Beware the ripple effect: We failed to deliver stability in Iraq. We must not fail again after Brexit

It was September 15, 2001, and the footings of the Twin Towers were still smouldering when President George W Bush met with his key advisors in the Laurel Lodge at Camp David to discuss how to react to the first foreign attack on US soil since Pearl Harbour.

According to Bush at War, the authorised account of the first 100 days after 9/11 by the Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, even at this early stage Donald Rumsfeld was actively pushing to attack Iraq because he was “deeply worried about the availability of good targets” in Afghanistan.

Colin Powell stamped on the idea, correctly warning his boss that he’d lose all his international allies if he struck out on a tangent in Iraq instead of focusing his firepower – political and military – on Afghanistan whose Taliban rulers were then harbouring Osama bin Laden.

As someone who reported from Baghdad in the summer of 2003, when it was already apparent that the post-war planning was criminally negligent to non-existent, that account makes depressingly clear that the Iraq war was pretty much pre-ordained.

Despite expert warnings about the geopolitical car crash it would set in train, despite fears of opening a sectarian Pandora’s Box in Iraq, despite the refusal of key Nato allies like France to take part and despite the cries of a million or more marching through Whitehall, the Bush administration was never going to resist the urge to scratch the Iraq itch, with or without Tony Blair.

The publication of the Chilcot report this week has indeed provided a moment of much-needed national catharsis about these mistakes, but the chorus of gleeful venting about Mr Blair risks obscuring the much more profound message Chilcot carries for our present, troubled times: think, be cool, do not over-react.

Because with hindsight we now see that the Bush administration’s fatal over-reaction in Iraq set in train nothing less than the fracturing of the global post-War order – triggering a decade-long slide towards what Ian Bremmer, the American political scientist, has dubbed a “G-Zero” world.

The ripple effect from the war in Iraq is still being felt today, including in last month’s Brexit vote. It was the sectarian whirlwind unleashed by the invasion of Iraq that sapped the fiscal firepower and political will needed for America to play its traditional role in upholding the Pax Americana.

The resulting Sunni insurgency became the seed-bed for an explosion in Islamic extremism, creating a military quagmire that saw Barack Obama elected on an anti-war platform.

His reluctance to engage in Syria in turn created the chaos that allowed al Qaeda in Iraq to be reborn as Islamic State.

The belief Blair lied to us over Iraq, and the Obama administration’s decision to allow a sectarian conflict to burn on in the Middle East, in turn created the two key accelerants – a migrant crisis and abiding distrust of the establishment – that fueled the populist politics that led (you guessed it) to Brexit.

This is not to simplistically blame Bush, Blair or anyone else for causing Brexit, but merely to observe that in times of intense crisis like 9/11 righteous over-reaction is a sure route to disaster.

The Brexit vote might not immediately feel like another 9/11, but if similarly mishandled it is another such moment whose downstream consequences have the very real possibility of further undermine a Western dominance that is already visibly fracturing.

As after 9/11, there are calls for calm from old heads who understand that a destructive EU-UK divorce would create to a weaker, more divided, more protectionist Europe that would not be in anyone’s interest – not for the UK, the USA, the EU or indeed the rest of the world.

Henry Kissinger writes eloquently of the need of a “common act of imagination by Europe and its Atlantic partners” that finds ways to keep the UK fully in the European picture in order to shore up Europe’s fading geostrategic relevance.

But there are many reasons to fear that such common sense will count for little in the current climate, where Europe actively blames Britain for an act of wanton political vandalism while the British electorate seethes at European finger-wagging.

That is likely only to get worse. Europe’s urge to punish the UK is underpinned by both economic incentive (every day now French minsters are gleefully measuring the drapes for British-based bankers) and a strategic imperative not to grant Britain favourable terms lest others are tempted to follow.

The results of a punitive deal will damage the UK for sure, but it will also mark a more protectionist direction of travel in a Europe desperately in need of reforms that end the stultifying rent-seeking and inefficiency that has underlies the continent’s economic morass.

And the deal is not just about trade. With Nato leaders meeting this Friday in Warsaw, Brexit now becomes the fulcrum that could either give fresh impetus to burgeoning EU-Nato co-operation – or not.

As Ian Bond at the Centre for European reform observes in a recent paper, depending on how governments react, Brexit could either deepen European resolve, or it could have the precise opposite effect, making Britain “more isolationist” and the EU “even less able to contribute to international security operations”.

There are clear choices to be made, but it will take immense statesmanship – and some humility from the British side – to arrive at a positive EU-UK settlement, resisting destructive populist demands while simultaneously acknowledging the validity of people’s current fears.

As after 9/11, the full price of failure could take years to emerge, but they will be immense for all that and – as Ian Bremmer recently observed – those costs will be levied at a time when the US-led Western alliance, weakened by both Iraq and the financial crisis, has never had less capacity to absorb the shock.

The author: Clémentine FORISSIER

Clémentine Forissier, a youthful journalist hailing from Brussels, has been making waves in the field of media. Despite her relatively young age, she has quickly risen to prominence as a prominent voice in Belgian journalism. Known for her fresh perspective and dynamic reporting, Clémentine has become a recognized figure in the Brussels media scene, offering insightful coverage of various topics.

Related posts

Leave a Comment