Counting the minutes

The 45-minutes claim over Iraq's WMD has been spun by Blair's critics even more than by Blair himself.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Poor Michael Ancram. The Tory MP and former minister of state for Northern Ireland claims to have been ‘duped’ by Blair’s assertions that Iraq could launch chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes. According to Ancram, the entire House of Commons was ‘comprehensibly duped’ by the September 2002 dossier, ‘a Downing Street concoction’ that effectively misled parliament into war (1).

On the other side of the duped House, Clare Short, Blair’s former secretary of state for international development who resigned in May, says she and the British public were ‘duped all along’ by the 45-minutes claim. ‘We were duped by the prime minister…and we were duped by the speed’, says Short, claiming that the 45-minutes thing was ‘part of a secret commitment to a date [for war]’ (2).

The government’s 45-minutes claim appeared in last September’s dossier, which argued that ‘the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so’. Following Andrew Gilligan’s May reports for BBC’s Today programme – in which he alleged that some intelligence officials were ‘unhappy’ about the claim and that it had been added to the dossier by Alastair Campbell – and the Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of Gilligan’s source David Kelly, the ‘45-minute lie’ has dominated the postwar debate.

Yet there is something disingenuous in all this. For all the critics’ shock over recent ‘revelations’, they could have ridiculed the 45-minutes claim months ago. And how were Ancram, Short and the rest apparently won over to war by a single spurious claim? The fuss over 45 minutes is less a principled stand, than a cover for the cowardice of the government’s opponents – for those who want to have a go at Blair but who lack the principles with which to do it. Blair’s critics have spun the 45-minutes claim, exploited it and used it for cynical ends, even more than Blair himself has.

Those voicing concern about the 45 minutes five months after the Iraq war ended have chosen a curious time to do it. Doubts were originally raised about the 45-minutes claim back in September 2002, just days after the dossier was published and six months before the war started. On 25 September 2002, Trevor Findlay of the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre in London said the 45 minutes claim was ‘vague’, and ‘makes no mention of what delivery system would be used within 45 minutes…. It gives the impression that it is talking about ballistic missiles but that is not clear’ (3).

Also in September 2002, Dan Plesch of the Royal United Services Institute dismissed the 45-minutes claim along with some of the dossier’s other ‘catchy’ but unconvincing arguments – ‘maps of missiles that Iraq does not have, missile ranges that Iraq cannot achieve’. ‘This dossier does not present the case for a war against Iraq’, said Plesch (4). These experts are not anti-war – but they were clearly uncomfortable with Blair’s 45 minutes.

The 45-minutes claim should have made little sense to those concerned about the use of misleading information for the purposes of justifying war. The dossier said Saddam could launch deadly weapons within 45 minutes – but exactly which deadly weapons, and how much of a threat were they to the West? On this, many experts claimed that the dossier was ‘weak’, and had failed to challenge the theory put forward by the International Institute for Strategic Studies a month earlier – that Saddam’s arsenal is ‘insufficient for sustained offensive military operations’ (5).

But rather than dissing the dossier, many of those currently raising concerns about the 45 minutes supported it – and the war. On 24 September 2002, when Blair unveiled the dossier and made a speech to parliament in which he repeated the 45-minutes claim, Michael Ancram said: ‘Military action may well be necessary and, if it is, we will support it.’ (6) On 18 March 2003, following another Blair speech to parliament in which he talked up Saddam’s imminent threat, a majority of MPs voted in favour of war – including Ancram and Clare Short.

Many in the UK media are currently obsessing over the 45-minutes claim, yet they also accepted it, rather than perhaps investigating it, when it was originally made. After Blair’s 18 March speech on Saddam’s ‘imminent threat’, an Independent editorial said: ‘This was the most persuasive case yet made by the man who has emerged as the most formidable persuader for war.’ (7) The Daily Telegraph said that ‘any fair-minded person must surely have concluded that Mr Blair was right and his opponents were wrong’ (8).

