation state. They were harboured by the Taliban state of Afghanistan. Could the War on Terror still be fought by the international rule book? Was the state of Afghanistan directly to blame for 9/11? It was irrelevant, Afghanistan protected the terrorists and the United States was entitled to pursue and destroy its attackers. Self-defence does not require UN resolutions. They are a “nice-to-have”.
What went wrong was blending the justified blurring of notions of national sovereignty in pursuit of terrorists with the new trend of blurring notions of national sovereignty on grounds of morality. Iraq was not involved in 9/11, nor was actively supporting Al Qaeda. People saw through the pretext of weapons of mass destruction being developed by Saddam Hussein. The French refused to bow to the pressure to comply. Tony Blair, to the shock of many of his supporters, rather than reining in an understandably-embittered George W Bush, desperate to lash out at America’s enemies whether they were remotely involved in 9/11 or not, supported the President. In Blair’s worldview, removing Saddam Hussein was a moral imperative; the weapons of mass destruction provided the technical justification. In Bush’s worldview, September 11th was so heinous a crime that all America’s enemies were guilty and legitimate targets; the UN and the WMD were tedious requirements to calm world opinion.
Britain’s right to claim a moral authority in the world was fundamentally compromised in the Iraq War of 2003. There had been UN resolutions condemning Iraq and, on that basis, legality for the war was claimed. Yet there was specifically no resolution authorising the war – everyone knew that such a resolution would be rejected. There was no invitation from Iraq or fundamental national interests at stake. Arguably, for the first time since Suez, Britain was acting against international law.
In its clearest sense, a moral foreign policy means enforcing international law as defined by the United Nations and specified in its resolutions.
Morality is a double-edged sword. It is not too difficult to think of episodes where other nations would have considered our actions immoral. We would not have been comfortable with other nations judging us over the many painful years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Accepting a moral foreign policy means other nations can intervene in our affairs as much as we can intervene in theirs. Unless you are prepared to accept that United Nations troops should have been patrolling the streets of Belfast, you must accept that there are limits to a moral foreign policy. Would we be comfortable if Iran or China declared that they would pursue a moral foreign policy, guided by their values?
We intervened in Iraq when there were trumped up accusations of developing weapons of mass destruction. When Saddam used poison gas on the Kurds in the late 1980s, we did nothing.
The painful conclusion is that, unless there are the most extreme of circumstances, a nation is entitled to deal in its internal affairs as it sees fit.
The threat of another dose of ethnic cleansing by Serbia in Kosovo, prompted international military intervention in 1999. When Colonel Gaddafi threatened indiscriminate vengeance against the rebels in Benghazi, the international community sent in the warplanes. The rebels were not only safe, they were now protected in fighting back and overthrowing Gaddafi.
Blair is now honest that the motivation for the Iraq War was indeed regime change. In Libya, the initial justification of protecting civilians was soon brushed aside – of course, the best way to protect the innocent civilians of Libya was to remove Gaddafi and his evil dictatorship. There is nothing wrong in wanting to rid the world of evil dictators. There is everything wrong in not being honest about it. This is made worse by claiming you are doing something more noble. Our intervention turns out not to be humanitarian but political; not moral but cynical.