Which fool ever thought the Iraq War was about WMD?
The most surprising thing about Tony Blair’s ‘revelation’ that he would have deposed Saddam regardless was that so many found it shocking.
Tony Blair has been crucified by the unbelievers again, after admitting, as one newspaper put it, that he ‘would still have led the country to war in Iraq even if he had known that it had no weapons of mass destruction’. This ‘shock revelation’ has led to shrill condemnations and demands for the current UK Iraq inquiry to be turned into a war crimes trial.
To some of us opponents of the war, however, the only ‘shock’ is that anybody should be surprised by what Blair said. Did they imagine that instead the former prime minister would admit that he was wrong? More importantly, it should always have been obvious that the non-existent Iraqi WMD were only a thin pretext for the US-led invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. From long before the first shots were fired, this was a war looking for a cause to justify it.
Blair now stands accused by outraged observers of misleading parliament and the public. Of course he did – it would be the height of historical naïveté to have imagined anything else. No war was ever fought without governments twisting the truth. Yet the anti-Blair lobby’s continuing obsession with the mythical WMD is also muddying the waters of the Iraq debate.
It means that the real underlying reasons for the war, what went on behind the smokescreen, are hardly discussed. Blair’s latest admission that he would have sought to overthrow Saddam anyway could have been the cue for a debate about those bigger questions. Instead the response has been reduced to another round of personalised screeching about Blair’s personal sins and failings, from left and right alike.
There is a longstanding habit in British politics of fetishising nukes, as if those WMD themselves could somehow cause or prevent wars rather than being mere tools of the power and politics behind them. Back in the 1980s I recall this led the British peace movement to focus its energies on preventing a hypothetical future nuclear war, rather than mobilising against the real wars that the UK government was fighting with conventional weapons in Northern Ireland or the South Atlantic.
Today the obsession with the tired arguments about Iraq’s imaginary nuclear arsenal is also distracting attention from the bigger political questions about the war. Yes, we all know now there were no WMD, it seems the authorities knew it before they invaded Iraq, and many of us had firm suspicions about all that for years beforehand. So, why did Blair and New Labour take Britain to war?
There are two bigger issues here that should be examined, which have little or nothing to do with WMD, or indeed with events in Iraq. The first is about old-fashioned great power realpolitik – the importance of the US-UK alliance to the British state. The second concerns a more contemporary problem: the domestic crisis of authority facing the British elite.
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The role that Britain’s relationship with America played in drawing the UK into the invasion has been raised around the Iraq inquiry, but only in terms of what one former official described as Blair’s ‘sycophancy’ towards President George W Bush’s administration. The New Labour leader may well have loved the limelight on the White House lawn. But the fact is that any UK prime minister from any establishment party would have found it hard not to sign up for the Iraq War.
Standing alongside America in such conflicts is about more than being Washington’s ‘poodle’. It is the one chance Whitehall still has of looking like a British bulldog on the world stage. Being a nuclear power with the military force to play a part in great power politics is what still gives the British government a place at the top table of world affairs. That is why, for all the talk of how Gordon Brown would pursue a very different policy towards America from the ‘sycophant’ Blair, Brown is now the main European cheerleader and lieutenant for President Obama’s Afghan adventure. It will take a more courageous political class than this to face up to the truth about Britain’s place in the world.
In any case, there was no need for Bush or anybody else to twist Blair’s arm to take part in the Iraqi invasion. He put aside any qualms and seized upon it as an opportunity to reassert the authority of his ailing New Labour government at home and the wider authority of the UK in the world. Of course, the disastrous war ended up having the opposite effect on both counts – all the more reason to understand these political reasons rather than searching for ‘the truth’ about non-smoking nukes.
Since their election in 1997, New Labour had been pursuing an international crusade to present the UK as a global force for Good against Evil, trying to draw simple and clear moral lines on the world map of a sort that proved elusive in the mud of domestic politics. These were the terms in which Blair sought to justify the Iraq War last week in his interview with former daytime TV presenter Fern Britton – as a noble Western mission to save the peoples of Iraq and the Middle East from the horrors of the evil Saddam Hussein.
