Gary Kent – Iraq and liberal interventionism

Liberal interventionism has been wounded – it arguably shot itself in the foot – but demands for it will recur on humanitarian grounds against genocide, dictatorship and disaster and as global politics becomes more local.

The Mesopotamian elephant in the room – Iraq – remains for many a four letter word eight years after the downfall of its monstrous dictatorship. The battle lines are frozen in acrid aspic and Tony Blair’s appeal to at least understand the dilemmas of 2001-3 has largely been ignored.

Liberal interventionism could have looked entirely different in Iraq without needless chaos in the first few months which separated triumph from bloody tragedy.

Much of the debate has been domestic – about Blair or Bush – with little regard for Iraqis whose views and experiences are poorly understood.

A previous generation of left-wingers had witnessed Saddam’s goons’ brutality in the student movement and the splendid Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq provided solidarity to his victims.

Many now seem oblivious to the obscene scale of Saddam’s brutality over several decades. About a million died in Saddam’s wars with Iran and Kuwait. UN sanctions, cynically twisted by Saddam, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Marsh Arabs were expelled and their historic homeland ravaged. The ‘Anfal’ genocide against the Kurds in the 1980s, including the use of chemical weapons, claimed nearly 200,000 lives. 250,000 members and relatives of members (to the third degree of kinship) of the Islamic Dawa Party were systematically slaughtered after a failed assassination attempt on Saddam. Such brutality helps explain why coups failed and probably would have continued to fail or sparked a bloodbath.

Iraqi Kurdistan

In Iraqi Kurdistan the intervention is widely seen as liberation. In January, I was told that “Tony Blair should come here and see that the war was not in vain and saved 30 million people in Iraq.” This comment was from Barham Salih. Exiled for years in the UK where he was a card-carrying Labour Party member, he became Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq and is now Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region.

Iraqi Kurdistan is much safer than the rest of Iraq, where over 100,000 people have died since 2003 compared to just over 100 martyrs in Kurdistan. They have a growing democracy with contested elections, an Opposition, many independent media outlets plus freedom of organisation and assembly. They are a ‘young democracy’ and their politics has been warped by decades of conflict with Saddam and their own civil war in the 1990s.

Part of the reason for the overall success story of Iraqi Kurdistan is simply that they have been freer for longer. They rose up against Saddam in 1991 and forced his army out although it remained a menace across the border. The no fly zone patrolled by US, UK and French planes held it at bay. The Kurds used the time to establish a Parliament and new universities. They were dirt-poor, doubly penalised by UN and Saddam’s sanctions.

A detailed opinion poll in December 2010 revealed that most Kurds think their economic situation has improved and expect it to continue. The top three problems were identified as unemployment, corruption and poor services. Around 90 per cent cited corruption but only about 8 per cent say they have directly experienced it. Security came well down the list of problems.

However, economic and political discontents have emerged particularly in its second city, Suleimani, where people were sadly killed and wounded in tragic incidents in February. Reform and the ballot box should tackle political and economic grievances and demonstrate the resilience of Iraqi Kurdistan. Faster progress is needed.

Relations with their neighbours have been awful but are changing rapidly for the better, although Iran remains a wild card. Dreadful relations with Turkey have turned for the better with the Turkish PM recently helping open the Kurdistan Region’s swish new airport.

The Kurds brokered the agreement that formed a coalition government in Baghdad after months of haggling. They all need to make the federal model agreed in the referendum of 2005 work. They have shown great generosity in welcoming Christians from the rest of Iraq where they have been slaughtered and persecuted by Al Qaeda.

The Kurdistan Region could be the gateway to and a model for the rest of Iraq, although the country’s fledgling federal democracy is fragile, not least as the deadline for the withdrawal of US troops looms at the end of this year.

What is to be done?

The British are very popular and the Kurds in particular are seeking to substantially increase commercial, cultural and political links with us. During the first Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ) visit in 2006, as guests of the unions, a Communist leader told us, in terms, that they lacked a bourgeoisie but asked if they could borrow ours. A labour movement without a growing economy cannot secure social justice.

The British government should build on the widespread respect for the UK and encourage a massive increase in trade with and investment in Iraq, as well as cultural connections. Realistically, this will begin with the Kurdistan Region.

