The proof that not everything is a conspiracy

Recent scandals over Iraq show that today’s leaders are incapable of covering their own backsides, never mind covering up a war.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

It often appears that everything is a conspiracy and a cover-up these days, and nothing more so than the Iraq war. The invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US-led coalition is now widely assumed to be the result of a neo-conservative conspiracy to conquer the world, a corporate-backed conspiracy to control Middle East oil supplies, a Zionist conspiracy to bring the West on to Israel’s side in a war against Islam, or some combo-conspiracy of all of these and other plots. If there is any absence of proof to support these conspiracy theories, it is assumed to be only because of the systematic, long-term top-level cover-up that has sought to bury the truth.

Two recent media controversies have been seized upon as further proof of conspiracies and cover-ups over Iraq. First Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to Washington, published his revelations about how prime minister Tony Blair had kowtowed to President George W Bush over a US plot to invade Iraq regardless of the absence of evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Second came the dramatic announcement from the attorney general, the British state’s legal guardian, that he would prosecute anybody publishing the details of a document, leaked by civil servants and reported in the Daily Mirror, which claims that Bush talked/joked to Blair about bombing the Qatar-based satellite TV station, al-Jazeera.

Looked at in a less hysterical light, however, episodes like these can be seen to confirm the opposite point to that made by the conspiracy theorists. They suggest that the Anglo-American elites are now so disoriented, divided, incoherent and indecisive that they would be entirely incapable of organising an effective conspiracy or cover-up of just about anything, never mind in relation to a major international war.

Take Meyer. His story of Blair following Bush into war should come as no great shock – it might once have been called an alliance rather than a conspiracy. What is much more unusual is that a former ambassador and pillar of the establishment such as Meyer should be splashing these tales across the media. International diplomacy is traditionally about being reserved, discreet and loyal, and doing the state’s bidding behind closed doors in the name of the Crown. As with top civil servants at home, being a British ambassador is above all about having a shared sense of purpose in protecting the interests of the British state and Establishment. It is hard to see how the machinery of government could hope to operate properly without that.

Yet any such sense of loyalty and discretion is absent in Meyer’s book. He not only breaks every rule of diplomacy and political confidence, but lets rip with the sort of petty personal abuse more usually found in celebrity gossip magazines (see Christopher Meyer: what a creep, by Brendan O’Neill). Yet he clearly sees no contradiction between dishing the dirt in this way and continuing to serve as an establishment spokesman, in his current position as chair of the Press Complaints Commission. Despite public condemnations from Cabinet ministers, the government so far seems to lack the capacity to shut him up.

If even at such elevated levels of power, the political class cannot hold itself together or keep its lip buttoned in the media, then what chance would they have of getting away with any conspiracy or cover-up today? There have been high-level leaks and internal allegations at every stage of the Iraq fiasco, such as when it was revealed from within the Foreign Office that one of the infamous dodgy dossiers on Saddam’s WMD had been largely cobbled together from the internet by inexperienced researchers. Such a porous operation would have been almost unthinkable in previous wars, when the political and diplomatic class would unite to fight a common foe and put all differences aside – as Meyer himself makes clear in describing his enthusiastic support for Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War in 1982.

The strange affair of Bush, Blair and the ‘bombing’ of al-Jazeera tells a similar story of an elite which can no longer cover its own backside efficiently, never mind covering up major war crimes. The meeting between the president and the prime minister is meant to have taken place in April 2004, at the height of the US assault against Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah. If Bush said what he is alleged to have said – and the attempt to suppress the document suggests to many that he must have – it certainly reveals the frustration of the US administration at its inability to get a coherent message across or win the argument about its mission in Iraq. The most charitable interpretation is that it was Bush’s idea of a bitter joke.

More revealing, however, is the impact that this crack has had on the British side 18 months later. It was leaked by a civil service which, like the diplomatic service, would once have kept such matters to itself in pursuit, not of a factional conspiracy, but a common political purpose. Then the attorney general issued that desperate threat in an effort to suppress the document – which, of course had the opposite effect of giving it both publicity and credibility. This is not the stuff of a calculated cover-up of political machinations, but of a knee-jerk panic by an insecure elite that no longer knows who or what it can trust. Conspiracies are not normally hidden by publicly ordering newspaper editors not to report them – especially in circumstances where everybody is bound to report what it is that they have been told not to say.

(Incidentally, anybody who wants to do some interesting investigative journalism might start by asking why many of those now making a fuss about President Bush’s alleged comments on blowing up al-Jazeera did not object when President Bill Clinton blew up the Serbian television centre during the 1999 Kosovo war. That was not a joke or a rumour but an aerial bombing raid, which killed Serbian journalists and cleaners.)

The proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the inability of the authorities to cover anything up, both spring from the same underlying cause. It is the problem of power without purpose in the Western world today, which we have recently discussed at length on spiked (see Blair, Bush, Chirac: in power, but in paralysis, by Mick Hume; French lessons for us all, by Frank Furedi). The absence of a clear sense of mission and certainty within the elite about how to defend class or national interests makes it difficult to act decisively or to provide a coherent message about what it is doing and why. That, for instance, helps to explain why they have never been able to offer a good case for the Iraq adventure, shifting the arguments from WMD to liberation to terrorism to whatever. Indeed, the neo-conservatives have often had to resort to conspiracy theories of their own, claiming that they are up against an Islamic plot to conquer the West.

As a consequence of this incoherence, everybody else feels able to write their own script for these events, however outlandish. Conspiracy theories rush in to fill the vacuum at the heart of our political system. Yet the same problem of power without purpose also ensures that the political elite is pretty much incapable of organising an effective conspiracy. Personal cliques and factions can certainly plot against one another in the court politics of Whitehall or Washington, often by leaking secrets to the media. But when it comes to anything bigger than protecting themselves and their egos, they seem unable to get – and certainly to keep – things together.

It is high time that those who want an alternative stopped scratching around for evidence of conspiracies, and started working out a political case of their own. Instead, conspiracy-mongering often serves as an excuse to avoid that difficult task. After all, we don’t have to confront the arguments over Iraq or anything else if we know that it’s all just a cover for a ‘secret agenda’, right?

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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