Asked if he would still have invaded Iraq if he had known Saddam had no WMD, he responded that ‘I would still have thought it right to remove him’. Then Blair added: ‘I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.’ This was classic self-righteous Blair, asserting the moral right of himself and Bush to ‘remove’ any regime of which they disapproved, while cynically admitting that he would ‘deploy’ whatever arguments were required to bring the rest round to seeing the world his way.
Yet the rest of Blair’s interview demonstrated that he had no convincing case for the war. Far from showing fortitude and moral purpose, the various non-WMD arguments he tried to deploy only demonstrated muddle and confusion. Thus Blair talked about the need to remove Saddam because he posed a threat to the region – a slightly bizarre notion even in its own terms at a time when the Islamic republic of Iran was emerging as the new regional power. He offered as evidence the fact that Saddam had used chemical weapons against his own people, not mentioning that this had been back in the days when Saddam was effectively an ally of the West and that nobody had threatened to invade at the time. Then he wandered further offline and tried to justify the invasion as part of a struggle for the soul of, er, Islam – never mind that Saddam’s Ba’athists were old enemies of al-Qaeda and radical Islam.
Thus Blair inadvertently demonstrated that his ethical case for regime change was as much of a flimsy pretext for war in Iraq as were the invisible WMD. The UK elite grimly bit the bullet over Iraq in a desperate bid to resolve their own crises at home and internationally. Yet without any clear strategic aims, there was no chance of lasting success here or over there. It was the crisis of authority that drove New Labour and the political class into the war – and that same crisis ensured the eventual failure of this self-serving mission, despite the lack of any powerful opposition in Iraq. There is an important lesson to be learned there about the perils of exporting the UK’s political problems on to foreign battlefields.
Yet these lessons remain entirely untaught and unlearned. Indeed, many of those ranting about being duped over WMD still widely accept the thrust of the other argument, that the UK had the right to intervene in different ways and demand the end of Evil regimes. That was why so many backed Blair’s 1999 war against Serbia over Kosovo – which was no more legal than the Iraq invasion. It is why, even after Iraq, most members of the political class still back Brown’s pointless war in Afghanistan. Despite loud objections to the specifics of the Iraq debacle, the underlying assumptions of Blair’s war and the principles of an interventionist foreign policy are still widely accepted. Yet there is no inquiry into that.
The new bishop to the UK armed forces revealed something of the real crisis behind Britain’s military interventions when he admitted to some admiration for the Taliban in Afghanistan and their willingness to fight for their faith. He basically seemed to be saying ‘At least they believe in something, not like our lot’. Under Blair and Brown, the British government has sought to fill that gap of faith by finding an evil to defeat across the world. All of the complaints about Blair and his religious zealotry miss the real point, about the wider crisis of a faith-free political class and society that made so many in high places willing to swallow their doubts and accept the empty moral platitudes about WMD.
The Iraq War was never about those non-existent weapons. Yet the war’s opponents are still obsessed with the WMD issue years later. Meanwhile, in the real world of today we are faced with a British state badly wounded from Iraq, still desperate to assert itself in Afghanistan, yet confronted with the reality of its declining influence and finances. This week’s defence statement seemed to suggest that the government is disarming and militarising at the same time, to find the money – if not the will – to fight wars that it does not believe in and cannot win. Meanwhile Iran looms in the background, with the fetishistic focus on nukes again distracting us from the wider causes of the crisis – the imploding authority of the USA and the West in the Middle East, and the inability of the old powers to manage international relations or act in concert on a real problem.
Might it not be timely for us to have a debate about some of that, about Britain’s place in the world and our relations with the rest of the globe? Isn’t it time to ask some serious questions about an interventionist foreign policy, and whether the remnants of the moral authority of Whitehall is something worth fighting for? None of that will be helped by another year of droning on about the non-existent WMD of yesteryear.
Blair said he would have been for the Iraq War even if he knew Saddam had no WMD, because he believed it was right. Some of us, on the other hand, would have opposed it even if we knew for sure that he did have them, because such interventions are anti-democratic and lead only to disaster. Now let’s have a row about that.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.