One practical issue is making it far easier to access visas from within Iraq rather than a third country so they can more easily consolidate commercial relations or even invest here. Iraq needs a vibrant business and professional sector.

The UK should accept more graduate and postgraduate students from Iraq, whose government is prepared to fund them. Alumni usually return home with favourable impressions and this further drives mutually beneficial links.

Commerce is necessary but not sufficient. It is not just about us capturing markets but about increasing in-country capacity. Iraq’s political class needs to be nurtured as does the private sector to balance state power. Independent politics and thought had been squashed for decades by Saddam’s regime which was famously described as the Republic of Fear. Its vast network of informers and brutal repression made openly exploring different political and policy options impossible and perilous.

Political skills take time to mature but MPs, activists and think-tanks should visit Kurdistan to impart lessons from here and learn from them as part of a long-term political relationship. Last year, I helped give seminars about our political system to over half of Kurdistan’s MPs who enthusiastically participated. We need more such exchanges including with local and regional representatives.

Unions should also be supported as our natural allies there. They have the capacity to unify working people across sectarian lines, help build secular politics and encourage female emancipation. Twitter and Facebook were important in Egypt but followed years of hard and brave work by thousands of activists.

The TUC and various individual unions have provided inspiring moral and material support to Iraqi trade unions. For instance, the Fire Brigades Union drove a fire tender to Erbil, the Kurdish capital as a gift to its fire service. Unison has provided training. The TUC and many others are backing the international campaign for a new labour law.

Such work can increase the clout of the labour movement which was, in its heyday in the 1950s, the most powerful between Europe and Australia. Working people need protection as the Iraqi economy picks up and if it is to avoid emulating the opulent but soulless societies of the Gulf which have enormous disparities of wealth and large armies of exploited foreign labour. 

British citizens can help too by taking holidays in Kurdistan where facilities are fast improving and where there is a wealth of history, archaeology and scenery to enjoy.

Helping Iraqis change their country for the better is not just good for business but enhances the ability of actually existing Iraq, starting with its Kurdistan Region, to meet the demands of its people for democracy and economic comfort. This may be slow because various building blocks take time to embed. Similar lessons apply elsewhere.


We should understand how the Iraq decision was made and the process can be improved the next time, not least post-war planning whose failure allowed anti-democratic forces to foment a near-full civil war from which Iraq is slowly overcoming.

The Chilcot inquiry could encourage a sober examination of these but this seems unlikely given the experience of other inquiries. We should uphold the position which LFIQ and Jack Straw persuaded Labour to adopt in 2004 – that we acknowledge our strong differences but unite for the greater good of Iraq.

The party’s policy review should refashion a decent foreign and security policy and several Labour big-hitters have weighed in to rescue liberal interventionism. James Purnell argues that “foreign policy is about interests and compromises. There is, however, a huge difference between a foreign policy based on values, constrained by pragmatism, and one based on interests, sometimes not even constrained by principle.”

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy says: “You have a responsibility beyond your own borders” and “you invest in your armed forces to protect your national interest and sometimes that means your armed forces have to serve internationally.” Amen to all that.

We should review Blair’s 1999 Chicago principles and tackle the vexed question of the UN – its past failures and future potential as in its Responsibility to Protect position.

External military intervention should never be backed lightly because self-determination is sweeter and innocent people always suffer – the 9:1 ratio of military to civilian casualties was reversed in the last century. A pacifist position is purest but evades tough choices as does the notion that a country such as Britain carries so much historical baggage that it can never be progressive.

Intervention is a spectrum including boots on the ground as well as intermediate steps such as no fly zones. It is wise to avoid military force and have UN and other support whenever possible while democratic engagement may pre-empt intervention.

We can help by acting respectfully and without imposing models. Ed Miliband rightly argues that “soft power will often be a better way to achieve hard results” through economic aid, technical assistance and institution building. It is not always going to be enough, though.

Generals always fight the last war and we should avoid the mistake of not intervening on the basis of Iraq. We don’t want the bad old days of the last Conservative Government when Bosnia Herzegovina was left to burn. 

