Labour attempts to exorcise the ghosts of the Iraq war

Iraq Flag

Any incoming Labour government will have to lay to rest the ghosts of Iraq which have haunted the party’s foreign policy for more than a decade.

Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, will attempt to perform that exorcism in his first major foreign policy speech on Monday evening, with three intertwined messages.

The first message is: let the truth about the Iraq war finally come out – or whatever approximation of the truth the Chilcot report achieves – so to as to cleanse Labour’s self-inflicted wounds from the Tony Blair era. However painful the process, the party can only begin to heal its foreign policy divisions once that is done.

The second message is: we are not Blair. We will never take the nation so blithely into war again. The bar for foreign intervention will be set higher in terms of public legitimacy. Alexander does not spell out any institutional tests that would have to met before Britain took part in a future military mission such as in Iraq or Libya. Nor can he. In an age of deepening UN security council deadlock, any aspiring party of government which made foreign action dependent on a UN resolution would be tying its hands indefinitely.

For all the scarring left by Iraq, the Labour leadership still does not want to don that straitjacket, which is Alexander’s third point. Under Labour, Britain will turn the page on Iraq and Libya, not turn its back on the world. It is a neat formula but it leaves everything open to question on the very messy issue of humanitarian intervention. The Libya campaign started out looking like a clear-cut matter of stopping a mass slaughter, such as in Bosnia or Rwanda.

The chaos left in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s fall has muddied that initial clarity. But the plight of the Yazidis and Kurds in Iraq has shown that the dilemmas of deploying British military power abroad for essentially moral reasons will always confront western governments in an era of instant social media and viral videos. Alexander is signalling that when such choices have to be made in a future, a Labour government will not be paralysed by its past.

That is also a message intended to Washington, as is the tough language on Russia.

Labour’s traditional challenge in foreign policy used to be combating public perceptions that, once in government, it would weaken the “special relationship” with the US. Since Iraq and George W Bush, that is arguably less of an electoral liability.

Some in the US foreign policy and security establishment may distrust the party since Ed Miliband pulled the plug on air strikes against Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, in the parliamentary defeat of the Cameron government in August 2013. Others in Washington, almost certainly including Obama, look back on the vote with mixed feelings. An air campaign is very unlikely to have displaced Assad and the White House would undoubtedly have been blamed for the rise of the Islamic State brand of extremism.

Alexander and Labour can also argue that any lingering US unease from the Syria vote is more than outweighed by American enthusiasm for the party’s determinedly pro-European stand. Democrats and Republicans are deeply concerned at the possibility of a British exit. Whoever is in the White House after next year’s presidential election is likely to see America’s closest transatlantic ally as being less influential and less useful if it is outside the European Union.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Julian Borger, diplomatic editor, for The Guardian on Monday 2nd February 2015 10.00 Europe/London

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