Iraq: What should the West learn from its interventions?

In 1991 a largely neglected intervention in Iraq prevented genocide and boosted freedom. That year up to two million Iraqi Kurds had fled to the freezing mountains and their deaths and suffering filled our television screens. They understandably feared a repeat of Saddam Hussein’s genocide with chemical weapons in the late 1980s that resulted in 182,000 deaths, thousands of razed villages, and ruined agriculture.

Prime Minister John Major responded quickly to clear public concern, wide cross-party parliamentary advocacy, and Kurdistani lobbying to win rapid support for a novel initiative. The UN did not explicitly sanction the operation by a coalition of the willing – the UK, the USA, and France.

No one knew that the operation would last 12 years. But the creation of a safe haven and no-fly zone to rescue Iraqi Kurdistan in March/April 1991 was a repudiation of a genocidal dictator and humanitarian success.

Yet many activists know little or nothing about 1991. Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday, takes place on the day of the anti-war march in London in February 2003 and addressed this huge historical omission.

The central character, Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon who has treated tortured Iraqis and knows about “the massacres in the Kurdish north” asks his daughter: “Why is it among those two million idealists today I didn’t see one banner, one fist or voice raised against Saddam.” She replies, “He’s loathsome, it’s a given.” He retorts, “No, it’s not. It’s a forgotten.”

Iraqi Kurds praise Major and admire Tony Blair for the “liberation” of Iraq, which is formally celebrated annually. A common retort I have heard is that “they would say that, wouldn’t they.” And why not? We shouldn’t blithely dismiss the fact that a fifth of Iraqis faced an industrially organised genocide and minority rights are always a major criterion in judging a regime.

But for many Iraq only means 2003 and it has become an ossified four letter word that ignores historical context including Iraqi agency before and after the invasion.

I’m not seeking to relitigate the bitter arguments about the invasion as we approach the 20th anniversary of the 2003 invasion. No one needs to change sincerely held views but we can work together to support Iraqi democrats, civil society, and women’s groups. They often urge such support.

Iraq is a mixed bag. It is deeply dysfunctional and corrupt although no longer murderously marauding its neighborhood. Divisions on centralisation versus federalism and a bloated public sector, almost entirely dependent on oil, suffocate progress, as does Iranian influence. There have been peaceful transfers of power since 2003 although electoral turnout has dived below 50%. The agreed small non-combat presence of US, British and other troops helps uphold stability.

The solid consensus is that we shouldn’t repeat the 2003 exercise. President Biden’s 2022 National Security Strategy says America has “too often defaulted to military-centric policies underpinned by an unrealistic faith in force and regime change to deliver sustainable outcomes.”

Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy rightly argues that “We must confront our own historic mistakes but if we fail to see beyond them and falsely believe Western nations have nothing to contribute, we miss the value of making common cause for people fighting for democracy around the world.” The humanitarian intervention in 1991 is a good example of this.

Dr Harry Pitts and Professor Paul Thompson argue that “The response of the Stop-the-War left to each and every major conflict the world over typically represents little more than a nostalgia trip getting the band back together for one last riff on the Iraq years. But contemporary conflicts do not sit easily with the Iraq complex of the [hard] left.”

Non-intervention is not a permanent principle that leaves us powerless when acting is the right thing to do. Jeremy Corbyn recently demonstrated the vacuous weakness of the position. He told the Commons last year that “It is not good enough for us all just to go to Nowruz [Kurdish New Year] celebrations in March. We have to act all year round to ensure the Kurdish people get their place of safety.” But he opposed Kurdish pleas for limited and vital military support to successfully protect Iraqi Kurds from Isis between 2014 to 2017 and in Kobane in Kurdish Syria.

Anti-war leaders also offer bilious waffle on Ukraine. They ludicrously condemn the “rife” warmongering of the British Government whose “addiction” to war continually blocks a peaceful solution. These quaint claims of jingoism summon up the century old image of Lenin sweeping top-hatted fat cats off the planet.

The reality is that the West has thankfully united to defend a sovereign country against Russian imperialism. If anything, supporters of Ukraine worry about the stamina of the West.

Labour urgently needs much more clear-headed thinking on foreign policy. The world is in a dangerous flux as Russia and China and lesser powers such as Turkey and Iran seek to impose their priorities. The contest concerns the sustainability of social democracy and requires extra defence spending and co-ordination with allies, especially in Europe.

We cannot predict flashpoints, but there will be some. The International Crisis Group warns, in its top ten possible conflicts this year, that “…the West and Russia will likely remain a miscalculation away from confrontation” and “…it would be complacent to dismiss the unthinkable.”

Averting war and nuclear proliferation through diplomacy, de-escalation and solid deterrence are always essential but so is standing firm for humanitarian purposes when necessary and feasible as we saw in Iraq in 1991. We can disagree on Iraq in 2003 but shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.


This is the second in a series of columns covering Labour’s foreign policy challenges. The author, Gary Kent, studied International Relations, has been a Labour member since 1976 and has worked in Parliament since 1987 where he has focused on Anglo/Irish and Anglo/Kurdish relations. He writes in a personal capacity. 

If you enjoyed this piece, check out Gary’s previous piece Iran: Supporting civil rights in the context of imperial history.