One of the Liberal Democrats often quoted achievements of the last few decades is being the only major party in British politics to directly stand up against the Iraq War. As such, a liberal party found itself at the head of what was a mass movement for the first time since the electoral decline of the original Liberal Party in the early 20th century. It was a heady moment for the Lib Dems, and it felt for a period like they were moving towards parity with the two major parties; one million more people voted Lib Dem in 2005 compared to 2001, almost certainly spearheaded by opposition to the Iraq conflict. But what they failed to recognise at the time, and are still coming to grips with as a party now, is that because different people who attached themselves to the Liberal Democrats as a result of the Iraq War were against the conflict for different reasons, the party’s way of thinking about foreign policy, and by extension their thought process about engagement with the world, has become muddled. This has extended beyond Lib Dem circles into cloudy thinking in small ‘l’ liberal circles across the party divide about the role of liberal interventionism.
Broadly speaking, in 2003 there were three distinct tranches of thought on why the Iraq War was something the UK should not have taken part in, a troika for the most part mutually exclusive. One was pacifism – the idea that war in every conceivable situation is unnecessary. Therefore by definition, marching into Iraq was automatically a bad idea, whatever the supposed justification. Another was nationalism – a view which holds that we should worry about British interests alone and be involved in the wider world only to the extent to which our most obvious and immediately apparent interests are at stake. The final reason was classical liberal doubt. This was the view that although Saddam was a brutal dictator, and if we could eliminate him and set up a liberal democracy in Iraq that was desirable, the situation on the ground was not favourable for achieving this end, not to mention the fact that several other key ingredients were missing in order to justify the invading of another country (as a for instance, and often cited within Lib Dem circles, the war’s legality was at the very least highly questionable). In this latter world view, interventionism is a tool to be used in the right set of circumstances, which we liberals judged, correctly I might add, Iraq did not fit.
Imagine a scene in which you happen to come upon a small child being physically beaten by an adult. The child is cowering and screaming for help. You do not know any of the details beyond that which you can perceive with your senses. To use this analogy in relation to the Iraq War, imagine Saddam’s regime is the adult perpetrator, the child is the Iraqi people and the west as the onlooker deciding what to do about it. The pacifist would say that although saving the child is desirable, to do so would involve physical violence, which must be refrained from at all costs. The nationalist would say that because he/she doesn’t know either of the participants or what the causes of the fight are, to become involved is folly; it has nothing to do with the onlooker and so he/she moves on. The liberal notices the child’s suffering and wants to help – but in examining the electric fence between him/her and the scene (not to mention the snipers hiding ineffectively in the trees) makes the painful decision that getting involved might do more harm than good.
I believe it is key to understanding what liberalism in the 21st century actually means to re-examine our approach to liberal interventionism and when military involvement in the world becomes necessary or at least desirable. The idea that intervening in the world is important has been a liberal tradition that all of the great liberal leaders, from Gladstone down to Ming Campbell, have deeply felt. Recall Paddy Ashdown’s impassioned plea for intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s for an example of this strain of thought from recent memory. Campbell’s opposition to the Iraq War was something he thought long and hard about, as someone who believes that it is our moral obligation to help in parts of the world where we can make a difference and help to end suffering if possible. In the end, Campbell decided not to back the Iraq incursion for the same reason that many liberal interventionists, including myself, did not: it was judged that such an action could do more harm than good. But it was not out of a conviction that military intervention is by definition always bad thing or that our national interests weren’t sufficiently threatened.
If one is an internationalist, and I see internationalism as an indispensible component of modern liberalism, it is difficult to come to the conclusion that never, ever intervening militarily in the world is ideologically coherent. To do so, one has to relinquish the notion that every life on Earth is of equal value for a start. If you allow non-liberal forces to impose their will on the world, the world becomes less liberal by definition. This is, ironically enough, understandably difficult for liberals to digest. We are people who want to see the world’s nations trade with one another, not attempt to militarily destroy each other. However, as we are now seeing with Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad, sometimes we come up against people who are not interested in peace or stability or even their own people’s wellbeing. If we wish to maintain liberal democracy, there come times when it has to be defended, literally so.
