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Nursing the Iraq war hangover

Apr 04,2023 - Last updated at Apr 04,2023

LONDON — The 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, represented a chance to reflect on the intelligence and policy failures that led president George W. Bush’s administration to launch an illegal war whose effects are still being felt around the world. It also provided Western leaders with a unique opportunity to right the wrongs of that disastrous decision.

As Lord Peter Ricketts, the former UK ambassador to France, recently noted, the invasion of Iraq was the point at which the rules-based international order began to unravel. The invasion, together with the bloody occupation that followed it, turned Western voters against the concept of international intervention and caused poorer countries in the Global South to distrust wealthy liberal democracies.

The Iraq War, unlike the 1990-91 Gulf War, was conducted without the support of the United Nations. In the lead-up to the first war, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 660, which condemned Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the US-led coalition showed restraint by not deposing Saddam Hussein.

In 2003, however, the United States and the United Kingdom were willing to flout international law for reasons that were spurious at best. This later enabled Russia and China to charge Western democracies with hypocrisy when they condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The notion that the international order the US and its allies are trying to save merely reflects their own national interests has made it difficult to convince developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression.

Unless they tackle the reasons for this mistrust head-on, the US, the UK, and Europe will fail to build the global coalition necessary to pressure Putin to end the war. Failing to rebuild the rules-based order that has helped maintain relative political stability for many years would leave the world with little or no defences against bullying by authoritarian countries.

There are two ways to address the growing mistrust between the West and the developing world. The first is to counter the disinformation and propaganda of authoritarian regimes by supporting public-interest media. The second is to restore foreign aid programmes that aim to reduce hunger and poverty in lower-income countries. The UK must take the lead on both fronts.

It is vital that as many countries as possible have access to accurate reporting of world events. Strong public-interest media are essential to achieving this goal. For example, when the Communist Party of China escalated its efforts to curtail Hong Kong’s autonomy in 2021, it cracked down on Radio Television Hong Kong with the intention of turning the public broadcasting service into a tool for disseminating Chinese government propaganda.

The BBC, in particular, has served for decades as a critical source of global news and as a lifeline for freedom movements worldwide. Its impeccable reputation is the reason why authoritarian regimes view it as a threat. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s imprisoned opposition leader, once said that the BBC World Service provided her with knowledge and hope during her 15 years of house arrest between 1989 and 2010.

Outlets like the BBC World Service are an important aspect of what the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr. calls “soft power”. But while British officials often talk about their aspirations to extend the UK’s soft power globally, the government has not allocated nearly enough money for this purpose. To fight the propaganda machines operated by the Kremlin and other noxious regimes, policymakers must increase investment in proven assets like the BBC.

Another way for the British government to help restore trust in Western leadership is to boost spending on development aid. In the past, the UK received global praise and gained influence by funding development projects around the world. The UK was one of the first countries to meet the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on development assistance, before foolishly cutting it to 0.5 per cent two years ago.

In addition to cutting its foreign aid programme’s annual budget by £3 billion ($3.7 billion), the UK also merged it with the Foreign Office, leading to “fierce and draconian” cuts as budgets were shifted from development assistance to covering the costs of hosting Ukrainian refugees. This is vital work but should not be paid for out of the aid budget. Moreover, development experts have expressed concerns that funds meant to help alleviate poverty might be used to subsidise British exports and support political and security objectives that have little to do with assisting developing countries.

To restore faith in the West, British policymakers must help minimize the damage caused by the war in Iraq. To this end, the UK must focus on two things it once excelled at: supporting public-interest media and providing generous support to countries in need. If the UK takes the initiative, perhaps the US and other members of its “coalition of the willing” will follow suit.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford and the author of “The Hong Kong Diaries” (Allen Lane, 2022). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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