Hiding behind the weapons

Why is the anti-war lobby obsessed with the coalition's pre-war evidence rather than the postwar debacle?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Lambasting President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for lying about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction has become the anti-war lobby’s weapon of choice. For the coalition’s critics, the failure to find Saddam’s alleged stockpile raises questions about the legitimacy of the war – a war that was justified as an attempt to ‘disarm Saddam’ of his ‘weapons of mass murder’.

In the UK, over 50 Labour MPs have signed a Commons motion demanding an inquiry into the events and evidence leading up to the war. One American journalist wonders why President Bush hasn’t been impeached for telling lies about WMD (1). According to Salon, ‘From Australia to Denmark to Ireland to the UK, opponents of the war are using [the coalition’s] remarks about WMD as evidence of duplicity by the Bush administration’ (2).

It is true that Bush and Blair said their war was about getting rid of Saddam’s WMD – and it’s true that no WMD have been found, despite extensive searches in postwar Iraq. Yet there is a problem with the critics’ all-out focus on the weapons issue. Challenging Bush and Blair’s disastrous war in Iraq by flagging up their dodgy evidence on weapons points to a certain lack of principle on the part of the anti-war lobby.

Only the truly naive could be shocked that an American president and a British prime minister made things up in the run-up to war. Western political leaders have often blown up the facts in order to justify blowing up countries. From First World War tales about German soldiers roaming the Belgian countryside raping nuns to Gulf War I stories about Iraqi troops throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators, there has always been a thick blue line between wartime propaganda and factual evidence.

Consider the Gulf of Tonkin lie that launched the Vietnam War. In August 1964, US forces claimed they had been attacked for a second time by communists in North Vietnam – a claim that was repeated and reported across the US media. There had been no second attack; it was a fabrication used to up the ante in Vietnam (3).

Beyond today’s naivety, the anti-war critics’ focus on the weapons issue has become a way of avoiding responsibility for failing to challenge the war in the first place. Former British Cabinet minister Clare Short says she, and the rest of Britain, were ‘duped’ into supporting the invasion by Bush and Blair’s lies about Saddam’s weapons (4). Jane Harman, a Democrat congresswoman from Los Angeles, claims that she was hoodwinked by Bush’s WMD-talk.

‘Duped’ into supporting the war? These half-cocked claims might be half-believable if Bush and Blair’s evidence had been authoritative or convincing. It was neither. Questions were raised about the reliability of the weapons evidence months before the war started.

Opposition politicians’ retrospective focus on the apparently all-powerful evidence is a cover for their own cowardice over Iraq. Clare Short supported the invasion: after very publicly, and self-obsessively, mulling over the issue, she voted for war in the House of Commons. Jane Harman, too, voted for the Bush administration’s war resolution in the House of Representatives in October 2002 – along with many other Democrats.

Yet now Short, Harman and a host of others are blaming the coalition’s weapons evidence – the weak, regurgitated weapons evidence – for making them support the war. As postwar Iraq spins further out of control, some of the coalition’s critics are trying to wash their hands of responsibility by pinning the blame on The Evidence. This looks like a continuation of the anti-war sentiment ‘Not in my name’ – where protesting against the invasion of Iraq seemed to be more about opting out and salving one’s own conscience, than about standing up to Western intervention.

Ask yourself this: why does so much of the anti-coalition ire focus on Bush and Blair’s pre-war claims about weapons, rather than on their current occupation of Iraq and the bogus claims of ‘liberation’? Because the coalition’s critics support the continuing intervention in Iraq. As Tom Baldwin writes in today’s Times (London), Clare Short, currently kicking up a stink about Blair’s weapons evidence, did not eventually resign from the Cabinet because of ‘the failure to unearth weapons’, but because ‘promises had been broken about the role of the UN in the post-Saddam regime’ (5).

In the run-up to the war, the coalition’s critics hid behind the UN weapons inspectors, as a way of calling for a UN-led intervention in Iraq rather than a US-led invasion. Now that the war is over, they continue to focus on the weapons claims, while failing effectively to challenge what is going on in Iraq.

The weapons evidence has become a big bone of contention between the pro- and anti-war lobbies because, on the fundamentals of Western intervention, there is little disagreement. The coalition’s critics may be anti-bombing, but they support the West’s right to intervene in Iraq and to determine what should happen there. They would simply prefer an intervention conducted by the UN, rather than by America; by the Swedish businessman that no one ever voted for, Hans Blix, rather than by old-style Texan George Bush.

The peace movement prefers Western intervention that is more diplomacy and humanitarianism than shock and awe – even though such intervention can be as divisive and degrading for those on the receiving end. The squabbling over the weapons evidence shows that much of the opposition to the war was based on tactics rather than principle.

Focusing on the weapons evidence is a way of attacking the coalition’s underhand tactics without challenging their intervention. According to recent reports, the transcripts of a private conversation between Colin Powell and UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, in which both men raise doubts about the evidence, are being circulated in European government circles. The UK Guardian says this is ‘part of an effort among NATO allies to “rein in some of the less acceptable policies of the Bush administration”’ (6). So picking holes in the evidence can be a way of mocking the coalition’s more outrageous claims, without raising a peep about their ongoing occupation of Iraq.

Yes, Bush and Blair lied; yes, they exaggerated the threat of Iraq’s alleged weapons in order to justify their self-serving war. Yet there is also a streak of dishonesty and cowardice in the coalition critics’ obsession with the weapons issue.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) We used to impeach liars, William Rivers Pitt, truthout, 3 June 2003

(2) Angry allies, Jake Tapper, Salon, 30 May 2003

(3) See 30-Year anniversary: Tonkin Gulf lie launched Vietnam War, Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, Media Beat, 27 July 1994

(4) Blair duped public, British MP claims, Matt Peacock, ABC Online, 2 June 2003

(5) Fighting me, her conscience and her hypocrisy, Tom Baldwin, The Times (London), 3 June 2003

(6) Transcripts raise alarm across NATO, Dan Plesch and Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 2 June 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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