We need honest debate, not a bureaucratic inquiry

We wouldn’t need another bloody inquiry into Iraq if there had been some serious moral and political discussion about the war.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

On 19 March 2003, 412 British members of parliament voted in favour of deploying UK forces in Iraq. Only 149 voted against. Nearly seven years later, as the bombs explode once more in Baghdad, the consequences of that decision continue to be felt.

The consequences can be seen in the UK, too. Veterans of the ‘illegal war’ lobby still want closure; duped MPs still want some sort of explanation; and former prime minister Tony Blair, if his ever-proliferating enemies are to be believed, still wants hanging. The 2004 inquiry led by Lord Hutton into the death of British weapons inspector David Kelly in 2003, which also covered the notorious dodgy dossier that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, didn’t provide such closure. The 2004 inquiry lead by Lord Butler into Iraq war intelligence failures didn’t provide it, either. Where the Lords failed to deliver opponents of the Iraq war from Blair’s evil, now it is the turn of career civil servant Sir John Chilcot. This latest inquiry into the Iraq War promises to be the broadest, most thorough of the lot. All the key players, including Blair, will be interviewed, and Chilcot’s remit covers the years preceding the invasion and its aftermath.

Two weeks in, however, and few are convinced he will give long-standing opponents of the war, MP or otherwise, what they need. Announced to a chorus of ‘whitewash’ back in June, the inquiry has since been lost to the refrains of ‘gentle’ questioning and ‘opaque’ answers. Professor Phillipe Sands QC, prominent proponent of the illegal war thesis, said he was ‘shocked by the questioning’. Witnesses slip by unchallenged; question-raising documents are ignored. Why not press Blair’s then foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, on British ambassador to the US Sir Christopher Meyer’s belief, expressed in a 2002 letter, that the UK government could wrongfoot Saddam Hussein using UN inspectors? Why not challenge Sir John Scarlett, former MI6 chief and head of the joint intelligence committee in run-up to the war, a bit more strongly? As someone responsible for the dodgy dossier, surely Scarlett deserves a proper grilling rather than a gentle caress?

The inquiry so far has been as penetrative as a feather, and where it has attended to detail it has been impersonal. Culpability seems elusive. As the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins described it: ‘For two weeks, the investigation into the alleged failures of the 2003 invasion of Iraq has dealt with processes and procedures.’ Whitehall mandarin after army bureaucrat has shuffled in, and shuffled out again, puffing a few sweet qualifications into the inquiry air: ‘I might have said that’; ‘He may have meant this’.

No one was quite as elusive as intelligence chief Scarlett. ‘Lost in translation’ was how he described the relationship between the dodgy dossier’s claims that Iraq could launch chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes and the actual intelligence. The 45-minutes thing was actually referring to battlefield weapons, apparently, rather than weapons that might be used against other countries. It should have read ‘munitions’, Scarlett explained, not ‘weapons’. Ah, I see, the inquiry seemed to respond; that clears that up.

Given the nature of the ‘interrogation’ over the past couple of weeks, it’s highly unlikely to satisfy the truth-lust of those wanting unassailable, incontrovertible proof that the decision to go to war was wrong. This does a raise a question, however: what exactly would sate that hunger for absolute certainty? It is not as if the public realm is lacking evidence of the Blair administration’s wrongdoings. We all know of the ‘sexed-up’ justification for the war; we’re well aware that then foreign secretary Jack Straw, in his own words, knew that ‘intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy’; and we’ll never forget that British ‘intelligence’ amounted to Googling ‘WMD Iraq’ and using the post-graduate research churned up in the search results.

But none of this is enough for some reason. What observers and activists and radical lawyers want is something else, something that would condemn Blair once and for all. That something is a judgement. And not just anyone’s judgement; they want the supreme judgement of some external, extra-parliamentary authority, whether a Butler, a Hutton or a Chilcot. In essence, they want a judgement that will do what they themselves – all those now-critical MPs and opponents of the war – singularly failed to do nearly seven years ago: that is, to oppose any invasion of Iraq on moral and political grounds; to judge it a violation of sovereignty, an action brutally detrimental to those in whose name it was carried out; to judge it, in short, as wrong.

Why didn’t that happen in 2003? If MPs were duped by some sexed-up intelligence, it was because they allowed themselves to be. As spiked said in July 2003, quoting the American historian Carl Becker, ‘One of the first duties of man is not to be duped, to be aware of his world…’ (see Only dopes get duped, by Brendan O’Neill). What these so-called opponents of the Iraq War lacked throughout was precisely that faculty of moral judgement and political nous. If they had possessed such things, then their opposition to the invasion would not have been so tangential and purely technical, a question of legality dependent on the existence of WMD. It would have meant that the fictitious existence of WMD, a sexed-up dossier, and behind-the-scenes rigging concocted by Washington and Downing Street would have become, if not quite irrelevant, then certainly not of the utmost importance, because invading Iraq would have been seen as politically and morally wrong.

It is this abdication of political responsibility that has created the infernal demand for an Iraq War inquiry to end all Iraq War inquiries. In the absence of politicians’ own judgement, judgement itself been passed over to the unelected authority of Lords and lawyers, of inquiry committees and report findings. Many hope that technical findings will paper over the cracks of moral failure.

Responsibility-dodging has been a key part of the political debate about Iraq. While Blair, part-Machiavelli, part-maniac, is fingered by many as a prime culprit, most of the blame is being heaped at the doors of the US and the Bush administration. Many of the witnesses and reporters at the inquiry are putting forward a polite, gentleman’s club version of the Blair-as-Bush’s-poodle narrative, which effectively exempts the British state from responsibility. In the words of Sir William Patey from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), ‘we heard the drumbeats of Washington… and our policy was to stay away from that part of the spectrum’. ‘[W]e quite clearly distanced ourselves from talk of regime change’, explained Patey’s FCO colleague, Sir Peter Ricketts. While the FCO are damning Blair for his obsequiousness, Bush and his neocon ideologues are being portrayed as the real warmongers here. Which would be great for those at the FCO and beyond, who, like the political cowards they are, are seeking to avoid all responsibility for the disaster of Iraq.

However, the truth is that the credo of humanitarian intervention that was used to justify regime change in Iraq was not a neocon invention, a phantasm from the mind of the Saddam-hunting Bush – it was a thoroughly New Labour product, forged in the FCO itself, and co-opted by President Clinton in that ‘triumph’ of ‘ethical foreign policy’: the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. The idea of sovereign states having to submit themselves to the better judgement of the armed ‘international community’; the notion of war as a moral mission rather than as a grubby fight for territory or influence; the idea that isolated politicians in Western capitals might demonstrate some purpose by invading some country in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa… these were all key features of New Labour’s redefinition of foreign policy in the late 1990s, later taken on board by Clinton and then by Bush. The Iraq War as moral mission was as much a creation of New Labour and the FCO as it was of Bush and his neocon advisers.

The historical forgetfulness shouldn’t be a surprise, however. At every stage in the run-up to the Iraq War and after it, political and moral responsibility has been evaded. The decision to invade Iraq need not have been taken, and should not have been taken. If only those MPs and anti-war opponents had had the moral cojones and political judgement to oppose it, not on the grounds of WMD-dependent legality but on the basis that it was wrong, and that ‘regime change’ can only ever come from within and not from outside a society.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black said we don’t need another Iraq inquiry. Mick Hume wondered why the shock and awe over Iraq came so late. Brendan O’Neill said the coalition’s war exposed a hole at the heart of the West, and left a hole in the heart of Iraq. Elsewhere, he examined David Kelly’s connections and said the cult of transparency is a threat to democracy. James Heartfield said the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

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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