Do we need to fight wars in the Middle East?

The UK has assisted in a series of wars in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. It has so far stayed out of Syria, though the government was keen to intervene there as well. It has stayed out of Gaza, Egypt, and other troubled or potentially dangerous territories. It has stayed out of Iran, though it has used diplomatic pressures and sanctions over the issue of nuclear weapons.

The overall experience of these conflicts has been very mixed. The most successful intervention came assisting the USA in liberating Kuwait from unwanted invasion at the request of the Kuwaiti government and people. The interventions in support of the USA post 9/11, to try to root out terrorists and to change regimes have been less successful.

The largest and longest deployment came to Afghanistan. There the western forces have helped engineer regime change, and have given extensive support to the democratic regime that now governs. The UK did not commit sufficient troops to Helmand province, leading to additional US commitment there to seek to control the anti government forces.

The west’s aims have varied. Sometimes they have just been to support the civilian power established. Sometimes they have been seeking regime change. Sometimes they have been fighting against various branches of militant Islam. Sometimes the west has been on the Sunni side, and sometimes on the Shia side, in the relentless religious war. The west has changed its stance on Assad in Syria, has allowed a military coup to replace the elected government of Egypt, has tried to establish an elected government in Libya but failed to help enforce its will on a war torn country, has been patient in Afghanistan, and is now modest in its involvement in the bitter struggle over Iraq.

It is difficult to see that all this activity over more than a decade has either vanquished militant Islamic forces or established a series of peace loving democracies that share more of our values. The West has discovered that terrorist groups are many and various, constantly changing, and able to move across borders as Western force seeks to catch up with them. The West has learned the old lesson that you cannot establish a democracy by conquering a country. The impulse for democracy has to come from within the country itself and takes years to learn and bed down.

It looks as if US policy towards the Middle East is shifting. The response to Iraq and Syria this time round is much more modest than after 9/11. There seems to be more recognition that local politics matters and western troops are at a big disadvantage without knowledge of the local languages, religions and customs. I want the UK to lead the conversation in NATO and the UN against further military intervention, other than in a case like Kuwait where a Middle Eastern country asks for western help in resisting invasion and it is help we can give successfully.


  1. ian wragg
    December 23, 2014

    Now we are little more than a coastal defence force we should leave the Middle East to its own devices.
    We were humiliated in Iraq because of political interference and piss poor kit. Afghanistan will be back to the 14th century within a year, dozens of lives lost for no apparent reason.
    CMD struts around the world stage with Aircraft Carriers with no planes. An island nation with no maritime recce. aircraft availability and the smallest army since Waterloo.
    To answer your question NO we don’t need wars anywhere. We should be tackling illegal immigration at home and deporting the radicals who are out to destroy us.
    In just over 4 months the country will give its verdict on the duplicity of CMD and co and I don’t think it will be very flattering.

    1. BobE
      December 23, 2014

      By the summer Boris will be in charge.

      1. Lifelogic
        December 25, 2014

        I doubt Boris will win but anyway he will not be in change over very much the Tory party has been decimated by lefty, green crap, EU loving, socialist leaders and MPs. Mainly Heath, Major, Cameron they are all the same wrong on every major issue.

    2. Mark B
      December 24, 2014


      I like to share your view on what the country might like to do as regards too CMD. But I am a little less optimistic than you.

      It will be close. So close that, although the Conservatives will not have a majority, or even be able to form a coalition Government, it will be enough to let CMD ask for more time in office.

      You see, not everyone has access to the internet. And not everyone is willing to get behind the facts and see the world outside. Too much reliance on the BBC and its output.

      As to the answer to the question. I thought we, the Americans, French and Russians have sold them enough arms, provided them with enough training, that they quite easily do it themselves.

  2. oldtimer
    December 23, 2014

    There are more powerful ideologies than democracy in place in the Middle East. The imposition of democracy by military is unlikely to succeed. And where democratic elections have produced Islamist regimes (such as in Algeria in the past and Egypt more recently) the military has not liked the result and has overthrown them. We should not be surprised that extreme Islamists (such as ISIS) thinks the same way, namely that ruthless military action is justified to pursue its own ends.

