March 3, 2013 7:28 pm
Obsession with Security Council backing is misguided
In March 2003 the US and UK decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Much has happened since, most notably the wave of Arab spring revolutions that might eventually have cast him from power without intervention. But 10 years on, the US, Britain and the Middle East still live in the shadow of that fateful decision.
Two questions dominate. Was the invasion justified? And what have we learnt from it? The answer to the first is a resounding no. Saddam was a tyrant whose record in Kuwait and against the Kurds rightly worried the west. But the Bush administration’s attempt after 9/11 to link him with Osama bin Laden as part of some crude Muslim challenge to America was wrong.
The US and UK grossly exaggerated Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. War was waged on the premise that the west could bring instant democracy to the country. Above all, it embroiled the US and UK in an eight-year conflict that distracted attention from securing Afghanistan, which delayed and ultimately undermined progress there. The invasion was arguably the biggest diplomatic error of the post-second world war period.
As for the lessons, the US and UK have learnt and applied a key one – a wariness for the kind of “boots on the ground” intervention seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Libya, the west rightly restricted itself to an air and sea campaign that reduced civilian and Nato casualties. But more significantly, western governments now place greater emphasis on Middle Eastern and African involvement in regional intervention. In Mali, French forces are on the ground. But from the start France has stressed that Malian and African states have to bear responsibility for longer-term security.
Not all the lessons have been good ones, however. This new reticence to intervene has kept western powers from delivering crucial military aid to Syrian rebels in a conflict that has cost 70,000 lives. But at least it is right that the US is now leaning towards more direct support for non-jihadist fighters.
The Iraq invasion has also left its mark on western diplomacy. There is now an unofficial rule that military intervention requires UN Security Council backing. This is worrying. In 1999 Nato acted to get Serbia out of Kosovo without such support. Today that is lauded as a just war. The obsession with Security Council backing on every occasion should be reconsidered.
Finally, the Iraq adventure has left western publics too sceptical about intelligence suggesting pariah states might possess WMD. Since then, western agencies have regularly underestimated capabilities in Iran, North Korea and Syria – as evidenced by the sudden emergence of secret uranium enrichment plants in the first two of these countries, and by Syria’s nuclear reactor.
Exaggerating Saddam’s WMD potential in 2003 was a terrible mistake. But we should not assume the same exaggeration about Iran and North Korea. It might just be that the west is making exactly the opposite error.
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