Scotland and Iraq
Ten years after Iraq, IAN SMART asks if an independent Scotland would have joined the ‘Coalition of the Willing’
Yesterday, at the instigation of the SNP, the Scottish Parliament held a debate on the Iraq War.
I understand the attraction of this as a purely political gesture as it exposes a continuing disagreement in the ranks of my own Party about that enterprise, although the contrast between the Nationalist gesture politics of today and their unwillingness to use the actual powers of the Scottish Parliament to tackle the bedroom tax last week was telling.
Still, gestures are not unimportant, I suppose. The year I went to University, my Comrades still enthused about how they had, the previous year, ceremonially voted to surrender the John McIntyre Building to the Viet Cong.
To the best of my knowledge, the heirs of Ho Chi Minh have never appeared to claim their prize and some sort of long negative prescription probably now applies.
Anyway, in the best traditions of student radicalism, at the end of the debate, they (the Scottish Parliament, not the Glasgow University Students Representative Council) passed a motion as follows:
That the Parliament acknowledges the civilian, military and economic cost of the Iraq war and its aftermath; pays tribute to the armed forces and remembers the almost 5,000 allied servicemen and women and estimated 120,000 Iraqi civilians who lost their lives; notes that, 10 years on from the invasion, questions remain unanswered about the UK Government’s decision to invade without a UN resolution, and believes that one of the key lessons of the Iraq war is the need for all nations, large and small, to conduct international affairs as cooperatively as possible according to international law and the authority of the United Nations and to act as good global citizens rather than engaging in reckless, illegal military conflicts with incalculable human and material costs.
Now, I was against the second Iraq War. I thought at the time, and I still do, that it was misconceived in its target and even then confused as to its objectives. I considered, correctly, that it would undermine the general world sympathy towards the west in the aftermath of 9/11 and would simply end up with one terrible set of affairs in Iraq being replaced with one different but no better. And, Kurdistan aside, at least for the moment, I defy anybody to argue with that not having been the outcome.
So I agree with the motion that the war was reckless and, for what its worth, since International Law is a pretty worthless commodity, I also believe it was illegal in international if not domestic law. Not however as clearly illegal in international law as was the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot, although I suspect nobody is calling for any prosecutions over that.
The point however is the extent that the debate was conducted from the principle that the war was the creature of the British Government and that a hypothetical Scottish Government would have had nothing to do with it.
The first thing to recognise is that the war was the creature of the (then) government of the United States. Nobody has ever suggested that, had the Americans not been interested, even setting aside military practicalities, Britain would still have attacked Iraq with whoever else would go along. Blair and some others might genuinely have thought Bush was actually right but the decisive bloc inside the Party was of those who thought the war was a mistake but, given the Americans would proceed nonetheless, that it was better to stand with them than to stand aside.
I wasn’t with that bloc. I’m of an age who can remember, just, Wilson refusing to support a much more sympathetic President than Bush over Vietnam. I don’t however doubt the integrity of those who, over Iraq, took an opposing view.
The thing that annoys me is the suggestion that it would all have had been different if Scotland had been independent. British refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq wouldn’t have stopped it, that was the argument of its reluctant supporters, but British refusal to co-operate would still have been important, that was the argument of us on the other side.
But where did the wee countries stand?
Well, among the “Coalition of the Willing” were: Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal; Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and numerous others. Did they all independently conclude that the war was a good idea or did they rather conclude that it was not something over which it was worth falling out with the Americans? I know my answer to that question.
So, it’s easy to declare, ten years on, that the war was reckless (and) illegal. But does anybody think the friends of Murdoch and Trump would have said as much at the time had they actually been a position where their stance was remotely important?
Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.