David Aaronovitch's Iraq omission

Why does the pro-war left gloss over the issue of Iraqi civilian deaths?

I like David Aaronovitch. He is one of our country's leading liberal voices, a brilliant, intelligent and passionate writer and a nice man. He and I agree on a lot. (You can watch us here debating together at the Cambridge Union in defence of political correctness -- our side won!) But he is wrong about Iraq. He always has been.

I hesitate before taking a pot shot at Aaronovitch because I did so only a few weeks ago, in a column on torture (and he emailed to point out that he had been the first to flag up the Jack Bauer angle). Nonetheless, in the language of the playground, "he started it", so I'll respond.

In his column in the Times on Tuesday, Aaronovitch ridicules those of us who opposed the war, calls the Iraqi elections a "bloody miracle" and deplores seven years of "goddamned" discussion of WMDs, legality, and so on. Time to move on, says Aaro.

Let me begin by highlighting some points on which he and I agree.

1) It is both miraculous and inspiring that Iraq is able to conduct multiparty parliamentary elections seven years on from the fall of Saddam Hussein.

2) Torture was indeed much, much worse and more widespread under Saddam Hussein than it is in Iraq today.

3) There has never been a proper debate about what would have happened to Iraq if Saddam Hussein had been left in power in 2003. What were the alternatives, if any?

But in Aaronovitch's column, entitled "Iraq has moved forward. It's time we did, too", there is a glaring omission. How many Iraqis died in order to build this new Mesopotamian democracy, what he calls "one of the most hopeful changes in recent times"? Or, to rephrase the question, how many Iraqis were unable to vote in these historic elections because they'd been killed in the period since March 2003?

He does make one passing reference to the death and destruction inflicted by the invaders and the insurgents in Iraq:

In the first place it has made it almost impossible to discuss the Iraqis themselves, to consult them or listen to them. They have become ghosts, invoked as (implausible) casualty figures, or seen on TV briefly lamenting a death or maiming.

"Ghosts" is an interesting choice of word. But I'm confused. Does he think casualty figures are not important, or that they are all "implausible"? Does he, like General Tommy Franks, not "do bodycounts"? Or can he tell us how many Iraqis he thinks have been killed in the violence unleashed by our illegal (yes, David, illegal) invasion in 2003? If not, how can he expect us to "move on"? How can we do a proper audit of the war?

Nobody knows for sure how many Iraqis died, or were killed, as a result of the invasion, but there are several different, credible and respected estimates, ranging from 100,000 to a million-plus.

There's Iraq Body Count:

95,593 to 104,291

There's the calculation by Associated Press:

more than 110,600

There's the Lancet survey:

601,027 violent deaths out of 654,965 excess deaths

There's the ORB survey:

1,033,000

Which one does Aaronovitch agree with? Any of them? None of them?

On a side note, I smiled to see Aaronovitch smear those of us in the "anti-war brigade" as "Shortists". But, of course, Clare Short did not oppose the Iraq war. She voted for it, and stayed in the cabinet, resigning only after the invasion had occurred.

He could have called us "Cookists" or "Denhamists", but he chose not to. Perhaps because it is much more difficult to dismiss Robin Cook and John Denham as naive peaceniks, Islamist appeasers or Saddam apologists than it is to dismiss Clare Short, George Galloway, Tony Benn or the rest of the usual suspects. I'm just wondering . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad