Iraq war: why all the shock and awe now?
Bush and Blair find themselves in more trouble than their predecessors faced over much more blatant war lies.
Call me an old cynic, but is anybody really surprised that the British and American governments’ claims about the causes of the Iraq war turn out to bear little relationship to reality? When was a war ever launched without an accompanying bombardment of black propaganda and distorted facts?
Many now appear outraged to discover how dubious intelligence about alleged weapons of mass destruction was used to justify the attack on Saddam Hussein. As one leading British commentator said of the Butler report, prime minister Tony Blair must either admit he was wrong all along or go, because ‘a government cannot go to war on a false pretext’ (1). But that is precisely what governments of every political stripe have done time and again. It has never seemed to bother the BBC or Her Majesty’s Opposition before. So why are they suddenly acting like a classroom full of naive schoolchildren, all shouting ‘Bliar!’ as if they had never heard of anything so outrageous as a politician spinning intelligence to win support for a war?
When American senator Hiram Johnson famously said in 1917 that ‘the first casualty when war comes is truth’, he was slightly out. The truth has often been taken prisoner or shot even before a war begins, in order to provide a suitable pretext for the launch of hostilities.
Thus we have long been taught that the First World War did not really start as the culmination of international rivalries between the competing empires of Britain, Germany, France and Russia, but simply because a Serb gunman shot an Austrian Arch-Duke in 1914. When Hitler’s Germany sparked the Second World War by invading Poland in 1939, the Nazis claimed that they were only acting in self-defence after the Poles had attacked them.
That might seem a ridiculous excuse to us now. But it is surely no more absurd an invention than the justification that American President Lyndon B Johnson offered for launching a full-scale war in Vietnam in 1964. In the crucial ‘Tonkin incident’, communist forces from North Vietnam were said to have launched two unprovoked attacks on US Navy vessels. In fact, the first of these incidents was a response to American attacks on North Vietnam, and the second one was a complete invention of US officials.
In every war since Vietnam, from the Falklands in 1982 to Kosovo in 1999, the governments concerned have ‘gone to war on a false pretext’. The true motives behind the conflicts have never quite been the noble ones claimed and reported. In the 1991 Gulf War, support was whipped up for the US-UK invasion with entirely made-up PR stories of how Saddam’s soldiers were throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators. Many of those media and political figures now up in arms about Blair’s creative interpretation of Iraq’s WMD programme were more than willing to go along with these atrocity stories last time around.
The row about governments using intelligence sources to provide political support for the Iraq war seems even more surreal. What does anybody imagine the intelligence and security services are there for? To support world peace? To sit in independent judgement of the evidence, in a state of priestly isolation from political considerations? Hardly. The security services are an arm of the machinery of government, and in times of crisis intelligence has always served as a tool of propaganda. Far from crying foul as they are today, most of the media has proved readily complicit in broadcasting dubious tales about the enemy as hard news.
To imagine otherwise, one would have to be struggling with serious naivety issues. In the same way, it would take a powerful degree of illiteracy about international affairs to have ever believed that Saddam’s Iraq – bombed ‘back to the stone age’ in the first Gulf War, according to a UN report – posed a mortal threat to Britain or America.
So why does there seem to be so much shock and awe surrounding the revelations that President Bush and prime minister Blair have ‘spun’ the case for war in Iraq? Why has the reality gap that is a common feature of wartime propaganda become such a hot political issue today? After all, by historical standards the British and American governments have actually been pretty timid in their manipulation of the facts. They have not claimed that Saddam ate his enemies, as the Boers were said to have done during their war with the British Empire in South Africa, or that Iraqi officers publicly raped Western schoolgirls and nuns, as the Germans were accused of doing in Europe during the First World War.
Yet Bush and Blair find themselves in more trouble at home than their predecessors faced over such blatant war lies. This is all the more remarkable since, unlike Britain’s Boer War or America’s war in Vietnam, the Iraq invasion ended in an overwhelming victory over Saddam’s rag-tag army.
This state of affairs can have little to do with events in Iraq. However bad one believes things there to be, it cannot seriously be argued that Iraq is in a worse state than other warzones. What is different this time around is the out-of-control state of affairs in America and Britain.
Where once the British establishment would have stood together in a time of crisis and sung their hearts out from the same hymn sheet, they now find it impossible to hold the line. They have lost the sense of institutional authority and political conviction that built the Empire. Instead, different factions within the insecure political class are fighting a turf war with each other. Thus parts of Lord Butler’s report read less like an inquiry into the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD than a settling of scores between the traditional mandarins of the Whitehall civil service and Tony Blair’s cliquish inner circle of advisers. This loss of coherence at the top means that everything becomes open to question, and high-level secrets can easily become matters of public scandal.
It was not the Iraq war that brought this crisis about. Rather, it was the crisis of authority that turned a relatively small war in Iraq into such a major political problem. A similar process is at work within the US administration, where the debate about strategy towards Iraq has become caught up in the internal Washington wars between State Department, Pentagon and CIA.
The public manifestation of the crisis of authority is a collapse of trust in political institutions. With little strong sense of common purpose to hold our societies together behind our political leaders, many people are less willing to take the government’s word for it on everything from GM crops to the MMR vaccine. It is often assumed that the Iraq war has been the major cause of this climate of mistrust. Thus a common media reaction to the Butler report has been to ask: ‘If we can’t trust Blair over WMD, can we trust him about anything?’ But again, this is getting things the wrong way around. It is because a cynical mistrust of politics and politicians has already taken such a hold that the rubbishy propaganda about Iraq has become such a problem for the government.
Seeing things this way around has important consequences. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out on spiked, in all of the furore about who-said-what-to-whom over the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD, there is no serious criticism of the political principle of launching wars of intervention (see What the Butler saw). We have heard more than enough over the past year about the precise wording of dodgy intelligence dossiers and news broadcasts. It is about time we had some more intelligent debate about what we want to stand and fight for, at home and abroad.
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