Forgetting Iraq in the election

The playwright David Hare posed an important question to Neil Kinnock in G2 this week: how could he vote Labour after Iraq? Despite having an entire interview to give a clear answer, the former Labour leader ducked the question entirely by saying that "you can't be chained to past events over which you can now have even less control".

Iraq has become a toxic issue that is avoided at all costs by the two largest parties in their election campaigns. The Labour manifesto outlined that "there is no more important part of the world for global security than the Middle East", but the 76-page document only mentions Iraq once in passing, with reference to defence spending. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, bound to Iraq by their support for the war, didn't mention it once in their 131-page manifesto.

How should Iraq be fitted in to our political history? The decision to support the US invasion was one of the defining foreign policy decisions of the past decade. It has cost us over £8bn and the blood of more than 500 soldiers killed and injured. Yet its lessons appear to have been confined only to the obscurity of inquiry rooms and half-hearted attempts to arrest Tony Blair.

 

Britain shares responsibility for the situation in the "new" Iraq, so the issue cannot and should not be decoupled from the present and future of our politics.

In terms of relations with the new Iraq, people would be right to question what influence and capability we have on the situation on the ground. Despite being the number-two partner to the occupation, Britain's influence in Iraq waned almost immediately after it became clear that the Pentagon was running the show. Subsequently, the British decision to withdraw from Basra was criticised by "surge" architect General Jack Keane as leaving a city of "gangland warfare", while relations with prime minister Nouri al-Maliki deteriorated when the British were seen to be reluctant to support his "Charge of the Knights" operation in Basra.

Today, Britain has only a spartan presence in Iraq, helping to train the Iraqi navy in the Gulf. This, combined with the opaque and complex politics of the new Iraq, may lead some to argue that the British ability to make the weather in Iraq is at a post-invasion low.

Nevertheless, responsibility persists and nowhere does responsibility and capability meet a

s in the issue of addressing Iraq's continued refugee crisis.

According to the UNHCR in January this year, there are still more than 1.3 million Iraqi refugees living across the region, including some 747,910 in Syria and 500,000 in Jordan. Insight into their vulnerability is described by Debora Amos in her recent book, Eclipse of the Sunnis, including a detailed description of a typical night of an Iraqi refugee forced into prostitution in Damascus.

Across the Atlantic, President Barack Obama got "the politics of responsibility" right. During his election campaign he promised $2bn to expand services available to Iraqi refugees and in last August he appointed Samantha Power (who during the election campaign famously described Hilary Clinton as a monster) as senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, responsible for "co-ordinating the efforts of the many parts of the US government on Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)". However, delivering on this has been delayed somewhat, especially now that the American administration has postponed "until further notice" the appointment of Robert Ford as ambassador to Damascus, following recent information about trucks bearing advanced weaponry that passed from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Britain does have an ambassador in Damascus, yet sometimes appears to be heading in the opposite direction to that of the US. In October, the UNHCR expressed its concern over the British attempt to forcibly return 44 Iraqi men to Baghdad.

Here, responsibility towards Iraqi refugees clashes with the parties' policies towards immigration, an issue that both manifestos have plenty to say about – Labour promising that "there will be no unskilled immigration from outside the EU", while the Conservatives promise to "take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands".

So what hope for is there for a British foreign policy that is fair for all, or one where we're all in it together? To abandon those worst affected by a foreign policy failure is what the absence of Iraq from the party manifestos is committing ourselves towards.

 

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