    The UK certainly lacks the means to make any military intervention that would make a difference. Even the USA probably lacks the means (it certainly lacks the will) to do so beyond creating a wasteland.

    1. Wilcox
      December 27, 2014

      The UK’s military is and has been run down, not for financial savings or strategic considerations, no, but to ensure our capability and capacity meets Brussel’s requirements for the eu defence force. Watch next year when Trident is postponed and we move towards ever closer nuclear military union with France…

  3. Andyvan
    December 23, 2014

    Every single one of these wars are illegal under international law as agreed after WW2. Not one of them has produced any good consequences at all. Every one has increased violence, disorder, misery and repression. The destruction waste, loss of wealth and prestige has been an utter and total disaster. The only group that has benefitted is the arms industry and it’s bought and paid for politicians. How can anybody that claims to have a conscience or any intelligence argue in favour of them?

  4. M Davis
    December 23, 2014

    If a country asks for western help and they can help, it is only acceptable if the Government puts it to the people and they agree, otherwise stay out. And true, as you say, JR, – “The impulse for democracy has to come from within the country itself and takes years to learn and bed down”. That’s if they even want so-called democracy in the first place.

  5. Richard1
    December 23, 2014

    We need to establish a clear principle that the UK fights wars if and only if the UK, or our allies to whom we are bound by treaty, are threatened. International posturing has been shown to have almost entirely undesirable, and unpredictable outcomes. Besides with both this govt and the last one having decided defence is the one area which can really be cut, we don’t have the resources for it.

    When is the Chilcott report being published? Why not before the election? It is time to recongise clearly that Labour’s Iraq war was the greatest British foreign policy disaster at least since Munich. Much worse than Suez. We need the Chilcott report to understand how it happened and how we can stop it ever happening again.

    1. Hope
      December 24, 2014

      Cameron’s Libya was not much better. Huge devastation without any British interest. An inquiry should be held and hold Cameron to account. If allowed he would have bombed Syria! He has also armed ISIS by helping the opposition of Assad.

      1. Wilcox
        December 27, 2014

        The interest was Sarkozy wanting to rid Libya of Gaddafi and leave Libya in anarchy. That way you don’t have to pay off any loans made to keep your banks afloat!

  6. John E
    December 23, 2014

    Exactly. By getting involved in other people’s wars we make things worse, not better. We have been taken for fools.
    There are actors behind the scenes who are very happy to see US and UK troops dying rather than their own.

    1. John E
      December 23, 2014

      Oh, and are we ever going to hear from Chilcot? Latest reports say the report will not appear before the General Election. Convenient for some.

      1. Lifelogic
        December 25, 2014

        The last I heard the Cameron wing were still delaying it further.

        Yet another way he seems determined to throw a second election.

  7. Antisthenes
    December 23, 2014

    Perhaps the West concentrating on trying to establish democratic governments was the wrong approach. All the conflicts that the West have been engaged in recently have been in countries where there as been no history of democracy and no real understanding of it in Western terms that is. Maybe the aim should have been to put in place regimes that are stable and are friendly to the West. Democracy could possibly be a by product and if not then it would evolved in time and at a rate a country could cope with.

    There is too much effort put into forcing countries and citizens to comply with the indigently righteous governments and sections of society that believe in coercion rather than persuasion.

  8. Bert Young
    December 23, 2014

    The Middle East is a quagmire and should be left alone to its own affairs . There is absolutely no evidence that outside interference has changed anything and I concur with your judgement that the West has achieved nothing . Had it not been for oil , I doubt that we would have raised an eyebrow at any of its disruption . The only sort of stability that has existed in the past in that region is when there has been dictator type rule . This iron arm approach to discipline and control seems to fit their form of society ; we should accept this .

  9. PayDirt
    December 23, 2014

    Kuwait is rather a special case as the country was a British Protectorate from the early 20th Century and only gained independence from the UK in 1961. A small country the size of Wales, it was squeezed between Iraq and Saudi Arabia who invaded from time to time to grab territory.

