Iraq was Harriet Harman’s war, too
The deputy leader may have made a u-turn on apologising for Iraq, but the real scandal is her claim that she was 'duped' into supporting the war.
Just 24 hours after being elected deputy leader of the UK Labour Party, Harriet Harman was accused of making a ‘u-turn’ on her views about the Iraq war. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, Harman, who was elected deputy leader at the weekend, denied ever saying that the government should apologise for Iraq. In truth, during a Newsnight debate on BBC 2 a couple of weeks ago, she did clearly say ‘I agree’ when Jon Cruddas, her rival in the deputy leadership contest, argued that Labour should ‘say sorry’ for the war.
However, the u-turn is the least shocking thing about Harman’s stance on Iraq. While everyone is busy attacking the new deputy leader for backtracking on the ‘apology question’, the real scandal is being overlooked: namely, Harman’s duplicity and political cowardice in claiming that she was duped into voting for the bombing of Iraq in the first place.
Harman now says she only voted for the war because she was told that Saddam had WMD. She and the other deputy leadership candidates voted in favour of invading Iraq, twice – on 23 February 2003 and 18 March 2003. Two days after that second vote, the war started. They all took a conscious political decision to vote for war. And denying this political responsibility now, in an attempt to appeal to all those who are disgruntled by the war, is pure political opportunism and a cynical bid to win votes. That’s the truly sorry thing about Harman and the war.
During the Newsnight debate, then justice minister Harman claimed that she didn’t know at the time Britain went to war that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction. She said: ‘Yes, I voted for the war because I believed there were WMD. If I had known there wasn’t, I would not have voted for it. Clearly there was a mistake, made in good faith, but I think with a new leadership we have to acknowledge the frustration and anger there has been over Iraq.’ (1)
Harman campaigned for the deputy leadership as an anti-war candidate; she also sold herself as a strong female leader, taking every opporunity to confirm that, yes, she is indeed a woman (in case anyone had any doubts). Yet now she wants us to believe that she was like a naive child four years ago, when she was misled – poor little Harriet! – by the British and American intelligence on Iraq.
Harman is being extremely disingenuous; at the time she voted for war in early 2003 many experts and journalists had raised serious doubts about the ‘evidence’ against the Ba’athists. As far back as September 2002, American newspapers ran headlines such as ‘Evidence on Iraq war challenged’ and ‘Doubt over administration’s case for war’, reporting on weapons experts’ questioning of the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam’s WMD. Clearly Harman is not a spiked reader, either; if she was, she might have read an article titled ‘Blair’s dodgy dossier’ in September 2002 (that was six months before Channel 4 claimed to have coined the term ‘dodgy dossier’), which argued that Blair’s evidence on the Iraqi threat consisted of little more than ‘speculation, rhetoric and rehashed allegations that have already been challenged’ (2). So if journalists in Britain and the US could see through the ‘case for war’, simply by asking a few probing questions, why couldn’t Harman?
In truth, Harman simply doesn’t have the guts to admit that she supported the war – not because she was duped, but because she accepted the assumptions underpinning it. Like numerous other MPs, she voted for war because she believed it would be a good and positive development to bomb Iraq, and she believed that Britain had the right, even a moral obligation, to carry out such a bombing campaign. Contrary to the idea that Iraq was ‘Blair’s war’, in fact it is better described as ‘Labour’s war’. A majority of Labour MPs voted in favour of the invasion, and there was not much convincing criticism of the war from Labour Party members in 2002/2003. This was Harman’s war, just as it was Blair’s. Yet where Blair still at least stands by the decisions he made in 2002/2003, Harman disavows responsibility for her decisions, preferring to present herself as the pathetic dupe of apparently all-powerful evidence. She has achieved the remarkable feat of making Blair appear principled on Iraq.
Harman is not alone in claiming she was misled by Bush and Blair and by that glossy PowerPoint presentation given by then US secretary of state Colin Powell at the United Nations Security Council in February 2003. In the ranks of the Labour Party and amongst its supporters in the press many are claiming they were duped by the ‘evidence’ on Saddam’s WMD; they cannot face up to the fact that they bear some responsibility for the tragedy that has unfolded in Iraq.
Some politicians and media commentators are washing their hands of responsibility for Iraq in order to salvage their own credibility at a time of growing disillusionment with the war. Harman and others are hoping to reconnect (every New Labour politician’s favourite word) with a public that is, in Harman’s words, ‘frustrated and angry’. She recognises that Iraq has become a major point of disgruntlement, an issue through which people express their dissatisfaction with politics today, so she is cynically trying to distance herself from the war in a bid to win the party’s and the public’s support.
Harman is denying that she played a role in the Iraq debacle and is instead pinning blame for the war entirely on Blair, in an attempt to give a kickstart to Labour’s post-Blair fortunes. And that is far more cynical and outrageous than any u-turn she made on the Today programme.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked
Brendan O’Neill looked into Blair’s dodgy dossier and said that only dopes get duped. Emily Hill said the level of political debate hit an all-time low with the deputy leadership contest, which at one point was reduced to a battle over handbags. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.
(1) What the Labour deputy leadership candidates said, Guardian, 30 May 2007
(2) Blair’s dodgy dossier by Brendan O’Neill