Learning the lessons without Chilcot

By Chris Ames

It is, to say the least, unfortunate that the tenth anniversary of the invasion will come and go without a report from the Inquiry and of course reflections have already begun ten years on from the biggest of the anti-war marches. The Inquiry website currently features a list of excuses as to why the report remains some way off, including:

When he announced in the House of Commons the setting-up of the Inquiry, Gordon Brown said, “It’s scope is unprecedented.”

There is some explanation of what is actually happening, including a statement that proposing thousands of documents for “declassification” is already under way, even if that does not mean the government’s consideration of such proposals is actually proceeding.

In the meantime, former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell has written a piece in today’s Independent (on Sunday) asking “Have the lessons of Iraq really been learnt?” His summary of the effect of the war is:

We lost moral authority as a result of our engagement in Iraq and shed a great deal of blood. Coupled with our commitment to Afghanistan, where these costs have been even greater, the appetite of the British public for foreign engagements is dulled. In times of domestic austerity, it is tempting to look abroad for an assertion of our continued relevance. But Iraq changed the political imperative. No PM could now venture to go to war without the endorsement of a vote in the Commons, as British involvement in Libya showed. To obtain such support, the cause must be just, legal and winnable.

Meanwhile, in the New Statesman (and on the Huffington Post) Mehdi Hassan writes that “The hawks were wrong: Iraq is worse off now”. Looking at Iraq today, as opposed to rehearsing all the rights and wrongs of the invasion, he points out that polls have shown that Iraqis do not consider themselves to be better off as a result:

Should we be surprised? The post-Saddam government, observes the noted Iraqi novelist and activist Haifa Zangana, is “consumed by sectarian, ethnic division, but above all by corruption”. The Human Rights Watch 2012 report shows how the rights of the Iraqi people are “violated with impunity” by their new rulers. In his book Iraq: from War to a New Authoritarianism, Toby Dodge of the London School of Economics documents how the war has produced an Iraqi system of government not so different from the one it replaced. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Dodge argues, is leading his country towards “an incredibly destructive dictatorship”. The establishment of a liberal democracy on the banks of the Tigris remains a neocon pipe dream.

By contrast, Labour shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy, also writing on the New Statesman website about preventative intervention, can barely bring himself to say more than that the war was “controversial”, while in an interview with the Telegraph, he is quoted as saying that it:

was “not a lie but a mistake. If we had known then what we know now, there would have been no vote and no war. Tony wouldn’t have taken us to war on the basis of the information we have now.”

A strange claim to make, given that Blair told the Inquiry in January 2010:

… when I talked earlier about the calculus of risk changing after September 11th, it is really, really important, I think, to understand this, so far as understanding the decision I took, and, frankly, would take again: if there was any possibility that he could develop weapons of mass destruction, we should stop him. That was my view. That was my view then and it’s my view now.

Was this assertion in any way qualified by the suggestion that it was clear now that Saddam could not have developed WMD? Of course not. Blair later invited the Inquiry to consider “the 2010 question”:

Supposing we had backed off this military action, supposing we had left Saddam and his sons, who were going to follow him, in charge of Iraq, people who used chemical weapons, caused the death of over 1 million people, what we now know is that he retained absolutely the intent and the intellectual know-how to restart a nuclear and a chemical weapons programme when the inspectors were out and the sanctions changed, which they were going to be.

I think it is at least arguable that he was a threat and that, had we taken that decision to leave him there with the intent, with an oil price, not of $25, but of $100 a barrel, he would have had the intent, he would have had the financial means and we would have lost our  nerve.

And asked whether he had any regrets Blair said:

In the end it was divisive, and I’m sorry about that and I tried my level best to bring people back together again, but if I’m asked whether I believe we are safer, more secure, that Iraq is better, our own security is better with Saddam and his two sons out of power and out of office than in office, I indeed believe that we are, and I think in time to come, if Iraq becomes, as I hope and believe that it will, the country that its people want to see, then we can look back, and particularly our armed forces can look back, with an immense sense of  pride and achievement in what they did.

A year later, Blair raised the issue of Britain’s relationship with America, when asked for lessons learned:

I think one recurrent theme of this is, you know, this decision that we were going to stand shoulder to shoulder with America, we would be with America, this American partnership is tough to do. I mean, it is easy to say; it is tough to do.

That is particularly so in circumstances where in any operation of this size, I mean, America frankly is going to be in the lead and going to have the overwhelming amount of resources and assets.

So the question that people raise perfectly naturally is: Is it worth it? I mean, is the pain/gain ratio really worth it? I think you do have to consider that. My view obviously is clear that it is.