  10. Denis Cooper
    December 23, 2014

    “you cannot establish a democracy by conquering a country”

    Well, after 1945 the western Allies successfully did that with West Germany and Italy and Japan, so how did those cases differ from that of Afghanistan after 2003?

    Surely one prerequisite for it to be feasible to rapidly establish a new order in a country, democratic or otherwise, is the prior existence of an internal order which is strong enough to survive defeat of the country as a whole and which can be first employed, and then adapted, by the conqueror for his own purposes; if there is a history of internal disorder before the conquest then the first task for the victor becomes creating some kind of order, any kind, and not necessarily the kind that he would prefer as the final outcome, and he may never get beyond his failure to accomplish that first step.

    And if it is necessary to first replace chronic internal disorder with some kind of order then that may require prolonged occupation of the country by strong forces which can overwhelm and eliminate rebellious elements; otherwise even a formal unconditional surrender by the putative authorities within the country will not necessarily lead to its pacification and make it possible for the victor to impose his will.

    As far as Afghanistan is concerned, I always thought that it was a mistake to believe that the job there was more or less done and so resources could be diverted to the invasion of Iraq, and moreover an invasion with spurious justifications, which according to rumour was itself intended to be a precursor for an invasion of Iran.

    One reason why “The UK did not commit sufficient troops to Helmand province” was simply that the UK joined with the US in sending troops to Iraq for no good reason; if we had concentrated on properly sorting out Afghanistan then it would not now be moving back under the control of the Taliban, which had never been defeated to the point where it had been effectively neutralised and so could no longer challenge the authority of the recognised government in Kabul.

    Reply Yes, you are right – my statement was too sweeping a generalisation. In the 3 cases you mention total allied victory led to a rethink by whole populations, who decided they did wish to change from the autocracies that had ruled them in the previous period. I would still argue, however, that the consent of the peoples of those 3 countries brought about by the allied victory was essential to success, and that consent to change cannot be guaranteed by winning a war.

    1. Wilcox
      December 27, 2014

      There is a slight difference between countries that have had democracy at some time in their existence and countries that have only known colonial power or despotic leaders (both of which are the same, only with different whips)

  11. Sue Doughty
    December 23, 2014

    Yes, we must prevent the advance of a new Caliphate if only because of the way they treat women. Sharia law is very inhumane, is designed to be so, is worse than communism and needs to be countered

    1. Davem
      December 24, 2014


      Much as I have no real desire to fight any more wars in those areas (with hands tied, idiotic UK lawyers desperate to put Brits behind bars for moments of madness, and weak political direction and cohesion) I have to agree with you.

      IS are evil animals, and turning a blind eye is not the answer. But if we do fight we have to be allowed to do it properly. IS are not strong militarily (aside from numbers) but with stupid crippling RoE and yooomun rights people watching every move from their living rooms via satellite it would turn into another nightmare.

  12. Robert Taggart
    December 23, 2014

    NO – answer to the headline.
    With all their accumulated oil / gas wealth – most other countries within the Middle East could afford to create / deploy armed forces of their own – thereby saving the West the resulting ignominy for having saved them from their own !

    December 23, 2014

    I’m not at all sure even France except at an official and formal level appreciates the assistance they received during their occupation from the US and UK. Perhaps our help was too much of a good thing for a proud nation.

    I guess the various religions and ethnic/national groups in the Middle East also have a certain pride. It does seem so for many of them fight devoutly yet no sacrifice is too great. But our form of democracy requires consensus within a country and a working knowledge, custom of democratic procedures and organization. Broadly, many countries and peoples wish to conduct their own political and cultural affairs differently from our model . They feel, in their own context, it works better for them. “One word of Truth shall outweigh the world ” and maybe more than a few people regard the leadership and the word of a cleric of a significance which we ourselves have outgrown far too quickly for our own good.

  14. Terry
    December 23, 2014

    Do we need to fight these wars? Or should the question be, “Can we afford to fight these wars”?

    Our armed forces appear to be protecting the Arab Nations for free. These are, per capita, the richest Nations on earth, yet we are having to borrow, (probably from these same Arabs) to fight their wars for them. Similarly in West Germany during the cold war years. How much did Germany then contribute to the British Army for protecting their Eastern borders?