What has been called the soft bigotry of lowered expectations – that Arabs don’t do democracy – is being disproved, hopefully. The path of the Arab Spring is inspiring and uncertain but success could come to unlock the pent up human potential of societies which are near neighbours to Europe and to which we owe a great cultural debt.

Britain’s historical record, a mixture of the horrid and heroic, will help determine how we are seen and what we can do to consolidate democracy and civil society. We are generally viewed as friends in Iraq and it is likely that the Iranian people will be pro-western once their dictatorship is

overthrown. That is less true elsewhere and our imperialist record of using the Middle East as a huge petrol pump haunts us. We cannot evade our history but nor need we be trapped by it. We have a choice – we can retreat into our shell or we can, with humility and respect, employ our soft and sometimes hard power to help make the world a better place.

Getting our foreign and security policy right is made more urgent by a world whose surprising, courageous and potentially profound changes, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, illustrate the power of Karl Marx’s dictum that sometimes “all that is solid melts into air.” The world won’t stand still and Labour needs robust policies to be credible in opposition and, maybe sooner than we think, in government. Solidarity must remain our watchword.


Article image by James Gordon

One thought on “Gary Kent – Iraq and liberal interventionism

  1. There is, I think, a central problem with most of the debate about a progressive foreign policy that is exhibited in the analysis here, both by the author and by Purnell and Murphy. This is the deeply embedded but pernicious notion that ‘interests’ and ‘values’ are fundamentally distinct. There are several explanations for why people reach this dichotomy. These can range from the highly academic – neo-realist notions that interests are structurally determined by the fact of the anarchic structure of the international system and the distribution of power across states that are essentially ‘like units’ – to the crudely xenophobic – the job of government is to ensure that ‘our’ wellbeing and welfare is maximised without any consideration to the impact on ‘foreigners’ who have their own governments trying to do exactly the same job. Most, however, simple take it as read: this is the way we always talk about these things, so it must be right and to be taken seriously I will have to talk about it in this way.

    This is pernicious because it assumes the external determination of interests, whether through structural dynamics or through an assumption about the nature of government as a form of political activity, or through a lack of consideration of whether it could be any other way. However, interests are not exogenously determined. They are dynamic and a crucial part of that dynamic is social in the sense that what is seen as a socially acceptable means of pursuing interests at one time is not at another, or under different circumstances. It is less than 200 years since the UK government fought wars in China to guarantee market access for opium dealers. The trade in illegal narcotics is, on some estimates, the world’s second largest commodity trade after oil, yet nobody can believe that any UK government would see a viable revenue stream in such a trade today, no matter how austere the times and how pressing the need for income into Treasury coffers. This is not simply because of the coercive might other powers in the international system would bring to bear, but because it is totally objectionable. This is a classic instance of how a value judgement and a concept of interest are interdependent, and it is far from being an exception. Indeed, it is the norm – this is the way all interests are understood.

    Interests are about what we see as being desirable. National interests are no different, even if we are discussing what we see as desirable for a state, rather than individual or a community. We can desire to bring about a set of circumstances for a whole host of reasons, some of then venal (‘it’s all about oil, dumbo’), some of them virtuous (‘we want to liberate an oppressed people from murderous tyranny’). But what is important is that we can couch those desires along an ethical spectrum (from the venal to the virtuous) and political debate always does so. There are no ethically neutral positions offered in any of the discussions about national interests. The debates can be highly complex and reasonable people reasonably disagree about what ought to be done, but those debates always blend the material and the ethical because we cannot understand the concept of an interest otherwise. Interests are social products and as a social product they are also ethically laden.

    A progressive account of the national interest has, therefore, to escape this crude, inaccurate and misleading dichotomy. Having a political party in the UK prepared to challenge this and to advocate for a more subtle, sophisticated and, importantly, realistic understanding of the nature of the national interest would be a major step forward in enhancing the standard of political debate about foreign policy in the UK. Without it, the tired stalemate of opposing interests and values will ensure that the response to future crises, catastrophes and opportunities continues to be framed in a way that minimises the opportunity for the UK to play a positive role in international relations and leaves us chasing our tails about whether we should pursue our interests or our values when in fact we should, indeed we must, be pursuing both.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *