Iraq still isn’t an election issue

Debating the legality of the war is not the same thing as debating the war.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Anyone who still buys the idea that challenging Tony Blair over the legality of the Iraq war is the same thing as challenging him over the war itself should have been at Hampstead Old Town Hall, north London, on Tuesday night.

There, in a Lib Dem-leaning meeting organised by The Liberal magazine in one of the Hall’s plush debate chambers, set among the leafy surroundings of Belsize Park, two of the more prominent critics of the illegal venture in Iraq showed that there’s no contradiction whatsoever between bashing Blair over this war and being of a usually pro-war persuasion. On the contrary: their distaste for the invasion of Iraq seemed to be motivated mostly by a pro-war sentiment, by a belief that we Brits ought to do war more decently and efficiently than Blair did Iraq.

The speakers – Philippe Sands, darling of the liberal media since his book Lawless World, which slates Bush and Blair for their cowboyish disregard for international law, was serialised in the Guardian in February, and Tim Garden, former military man cum Lib Dem Lord – did 20 minutes each on dodgy dossiers, Attorney General memos, and Britain being in bed with Bush. Radical, right? Not quite. Neither of them has an anti-war bone in his body.

Garden’s main concern was that Iraq distracted us from more pressing interventions. ‘We still have the Balkans to finish. We still have Israel and Palestine to sort out’, he declared. And apparently North Korea, not Iraq, is the real threat to world peace.

His other big beef (not surprisingly, considering he’s a former Assistant Chief of Defence Staff in the British military and has, in his time, piloted light bombers, Vulcan bombers and Puma and Chinook helicopters) is that the Iraq venture was too American. He complained about US military officials ignoring British advice and said that is why we got ‘things like Fallujah’ instead of ‘peace, reconciliation and a stable country’. Here, an argument against the war in Iraq quickly becomes an argument for more Brit-influenced wars in the future. So much for the Lib Dems’ claims to be the anti-war party.

Sands, professor of law at University College London, has become something of an unofficial figurehead for the Concerned About Iraq lobby in recent weeks: his book was the first to confirm that the original advice on Iraq given by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith to Blair in March 2003 was indeed of the doubtful (or at least undecided) variety, raising questions about the legality of the war. This was further confirmed by an article in the Mail on Sunday last weekend, and by the leaking, to the BBC today, of Goldsmith’s original advice (1).

Sands told us, with a little glee, that comedian Rory Bremner recently phoned him up to check some facts for a skit he is writing on the legality of the war (sounds hilarious already). And surely nothing confirms one’s embrace by the liberal cultural elite more than a buzz from Bremner.

Yet Sands, like Garden, is not anti-war. At all. When I asked him whether the precedent for Iraq 2003 was set in the 1990s, when many politicos and commentators (including some of those now rapping Blair’s knuckles over Iraq) called for interventions in Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999) and, er, Iraq (1998), he said he supported those wars – even Kosovo, which he admitted was, ‘strictly speaking’, illegal. Like Iraq, Blair and Clinton’s Kosovo venture did not win the unanimous backing of the UN Security Council and was thus launched under the auspices of NATO. It was, according to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2000, ‘contrary to the specific terms of what might be termed the basic law of the international community – the UN Charter’ (2).

Indeed, of ‘Blair’s five wars’ – Iraq 1998, Kosovo 1999, Sierra Leone 2000, Afghanistan 2001, and Iraq 2003 – Sands told me: ‘I didn’t have a problem with four of them.’ He also didn’t seem to have a problem with the first Gulf War of 1991, led by Bush Senior and a coalition of Western Allies, including Britain and France. That was described as a legal war, justified by UN Resolution 678, which provided for the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. And it was fought ‘quickly and efficiently’, he said.

What about its consequences? In a seven-week period, around 250,000 bombs were dropped, killing, according to a report in the British Medical Journal, tens of thousands of people (compared with around 150 Allies who died). Around 80 per cent of Iraq’s water, sewage and electrical facilities were damaged or destroyed. The war was followed by internal strife – including the Shia uprising in the south, viciously suppressed by Saddam – and by UN sanctions, which caused further hardship.

The war also gave rise to a decade of interventionism in Iraq: bombing raids over no-fly zones in the north and south, weapons inspections from 1991 to 1998, Blair and Clinton’s bombing campaign of late 1998, and eventually the war in March 2003….which Sands and others are so concerned about. Yet Gulf War I, it seems, was okay, because there was a piece of paper that made it ‘legal’.

Listening to Sands and Garden was a sober reminder as to why debates about war should be political rather than legalistic, why we should ask whether such interventions are right or wrong, morally and politically, rather than whether they’re legal or illegal. Those of us who oppose Western intervention should interrogate the consequences of war for those on the receiving end, and peace more broadly, not memos, resolutions and who said what to whom in the backrooms of Whitehall in the weeks before shock’n’awe. War and peace are far too important to be left to lawyers and Lib Dems.