    I have no idea if anyone actually contributes to our war efforts on their behalf but if not, why not? And why shouldn’t they cover all of our costs for defending them?
    If they will not pay then we will not be able to commit. What is wrong with that?How much have we blown over the past two decades fighting Gulf Wars, in Iraq and in Afghqanistan? £Trillions?

    When I read that we have only recently paid off our WWII debt I wonder why we must keep on spending our money on foreign wars in foreign lands. Are our leaders so keen to impress the RotW that OUR money is no object?

  15. Denis Cooper
    December 23, 2014

    Somewhat off-topic, I’ve just read an article headlined:

    “Britain forced to pay more benefits to Turkish migrants”

    referring to yet another case before the EU court that the UK has just lost.

    As far as I can disentangle the legal substance, the UK government contended that it should have been able to veto the new EU proposal – which of course was what we were promised would always be the case in the official pamphlet for the 1975 referendum – but the mainly foreign eurofederalist judges disagreed, supporting the use of treaty articles allowing the decision to be made by transnational majority voting.

    The striking thing is that this is the latest development in a process spread over half a century, starting with a 1963 agreement between the then six EEC countries and Turkey, which was therefore part of the package that the Heath government decided to swallow whole in 1972 and which would be covered by paragraph 7 of Schedule 1 to the European Communities Act 1972 as one instance of “Any treaty entered into before the 22nd January 1972 by any of the Communities (with or without any of the member States) or, as a treaty ancillary to any treaty included in this Part of this Schedule, by the member States (with or without any other country).”

    I don’t see the sense in saying to umpteen million Turks:

    “Be our friends and you can all come and live in our country”,

    but that is what was being envisaged as long ago as 1963, and what Heath accepted in 1972, and what Cameron still wants to see fulfilled as soon as possible.

  16. majorfrustration
    December 23, 2014

    Perhaps we should just let the Arabs fight the Arabs – worth a try at least. Then we would have enough money to fill in the pots holes, throw more money at the NHS, control immigration – in actual fact all those things a government should be doing rather than go to war

    1. DaveM
      December 24, 2014

      I’d say let the Iranians do it – far more effective than arabs.

  17. Margaret Brandreth-J
    December 23, 2014

    Perhaps I should listen to an argument of why we should intervene in middle eastern wars first.A request for help is the argument which pulls most strongly ,yet there are probably issues and reasons I am not fully aware of, such as oil and arms.

  18. Lifelogic
    December 23, 2014

    “The West has learned the old lesson that you cannot establish a democracy by conquering a country.”

    Well have they ? I am not at all sure they have. Government seem doomed to repeat their mistakes in an endless loop. They have not even worked out yet that bloated government, expensive green crap energy, endless over regulation, daft employment laws, too much litigation and paying to endlessly augment the feckless tends to destroy an economy.

  19. Martyn G
    December 23, 2014

    A thoughtful and very apt post, John.
    As I and many others have said here before, government should concentrate on securing our borders and do no more military meddling in or with those countries that our lot perceive to be in need of sorting out.
    By all means employ diplomatic and perhaps humane efforts to bring about a solution but no more, not again should we send in the foot soldiers.
    OT, may I wish you and yours a happy and peaceful Christmas? Please do keep up the good work in 2015!

  20. mickc
    December 23, 2014

    As the Ukrainian parliament has voted to apply for both EU and NATO membership, it may well be that our attention will be somewhat nearer home than the Middle East

    The UK should oppose both applications…but won’t.

    It seems the US neocons are intent on a hot war with Russia. The UK will not emerge from such a conflict without substantial damage, but the US would not be touched at all.

  21. Oscar De Ville
    December 23, 2014

    How refreshing was your article on relations with Russia as a precursor to the equally wise comments on our foreign policy generally. Just as impressive was the quality of thought, and the virtual unanimity, of your early responses. Surely there must be people of similar quality within the Foreign Office to guide Hague and Hammond against the slavish support of the USA by EU – and so avert that forceful Cameron lead which, like so much else, he will later regret.

