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Jeremy Corbyn and Iraq – a meaningless apology?

August 21, 2015
Iraqi families continue to leave Basra in southern Iraq, across one of the town's bridges manned by British soldiers. Iraq warned it would use all means, including suicide attacks, to stop the coalition's advance on Baghdad, as US and British war planes pounded the capital and the southern city of Basra 30 March. AFP PHOTO POOL/DAN CHUNG (Photo credit should read DAN CHUNG/AFP/Getty Images)

Basra 2003 (Photo: Dan Chung/AFP/Getty Images)

So that’s how we sort the world’s problems out, is it? With apologies?

Jeremy Corbyn may have been quietly working away on the sidelines of the Labour Party for the last thirty years, but he certainly knows how to grandstand. And during his time in the sun, he’s clearly making the headlines while he can.

According to the BBC, he intends to apologise to the people of Iraq on behalf of the Labour Party for the 2003 Iraq War.

Now when I was a child, I was taught to apologise only when I meant it. And meaning it meant that I would endeavour not to repeat the action for which I was apologising. If Jeremy had the same responsible parenting as I received, presumably he is undertaking that his party would never again partake in what he views as an unjust war.

Fair enough. We would all endorse that sentiment, provided we could have a clear definition of just and unjust. But this is where things start to become problematic. And two of the most problematic areas are motivation and retrospection.

Is a war entered into for one reason, possibly malign, but remembered for another, possibly benign, an unjust war? The abolition of slavery was not the cause for which the north went to war with the south in the American Civil War. The principle at stake was the right of the southern states to secede from the Union. Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation eighteen months after the war started, and the amendment of the US Constitution abolishing slavery did not come into effect until after the war.

Americans might have a more nuanced understanding of the causes of the Civil War, yet outside the US the war is mainly remembered for its most fundamental outcome – the end of slavery.

Britain went to war with Germany in 1939 in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland. Whatever was known before and during the war of Hitler’s genocidal intentions towards the Jews, the Holocaust was not the cause of the war, yet the justice of the struggle has ever after been framed in the context of the Nazi regime’s murderous actions.

Looking at Iraq, does the failure of nations to take military action against one country whose regime oppresses its people and threatens its neighbours – North Korea, for example – invalidate the justice of going to war against another country whose regime is equally malevolent?

And if the war against Iraq had resulted in a stable government free of sectarian bias and dedicated to re-building the country for the benefit of all within its borders, would we now be describing it as a just war, even if the casus belli turned out to be false and potentially in contravention of international law?

Then there is the question of to whom Jeremy Corbyn is proposing to apologise. To the Kurds, whose villages Saddam Hussain gassed? To the Shia, whom the dictator ruthlessly persecuted in the aftermath of the 1991 war? Or to all the other ordinary Iraqis victimised by his regime – with which, incidentally, we had cordial relations for much of the period up to the invasion of Kuwait under both Labour and Conservative governments? Presumably he is not apologising to any of those people, even though many of them are the same folk who suffered in the 2003 war, and most likely would have been delighted with the fall of Saddam.

I’m fine with his apologising for the consequences of the war. We and our American ally made some disastrous mistakes. But it should not be on behalf of his party. It should be as prime minister on behalf of the nation. But should that moment come, he should apologise not just for failing to see through the motives of the Bush administration and ignoring the frailty of the pretext. He should express national contrition for standing by while Saddam murdered his own people and made war on Iran. And while we’re at it he should apologise for other decisions made where good intentions seemingly coincided with the national interest but which had disastrous consequences in the Middle East: the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Gulf mandates, the Palestine mandate.

But of course that way madness lies. Personally I would like Mongolia to apologise for the massacres of Genghis Khan and for the destruction of Baghdad. I would like Uzbekistan to apologise for the mountains of skulls Timur left across the plains of Mesopotamia. I would like Turkey to apologise for the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

And in my own country, I seek apologies from Italy for the Roman conquest, from Germany for the Saxon invasion, from France and Denmark for the Norman conquest. Except that I am as much a Roman, Saxon and Norman as I am an ancient Briton. Who knows – I might even be a descendent of Genghis Khan or have the genes of Ottoman janissaries in my blood. So to whom am I apologising? Myself?

Yes, I know that this is different. The Iraq war is recent history, and that many of the decision-makers are still alive. Yet to apologise for 2003 is a meaningless gesture unless it is accompanied with a genuine intention to learn from mistakes, and backed by the power to do things differently in the future. And Jeremy Corbyn cannot change the way we do things until he stands at the dispatch box in Parliament as the leader of a Labour government elected on a manifesto that enshrines those intentions.

The six hundred thousand people – one percent of the population – who might elect him leader of his party in September will not give him that mandate. What’s more, if he eventually achieves power, it would be an insult to suggest that the governments in the United Kingdom and the USA that succeeded those in power when we invaded Iraq have learned nothing from that conflict and are doing nothing to avoid future ill-advised wars, even if many, including Corbyn, would disagree with their policies.

The bottom line is that motivations for war are usually muddy and multi-layered. The pursuit of war is always fraught with risk. The short-term consequences might be predictable, but the long-term outcomes are frequently not. And the verdict of history usually depends on who is writing it.

If you dismiss these words on the grounds that I am unqualified to utter them – not a general, a politician, a historian, a lawyer or an academic – I will plead guilty as charged. But I do think I have a nose for unproductive rhetoric, especially when it comes from a person who has never had to face the challenge of doing what he advocates. Apologising to the people of Iraq might make Jeremy and his supporters feel good, but it won’t make a jot of difference to the lives of those who are living with the consequences.

Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should have a word with Alexis Tsipras about the difficulties of turning rhetoric into results. Failing that, there must be a thousand equally cogent examples of good intentions failing the test of reality in the public libraries that I hope he supports and sustains should he have the opportunity to do so in the future.

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