In a Guardian column last Monday, Max Hastings observed: "Those of us who opposed military involvement in early-1990s Yugoslavia were probably wrong. The fact that it was difficult to do something should not have become an excuse for doing nothing. It we want to stop the Milosevices of the future, what will be needed are credible, muscular military actions, not gestures . . ."
It was a journalistic mea culpa that has received less attention than those of William F Buckley, Francis Fukuyama and Andrew Sullivan, all of whom - to differing degrees and with differing emphases - have offered apologies for their over-bullish support of the Iraqi invasion. Yet Hastings's comment is at least as important.
The opposition to involvement in early-1990s Yugoslavia was most potently and damagingly voiced by Douglas (now Lord) Hurd, then foreign secretary, followed by his immediate successor in office, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. According to Hastings, Lord Hurd now has doubts about the position he
adopted (though Sir Malcolm, as far as I know, has voiced none).
The death of Slobodan Milosevic, and the occasion it affords to read again details of the malignity of his rule in Serbia - 200,000 casualties and two million people displaced in Bosnia; thousands of deaths and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; murder, torture and imprisonment of his enemies in Serbia - bring home the cost of leaving mass murderers in power: a cost not borne, at least for now, by the rich and well-defended states of the west, but by those who have neither power nor defence and who find themselves under the dictator's sway.
So it was with Saddam's Iraq. The repeated invasions of contiguous states; the massacres of Kurds and southern Shia; the licence given to torturers, rapists and murderers wearing the uniforms of secret police; the complete arbitrariness of Saddam's kleptocratic rule; the development of chemical and biological weapons and the attempt to develop a nuclear weapon - all of these made Iraq an internal hell and an external danger which, sooner or later, would have to be faced down.
The glad hosannas of those who see in the apologies of some who backed invasion a vindication of their own opposition to it are simply signs of self-delusion. Worse, they are yet another evasion of the central question, which George W Bush and Tony Blair did have the nerve to face: what is to be done about dangerous tyrants, beyond hand-wringing, ineffectual and decaying sanctions and ever-more hollow-sounding resolutions at various international levels?
That the intelligence on Saddam's possession of WMDs was faulty; that assumptions of post-invasion peace were wrong; that the commitment of troops to Iraq (and to Afghanistan) has been badly short; that the reality of Iraq has been subject to too much spin, are all, at least in part, true. But these are issues of execution, not of strategic (or for that matter moral) judgement. Issues of execution are as important in the real world and in real time: they determine life and death, the spread or the decrease of conflict and ultimately success or failure. But an inability to separate them when discussing (or polemicising about) the issue of Iraq does nothing for this debate except to lose the point of it.
The case made by those who have opposed the invasion, as they gloat over the evidence of chaos in Iraq, is that, at the least, invasion was a mistake - more often, that it was a move born of imperialistic hubris, or a grab for oil, or a hatred of Muslims. The logic of the reflections by Hastings is that there can be no such easy escape and that the lessons learned from Iraq speak to a larger commitment of armed force, a much more sophisticated notion of how a society is to be assisted to recover from dictatorship, as well as a greater respect for, and better preparations to deal with, those forces that wish to take Iraq into the ambit of repression and reshape it once more into the region's most lethal force for mayhem and murder.
Where the apologias err is when they suggest that the west has been too bullish about democracy. I find it hard to understand this line of reasoning - though I look forward to hearing Fukuyama explain himself when he comes to London. If being too bullish means that we expect democracy to succeed tyranny without significant problems, then, to be sure, we are too bullish. But few people with any experience of non-democratic systems do think this. What we know is that democracy, and popular rule, hasn't a chance while tyranny remains in place. Removing it is an indispensable first step.
If democracy is no longer to be considered as the "default position", what is? Which tyranny or authoritarian rule claims to guarantee stability? We have been down that route before: indeed, most western states have constructed that route. It is followed at the expense of the populations of the tyranny.
Iraq's murderous present is no reason for not getting rid of its genocidal past. The war has not yet been lost; there are freely elected parties; the substantial region of Kurdistan - as I saw on a trip there a year ago - is now creating both democratic institutions and economic development. Those who take satisfaction from Iraq's travails because it bolsters their case against Bush, or Blair, should get out more. In the real world of oppression, fear and murder, they brought some relief.