Mentioning Assad and Putin reminds us as well that this is not an arid or academic discussion. We may be called on as a nation to decide whether or not to militarily intervene in situations uncomfortably close to our own doorstep in the very near future. Again, due partly to unity of thought in liberal circles around opposition to Iraq, what the liberal response to such things should be is far from understood.
This problem came to a head during the debate over what to do about intervention in Syria in 2013. We had Nick Clegg at the head table, helping to decide what the government should do in the Middle East, but the remit he had from his party on the subject was not clear. Many Liberal Democrat members were instinctively against any intervention, comparing the events in Syria to those of more than a decade ago in Iraq. I would argue that apart from relative geography, the situation in 2003 with Iraq and the 2013 problem in Syria bore little relation to one another. In fact to see them in as similar a light as we often do strikes me as a form of inadvertent racism at worst, geographic laziness at best.
If we as liberals wish to reclaim our liberal interventionist tradition, the question then remains as to what the guidelines should be for when getting involved militarily is a good idea or a bad one. This is an incredibly complex question and needs serious thought. But there are blueprints out there. Oddly, the person who gave what remains an excellent itinerary of when liberal intervention should be used is Tony Blair himself. On the 24th April 1999, Blair gave a speech to the Economic Club in Chicago in which he outlined what he described as the “Doctrine for the International Community”, but became quickly known as the “Blair Doctrine”. In this speech, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom outlined what he felt were the rules of engagement in regards to liberal intervention. It essentially came down to five key questions: first, are we sure of our case? Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? Third, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? And finally, do we have national interests involved?
The first thing you may note is how arguably none of these questions could be answered with a “yes” in regards to the Iraq situation as it arose almost four years later. It is a shame that Tony Blair chose to ignore his own, excellent advice. Because I actually believe the Blair Doctrine is a very good starting point for trying to find our way back to a liberal means of devising foreign affairs policy, strange as it may seem. If one takes the Syria situation last year and puts it through the lenses of the Blair Doctrine, I think it looks a bit like this. We were sure of our case – there was never any doubt that Assad was the villain of the piece. All diplomatic avenues that were above board had been exhausted – Russia only wanted to carry on with the pretence of diplomacy for its own internal reasons. The military actions we could realistically have undertook had been explicitly identified in the form of the strikes on Syrian military bases. Whether we were prepared for the long term is an interesting question – but we are going to have to deal with the long term consequences if the war in Syria goes on for another decade anyhow. A current example being the spread of polio across many parts of the world where the disease had been eradicated. In terms of national interest, I would place the aforementioned possibility of a polio epidemic in that category. Diseases know no borders, and Britain is a very international place, with people from all corners of the globe coming in and out of the country.
Does this mean that by some objective standard we should have intervened in Syria? No, of course not. I am of the firm opinion that we should have, and that we will rue not having intervened in the years to come, but that is based on my gut instincts as much as any pulling through of a doctrine put forward by Tony Blair in 1999. I felt what was most unfair about the constant comparisons between the Iraq situation in 2003 and Syria in 2013 was that prior to the invasion of Iraq there was no war going on there at time. In Syria, there was a full on civil war raging that we were discussing intervening to bring an end to. I thought this an important distinction, and one I would put front and centre in any future discussion about liberal interventionist policy. I’d go as far as to add it as my “sixth question” in a revamped Blair Doctrine: is there currently a military conflict ongoing in the region in question?
If the answer was no, I would be very doubtful about intervention in such circumstances.
So in conclusion, perhaps one of the Iraq War’s worst sins may have been to have falsely demonstrated liberal interventionism to be wrong in and of itself, in all possible situations. One day, we’ll live in a world in which liberal interventionism is not necessary; one in which peace and rule of law flourishes everywhere. That day, sadly, has not yet arrived, and until then we must look to save the lives of those who would otherwise perish without our assistance.