So Tony Blair, the great expert on geo-politics — and everything else — lets us into the secret of the Iraq dilemma. It wasn’t the fault of the West for intervening and toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003. Or as they say in the playground vernacular “It wasn’t me, Guv”. Oh no. But it was our fault in the end, says Tony — because we failed to intervene in Syria! If we’d spent British blood and Treasure in Homs and Hama, everything in Iraq would be tickety-boo today. Al Qaeda wouldn’t have got involved. The ISIS fighters/terrorists would not have come sweeping down from the North almost to the gates of Baghdad. The oil price wouldn’t be going up.
Aren’t you kicking yourself? If only we’d listened to Tony. He was right in 2003. He was right to go into Iraq. He was right in 2012 and 2013 when he called for intervention in Syria. If only we’d listened to the greatest statesman of the last thousand years, all would be well.
That, at least, seems to be Tony’s view, but it’s riddled with hind-sight and self-justification, and indeed I sense that it has attracted a fair degree of ridicule. Is Iraq better off with civil war and chaos, a haven for international terrorists and Jihadists, than it would have been under a brutal dictator who at least kept a lid on things (at a huge cost in human rights and individual suffering)? That’s perhaps a question for a university philosophy exam. But certainly the West is worse off, because Iraq now presents a greater threat to its neighbours, and to the World, than it did under Saddam.
As it happens, I do think that the West is partly to blame for the troubles in Africa and the Middle East. But I don’t necessarily point the finger at the Iraq invasion, and I certainly don’t believe that military action in Syria would have helped. Indeed in Syria as in Iraq, there is a debate to be had over which side, and which outcome, is worse.
Look at the map above. Look at those straight lines that border Syria. And Jordan. And Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Niger, Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Mali. And to an extent (with a few wobbles) Angola, South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Somalia. Compare this with Europe, where you’ll find very few straight lines.
The fact is that we’re dealing with boundaries set in the 19th Century, by colonial powers in the Chancelleries of Europe. Old men with rulers, drawing straight lines on a map, agreeing spheres of influence, and going off in good humour afterwards to celebrate their agreement with oysters and champagne. These African and Middle Eastern countries were created with a complete disregard of either topography or ethnicity. Mountains, rivers, watersheds, drainage basins? Never mind them. Ethnicity, history, culture, religion, identity, tribal loyalties? Never mind them either. These were boundaries for colonial powers, not for local people.
We withdrew the colonial power, but we expect the remaining “countries” to adopt Western Democracy within Western-designated boundaries. Then we’re surprised to find that we’ve created a permanent structural conflict situation. We’re upset when local people try to assert their own identities and loyalties. We demand that the integrity of (for example) Iraq should be respected. But do its boundaries have any integrity in the first place?
In my view we should not expend British blood and treasure to preserve inappropriate 19th century colonial constructs. The changes we see going on now have been inevitable for a long time, and I’m afraid they will not be carried through without serious unrest. But that does not mean that we can or should intervene, and very few of our interventions so far can be regarded as successful.
But there is a more general principle at work here, and one that has huge importance for the European debate. Political structures should reflect the identity and aspirations of the people concerned. As Enoch Powell once observed, democracy can only work where a people “share enough in common, in terms of history, culture, language and economic interests, that they are prepared to accept governance at each others’ hands”. That condition is not satisfied in Iraq. But neither is it satisfied in the EU. We can have a debate — indeed we are having a debate — about whether it can be satisfied in the UK, and in particular whether the Scots are prepared to accept governance from a UK parliament in Westminster (where the Scots, as it happens, have been over-represented in many respects). My view is that democracy can work effectively in the UK, but clearly cannot in the EU.
Cameron was right (for once) to assert that the proposed candidate for EU Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, has no democratic mandate. Even if he had been elected in some pan-European referendum, it would have no validity, because there is no common electorate, no demos. It would be a futile exercise in counting votes. Arithmetic, not democracy.
We can have a democratic Europe. But that can only be a Europe of independent, democratic nation-states, trading and cooperating together, because democracy only works in something resembling a nation-state. We need to dismantle the anti-democratic EU institutional structures before they create the kind of mayhem we’re seeing elsewhere in the world.