Do those currently criticising the government really think that the dossier, and more specifically the 45-minutes claim, took Britain into war? That without these things there wouldn’t have been a joint British/US invasion of Iraq? The notion that the war was made by Blair’s dodgy dossier seems bizarre.

In truth, there is far less to distinguish between the government and its opponents over Iraq than the current spat over 45 minutes might lead us to believe. Ancram and the Tories, as well as Short and other disgruntled Labour MPs, have no problem with Blair and Bush sitting in judgement on states like Iraq. They fully accept Blair’s role in international affairs and the right of the West to undermine other states’ sovereignty and depose of regimes – as shown by Short’s all-out support for the Kosovo war of 1999.

Indeed, the fact that Blair’s critics have made the pre-war evidence against Iraq their main focus, rather than the war itself, shows that their opposition is based more on tactics than principle. It is not that they are politically opposed to the intervention in Iraq, but that they were not convinced by the imminent nature of Saddam’s threat or the urgency of launching that kind of war, at that particular time. Short now argues that the 45-minutes expose shows that Saddam’s threat was not ‘imminent’ and that other tactics could have been used over war – like, perhaps, the pinpoint attacks that she proposed, where the West would use ‘remedies that will hit Saddam and the elite’, rather than ‘Iraq’s men, women and children’.

In this sense, it is fitting that the postwar debate, if you can call it that, is over how many minutes it would take Saddam to launch an attack, over questions of time and timing. Ancram, Short and others’ concerns about the Iraqi venture were always a question of timing and tactics, rather than anything to do with a principled opposition to war.

Yet now they hide behind the doubts about the 45 minutes, claiming that this ‘duped’ them into supporting war. We should be grateful that Blair and co didn’t include the claim that Saddam could launch weapons within 20 minutes in their dossier, which was apparently an option – otherwise the likes of Ancram and Short might have supported Iraq being nuked off the face of the Earth.

Today’s 45-minutes controversy has little to do with challenging Blair on Iraq. Rather, Blair’s critics have jumped on this issue because it has become the eye of the storm in recent months, following the David Kelly and Hutton crises. As the 45-minutes claim has been publicly speculated about, so it has become a magnet for Blair’s cowardly critics. They have attached themselves to the 45-minute doubts like political parasites, in the hope that this squalid crisis will challenge Blair where they have failed to.

Consequently, the 45-minutes claim has been blown out of all proportion – and the debate about Iraq has been further degraded. As the government’s critics feed off the 45-minutes doubt, so the claim has come to be depicted as the linchpin of the government’s Iraqi campaign. In a news article on 9 September 2003, the Guardian referred to ‘the government’s key defence of war in Iraq – the infamous 45-minute claim’. But the 45-minutes claim was not the government’s central argument for war – except, perhaps, in the minds of those who have used it to hit the government where it hurts.

The obsession with the 45 minutes also elevates technical questions over principled differences – where the debate over Iraq becomes an evidence-based affair over which facts are true, which aren’t, who made up what, and who got duped by whom. What gets lost in all this is any notion that political players were responsible for taking decisions that led to the invasion of Iraq, and that others were responsible for consciously supporting them. Instead, all sides hide behind the evidence, as a means of avoiding political responsibility for the disastrous war in Iraq.

Whatever about the ‘dark actors’ who made up the 45-minute claim, the use of the 45 minutes as a way of shirking responsibility is at least as shameless.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Blair duped MPs, say Tories, BBC News, 3 July 2003

(2) Clare Short: ‘We were duped’, BBC News, 1 June 2003

(3) Sifting the old claims from new and suspicions from assertions of fact, Nicholas Watt and David Pallister, Guardian, 25 September 2002

(4) Blair makes his case, but what does the jury think?, Guardian, 25 September 2002

(5) Sifting the old claims from new and suspicions from assertions of fact, Nicholas Watt and David Pallister, Guardian, 25 September 2002

(6) MPs from all sides unite to urge caution over taking on Saddam, Patrick Wintour and Michael White, Guardian, 25 September 2002

(7) Editorial, Independent, 19 March 2003

(8) Master of the House, Daily Telegraph, 19 March 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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