    Perhaps, as one of the recipients of the recent Putin-led award of the Ushakov medal for WW2 arctic convoy work, I may be gullible and guilty of bias. But I later took up post-war studies of Russian, and that gave me some ‘feel’ for Russia`s pre-Revolution history and literature. That showed up an historic slav sense of “mission” which included the importance of Kiev as an age-old religious centre, and the value of Crimea and of some current Ukraine territory as a vital way to the open sea. It is no surprise that even in this century there is an undue Russian sensitivity and unrealistic fear of being hemmed in.

    There are perhaps two Putins :- the creature of the KGB and cold war who must surely be watched and faced, but also a man who has inherited that pro-slav sense of “mission” and a genuine fear of being pushed back too far.. We should respect both men, and that could post-EU be important, despite a current pro-EU Cameron. We need balance.

    Do press on , with all the fervour you have shown over the need for greater Englishness within the UK. It is the kind of thinking where we were at once strong and adeptable

  22. Jon
    December 23, 2014

    Absolutely agree. All we have done through our interventions is increase our threat level. The rules, if there are any, are different from ours, who are the bad guys? It’s like I feel about 3rd world aid, we have done more to perpetuate 3rd world corruption than eradicate it. Africa does not need aid it needs access to markets so they can afford to keep their doctors. Rather than us taking them after they have been educated and then sending billions to the wealthy leaders.

    These places are tribal not societal based. Unless we go back to colonialism we should back off as that is what it would take, over generations, to change these. As it is we are feeding the militants with propaganda.

  23. Max Dunbar
    December 23, 2014

    One thing seems certain, and that is that our diminished Armed Forces will sooner or later be deployed on mainland Britain to carry out similar operations to those in Afghanistan. Provided that they have the support of the majority of the population then a satisfactory conclusion may be reached.
    If we ourselves are to avoid ‘regime change’ or lose the ‘impulse for democracy’ some difficult decisions are going to have to be made very soon.

  24. Matt
    December 23, 2014

    “The West has learned the old lesson that you cannot establish a democracy by conquering a country. The impulse for democracy has to come from within the country itself and takes years to learn and bed down.”

    Surely Japan after world war 2 was a notable exception to this. I think it would be more accurate to say that establishing democracy in a country with no history of it takes more time, resources and patience than modern western politics allows.

  25. Margaret Brandreth-J
    December 23, 2014

    John just looking back at posts and I notice that the comments boxes are closed. I can understand this ,yet this disallows reading past comments also.

  26. Bob
    December 23, 2014

    Good piece by Malcolm Fraser. As a believer in the anglosphere I am afraid America has gone rogue.

  27. BranE
    December 23, 2014

    Yes, we should stay firmly out of the mess that is now the Middle-East. Our past and present involvement has done nothing for our security. Indeed it has made things considerably worse. As for the Ukraine it is not Russia that frightens me it is the meddling of Nato and the US government that does that.

  28. matthu
    December 24, 2014

    When I was growing up I remember some newspapers used to keep a running tally of road deaths over the Christmas period which served to keep it in public view.

    I would like to see newspapers doin g the same these days, translating the cost of UK’s involvement in wars and comparing it e.g. to the number of years of free university education that has been foregone as a result.

  29. Richard
    December 24, 2014

    No, we don’t, particularly as our leaders have almost always made the situation worse.

    But if our leaders did not continue to meddle in the ME then :

    – The arms industry would suffer with smaller profits.
    – UK citizens would be wealthier and the UK debt smaller.
    – Our armed forces would be stronger and better able to defend us where it is needed.
    – There would be far fewer refugees and consequently less illegal immigration.
    – We would be safer from Islamic terrorism.
    – The UK would be less unpopular in the world thus helping our exports.


  30. Daniel Hewson
    December 25, 2014

    We should only get involved military action where our own people are threatened, as in the Falklands, or where the war has clear UN backing, is conducted through NATO & enjoys the support of the British people who will after all, have to pay for it, ie the liberation of Kuwait. We must never again get dragged into a military intervention that doesn’t have clear & achievable aims.

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