Blair is saying here, as was reported at the time, that he would do the same again, even with the information that he has now. So what is Jim Murphy talking about? He’s not just rewriting history from 2003 but from 2010 and 2011.

5 comments to this article

  1. John Bone

    on February 18, 2013 at 8:23 am -

    If we are to believe what Murphy is saying in his interview with the Telegraph, then you would expect him to be saying more loudly (for example in his speech to the Henry Jackson Society) that the invasion was a terrible mistake and that it was a mistake to launch the invasion before inspections had been completed. He would be saying that the demonstrators of 15th February 2003 were right and that the politicians and newspaper columnists (and the Henry Jackson Society) were wrong. He would be trying to find out who made those mistakes, and agitate to remove their pensions and honours and have them stacking shelves at Poundland. As far as I know he isn’t doing anything like that.

    If we are to believe what Blair is saying, you would expect him to preface his remarks by an admission that he was lying in 2002 – 2003 about what his objectives were. As far as I know he isn’t.

    Most of our political class are trying to have their cake and eat it. They are trying to promote the narrative that there were no lies (just mistakes) yet the invasion was the right thing to do. This doesn’t work logically, but they’re just hoping that, by keeping the incompatible statements apart, no-on will notice.

  2. LindaW

    on February 18, 2013 at 10:31 am -

    “Most of our political class are trying to have their cake and eat it”…

    Agreed. Large numbers of voters know they’re lying to us, though we may not always be able to identify the specific untruths.

    One big lie can end a relationship, a big lie followed by repeated small lies and no repentance certainly will do so.

    Every time politicians tell us something we instinctively or evidentially know to be untrue, they create a bigger gap between the leaders and the led. The leaders simply become irrelevant, leaving a dangerous vaccuum at the heart of government.

    I can’t see how the UK body politic can be healed without a successful prosecution of Blair, Straw et al for offences to do with misconduct in public office, war mongering and rendition to torture.

  3. andrewsimon

    on February 18, 2013 at 11:26 pm -

    Whilst we’re on the subject of rewriting history let’s not forget another aspect of what Blair says above:

    …what we now know is that he retained absolutely the intent and the intellectual know-how to restart a nuclear and a chemical weapons programme when the inspectors were out and the sanctions changed, which they were going to be.

    The UN-certified mandate of UNMOVIC included an ongoing verification function beyond the satisfaction of Res 687. The inspectors were never due to come ‘out’. Had Saddam defaulted on this requirement, then sanctions could have been reimposed or resumed, indeed a stronger case for war might have been made in those circumstances.

    There was no certainty at the time that the sanctions were ever going to be permanently ended, despite Blair claiming that they were to be “changed”. Sanctions relating to certain technologies might have been continued even if Iraq was given a currently clean bill of WMD health.

    In fact Blair is not so much rewriting history here, he’s actually making up future history on the hoof.

  4. chris lamb

    on February 19, 2013 at 7:04 pm -

    One of the big lessons of the last ten years which does not seem to have been learnt is the serious weakening of the United Nations and erosion of the UN Charter facilitated by the invasion of Iraq and continued ever since.

    Cameron’s Blairite aspirations for military intervention to induce regime change cynically manipulated a ‘responsibility to protect civilians’ Security Council resolution (1973) to militarily remove Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. While liberal interventionist supporters of regime change will defend this, the result has been to serially damage trust between member states of the Security Council and undermine the concept of protection of civilians from being applied again.

    Ironically, the removal of Gaddafi’s regime has not created a more peaceful or secure Libya and has witnessed enhancement of the militant Islamist threat in North Africa, deplored by the West.

    The environment of increased distruct and sourness between major players in the UN Security Council has made constructive international proposals to the problem of Syria more difficult to achieve.

    The United Nations continues to be sidelined; as evidenced by the Cameron government’s attempts to get the European Union to lift its arms embargo upon the rebels in Syria- a move which would foment the civil war there and cause a deterioration in the underlying regional/ sectarian conflict.

    Labour’s new ‘preventive intervention’ makes no mention of the United Nations or its Charter in governing how interventions would take place and appears to be the Blairite ‘liberal intervention’ policy but with a smaller( more native-friendly) footprint. The interventions would be enacted by military alliances outwith the UN.

    The failure of Chilcot to report coincides with what could be an irreparable decline of the United Nations.

  5. John Bone

    on February 21, 2013 at 9:12 am -

    “……when the inspectors were out and the sanctions changed, which they were going to be.”

    This is one of those false choices, which Blair was quite fond of. It is close to the assertion that he often made that “containment is breaking down”, which actually means “the Americans have lost interest in containment”.