Whatever your view on invading Iraq, as we move into the end game, there is one thing we can all agree on. Building the postwar peace has been a catastrophe. This is going to sharply influence what the world might look like post-Iraq. Western leaders are now going to be less enthusiastic, their domestic populations less supportive and the wider international community less biddable in providing legitimacy for such enterprises in future.
That may be a good thing if it leads to a renewed understanding of the importance of multilateralism in these affairs. But it would be a tragedy if the response to failure in Iraq were to be not ‘How do we do it better?’ but ‘We must never do it again’.
We live in dangerous times as the world moves deeper into the era of globalisation, scarce resources, global warming and massive shifts in the tectonic plates of power. The revelation of 9/11 still applies: our peace depends on the extent that we are willing and able to work together to prevent conflict or recreate stability in other parts of the world.
Some say that ‘little’ brush-fire wars – there are 74 in progress around the world – are the only wars there will be in future – and that the age of great wars has passed. I am not one of them. There is too much tinder lying around and far too many firebrands. Competition between states, especially in the developing world, is not diminishing it is increasing. And the best structures for fighting wars, the most powerful ideologies for driving wars and the most destructive weapons for using in wars, remain in the hands of nation states.
Since the end of the Cold War, the UN has, on average, intervened in the domestic jurisdiction of one of its members every six months, and six of the last nine of these interventions have been in Muslim countries. What’s more, around 65 per cent of them have been successful in preventing a return to conflict. Overall, the world is safer because we have been prepared to intervene. It will be much more dangerous if we stop doing so. Our failure to intervene in Darfur has only resulted in spreading the conflict, first to Chad, with other nations to follow if we cannot stop it.
The Iraq experience represents the triumph of hubris, nemesis and, above all, amnesia over common sense. We have abandoned experience in favour of a kind of 19th- century ‘gunboat’ diplomacy approach to peace making. And it isn’t working. Getting intervention right is not rocket science and it’s not new. Spend at least as much time and effort planning the peace as preparing for the war that precedes it. Base plans on a proper knowledge of the country. Leave ideologies and prejudices at home. Do not try to fashion someone else’s country in your own image. Leave space for its people to reconstruct the country they want, not the one you want for them.
Don’t lose the ‘golden hour’ after the fighting is over. Dominate security from the start; then concentrate on the rule of law. Make economic regeneration a priority. Understand the importance to the international community effort of co-ordination, cohesion and speaking with one voice. And do not wait until everything is as it would be in our country. Leave when the peace is sustainable.
At present, we intervene as though democracy was our big idea. It is not. We are not even particularly good at it ourselves. Good governance is our big idea; the rule of law is our big idea; open systems and the market- based economy – these are our big ideas. A stable democracy, fashioned to the conditions and the cultures of the country concerned, is what comes afterwards. It is the product of good governance, not its precursor.
Above all, we must remember that we cannot reconstruct states at the point of a bayonet – only with the support of the people. So winning their support for what we are doing is absolutely crucial. Without that, we will fail, as we see in Basra and Baghdad.
What has made the insurgency in Iraq so dangerous for the future is that our enemy understands better than we do that this is not just about winning the battle of armies, it is also about winning the battle of ideas. But this too is not new. The strength of al-Qaeda and its sister organisations lies, just as that of the IRA lay before it, in their potency as a concept, not just in their military capacity. They understand that warfare is carried out not only in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, but in the hearts and minds of the Islamic community. They understand this and are waiting for us in countries like Sudan, where we might intervene in the future.
For them the battle is not just with the West, but also for control of Islam. I suspect most ordinary Muslims no more want to see their great civilising religion captured by the forces of fanaticism than we, in the past, wanted our religious fanatics to take over Christianity. Yet Western leaders persist in their language and actions to portray this as a great struggle for ‘our Western values’, in language which mirrors and strengthens our enemies’ concept of a global jihad.
This is both stupid and historically illiterate. It was Islam and the Arab universities, especially in Baghdad, which absorbed into Islam the Hellenic thought we regard as the foundation of ‘European values’ and preserved its crucial texts for Europe to rediscover at the start of the Renaissance, while Europe was still sunk in the barbarism of the Dark Ages.
And so we have chosen the wrong mindset to defeat al-Qaeda. We have chosen to fight an idea primarily with force. We seek to control territory; it seeks to capture minds. This is, at heart, a battle of ideas and values. Unless we realise that and can win on that agenda, no amount of force can deliver victory.
e are not winning. In those regions of the world where this struggle is fiercest, civilisation is losing and medievalism is winning. We have to reverse that if we are to give ourselves a better chance of building peace in future.
So to be successful, we will need more than the right structures, good intentions and a warm desire to do something to help. International intervention is a very blunt instrument, whose outcomes are not always predictable. It is not for the fainthearted – or the easily bored.
It needs steely toughness and strategic patience in equal measure. And strategic patience needs strategic vision – and we seem to lack that, too . It also requires a willingness to commit a lot of troops at the start, a capacity to provide sustained international support to the end and an ability to endure a time frame that is measured in decades, not years.
The only reward for success is that all the expenditure and all that pain will be less than the cost of the war that was avoided, or the price of the chaos which would have ensued if the international community had stayed at home. Leaving early, or doing it badly, may end up making things worse – and nearly always means having to return and do it again.
Intervention should not be undertaken lightly or because something must be done and no one can think of anything better. It is important to remember the effect on the interveners, as well as on those subject to the intervention; intervening has a tendency to make the former arrogant and the latter, either angry or dependent – and often both.
The bad news is that, as Iraq shows, intervention is expensive, tough and difficult. The good news is that if we can learn to do it better, we will get our fingers burnt less and, in the process, may make the world a much safer and less painful place than it is now.
Paddy Ashdown, European Union special representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 until 2006, will expand on this subject at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on Wednesday. His latest book, Swords and Ploughshares – Building Peace in the 21st Century, will be published by Orion