Yet Garden and Sands’ ‘challenge’ to Blair was also an accurate reflection of the degraded state of the debate about Iraq since it became an election issue following the Mail on Sunday piece and the BBC’s revelations today. The election debate, too, is a petty, legalistic and cynical obsession with the decision-making processes that led to the war, rather than a debate about the war itself. It interrogates the private discussions that took place in the run-up to the invasion, not the rights and wrongs of the invasion. So while Iraq has now become an election issue, the Iraq war has not.

Three things about the debate over legality are especially grating:

  • Firstly, it is based on the fanciful idea that there was a golden age when international law kept the world in order and allowed peace to reign. On Tuesday evening, Sands talked about the Atlantic Charter, the 1941 document that gave rise to the United Nations and a world order based on rules of sovereign equality and non-aggression, and then he ‘fast-forwarded 60 years’ to the rise of the Bush administration, which he says has set out to ‘dismantle’ some of those rules.

    He admitted this approach was a little ‘reductionist’. You could say that: it misses out the Cold War period from 1945 to 1989, when Western powers launched numerous wars and invasions against supposedly equal sovereign states, including in Aden, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada and Panama. And it misses out the post-Cold War period, the era of ‘humanitarian intervention’, when Western forces invaded or bombed Iraq, Somalia, Haiti and Yugoslavia.

    It takes a special kind of naivety to believe that international affairs were ever ordered by laws, by the deliberations of lawyers made in Belsize Park (or anywhere else), rather than by a global balance of forces between the powerful and the less powerful. Those calling on Bush and Blair to adhere to international law and to respect the UN should ask themselves when the existence of the UN ever made a difference to whether or not there were wars of aggression.
  • Secondly, some of the very same people lambasting Blair for undermining their precious international law did precisely the same in the 1990s, paving the way for today’s ‘Lawless World’. In that decade, a powerful bloc of world leaders, UN officials, academics and liberal commentators in the West challenged the old laws for acting as a barrier to ‘humanitarian intervention’ in trouble spots around the world. They called, explicitly, for a new world order based on intervention over non-intervention, and challenged the central principle of the UN Charter – that of national sovereignty. Indeed, they made sovereignty into a dirty word, something that tyrants hide behind to escape ‘international justice’.

    Consider the Guardian. It recently published extracts from Lawless World on Bush and Blair’s disregard for the UN, and has published editorials on the same. Yet during the Kosovo crisis, a leader in the paper criticised those who said Clinton and Blair should wait for proper backing from the UN, questioning the notion that the UN is ‘the only legitimate law-giver’. The UN constitution is a ‘recipe for inaction’, it said. ‘Its imprimatur cannot be the sole trigger for international action to right an obvious wrong’ (3).

    Its sister paper, the Observer, put it more baldly, admitting that the ‘legal authority for intervening in the affairs of a sovereign nation state is disputable’ and ‘innocent blood is certain to be spilled’, yet describing the bombing campaign as a ‘just war’. The headline on that editorial was: ‘There is no alternative to this war.’ (4) Even the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, quoted above saying that Kosovo went against the ‘basic law of the international community’, went on to say that it was, nevertheless, ‘right’ (5). Sound familiar? These arguments are a lot like those made by Blair over Iraq today: hey, I might not have played by all the rules, but it was the right thing to do. If ours is a lawless world, some liberals are not in a position to complain about it: they got what they asked for.
  • Thirdly, and worst of all, the legality debate is not even a debate about the Iraq war. Rather, it has become a rallying point for anyone with a grievance against Blair, for those more interested in poring over private memos and internal discussions for evidence of duplicity on the part of the Blairites than in challenging Blair for what he did publicly (launch a war against a sovereign state). That is why everyone from former Vulcan bomber fliers to politicians without an ounce of anti-war sentiment to journalists who six years ago were cheering a similarly illegal war now slate Blair over Iraq – not because they oppose Western interventions, but because they are shameless opportunists looking for a quick’n’easy way to have a pop at politicians.

In this sense, those challenging Blair over Iraq are, if anything, more despicable than Blair himself. At least he has called for a debate about whether the war was ‘right or wrong’; that would give some of us an opportunity to put the case for why the war was wrong in principle and a disaster in practice. Blair’s opponents, however, are too busy digging for dirt to take part in such a debate.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Election 2005

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Iraq war legal advice published, BBC News, 28 April 2005

(2) Foreign Affairs: Fourth Report, Foreign Affairs Select Committee, 23 May 2000

(3) Why Kosovo matters, Guardian, 26 March 1999

(4) There is no alternative to this war, Observer, 28 Match 1999

(5) Foreign Affairs: Fourth Report, Foreign Affairs Select Committee, 23 May 2000

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Topics Politics


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