Iraq: Why Blair was right

The responsibility to protect remains a powerful moral imperative.

I and others who supported the invasion of Iraq a decade ago did so because we thought that Saddam Hussein’s regime was among the worst in the world. This was, on the one hand, because of his propensity to violence against his neighbours – Iran during the 1980-88 war and Kuwait, which he attempted to annex in 1990 – and, on the other, because of his eager sponsorship of terrorist groups that saw the destruction of Israel as their life’s (and death’s) work, as did he.

But more significant still was the active delight in savagery in which he indulged, and passed on to his sons and presumed heirs. This he visited on the Kurds, on the southern marsh Arabs and on those, including members of his entourage, whom he suspected of disloyalty or who were linked to supposed traitors. It was a savagery which, unlike that of his hero Stalin, was not governed by a great deal of rational calculation: Saddam’s war against Iran was a disaster for his nation and the invasion of Kuwait still more so. The possibility that such a man might possess weapons of mass destruction was a nightmare for the world.

In the event, it seemed he did not possess, or no longer possessed, the weapons he either had once had, or desired and planned to have again once the sanctions regime loosened, as he reckoned it sooner or later would – a reasonable calculation, incidentally. The US and UK intelligence services believed he did have WMDs, as did all the other states with large foreign intelligence capabilities. According to some accounts, Saddam believed it, too, misled by aides who were afraid to tell him that the weapons had been destroyed. They were all wrong.

Two reports – by the UK’s Butler review of July 2004 (led by Lord Butler, a former cabinet secretary) and by the US Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction in March the following year – found that the respective intelligence agencies had made grave errors. The US commission was the harsher of the two, characterising the mistakes as cumulatively “one of the most public – and most damaging – intelligence failures in recent American history . . . in large part the result of analytical shortcomings; intelligence analysts were too wedded to their assumptions about Saddam’s intentions”.

The Butler report was more restrained, but also pointed to weaknesses in MI6’s checking of sources, a reliance on third- or fourth-hand sources and on dissidents, a surprising neglect of thorough information-checking in the prelude to the invasion by security officials and ministers alike, and, in particular, the weakness of the claim that Iraq could fire off rockets containing WMDs within 45 minutes – for which there was a source, but a highly dubious one.

However, Butler also concluded that Iraq was actively seeking WMDs, including the development of a nuclear weapons programme, before the invasion; that it was developing ballistic missiles with a longer range than permitted; and that the claim that it was trying to import uranium from Niger was credible, as was another that it was trying to buy mobile biological weapons labs.

Neither the UK nor the US reports was the last word; no last word will ever be said, though the report of the Chilcot inquiry, more comprehensive than that of Butler and expected to run to a million words, is now scheduled for publication towards the end of this year. There is some crucial material that is still classified – including notes between the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the US president George W Bush.

Nonetheless, I maintain that an adequate summary of the position now is that Bush determined to attack Iraq because he believed, on some false premises and some sound ones, that it was an active regional and even global threat. Blair supported Bush because he believed the same, though he put more stress, both in private and in public, on the moral case for intervention, holding to the thesis that states have a “responsibility to protect” their citizens which, once flouted grossly and over time, is a prompt for external intervention. The doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” was then (and is still) a subject of much discussion at the United Nations. There was nothing resembling a consensus around it, and there will not be one any time soon, at least as long as powerful nations such as China and Russia regard it as being against their interests and while others, notably Germany and France, see it as being, at best, a very occasional duty.

Opponents of the war in Iraq, whom I would guess are in the large majority in Europe and the US, often point to a wide spectrum of reasons for the invasion beyond the ones officially proclaimed. These include: the US’s desire to secure oil supplies; its wish to demonstrate in the harshest possible fashion its global dominance; revenge on the part of George W Bush for the attempted assassination by Iraqi agents of his father, the former president George H W Bush; Blair’s willingness to be an obedient lackey of Washington in the hope that Britain might get a share of the oil and other loot to be expected from an invasion; and his self-image as a global superhero, righting wrongs across the world. In many countries, especially in the Arab world but also in Europe, the invasion is seen as proof of Jewish control of finance, politics and the media, as well as Jewish sponsorship of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001 in order to create a casus belli.

Much attention has focused on two issues: the falsity of the claim that Iraq possessed stocks of WMDs, with the suspicion, often amounting to certainty, that the intelligence was manipulated to show what Bush and Blair wanted it to show; and, in the UK, the belief that Blair had agreed with Bush to support the invasion long before he announced that the UK would participate, and also before parliament and the cabinet had agreed, as both did. Indeed, at least in the UK, these two issues usually drown out all others, especially on the left.

Experience over the past decade has shown that argument over these produces nothing but mutual incomprehension. For the record, I believe that: a) both the US and the UK governments accepted intelligence that pointed to Iraqi possession of WMDs, but interpreted it in the way most favourable to the case for invasion and b) that Blair wished to support the US largely because he had long thought Saddam a major threat (though he had failed to convince the former president Bill Clinton, who also believed that Iraq had WMDs, to take action), but he insisted that Bush take his invasion plan to the UN before giving Britain’s formal agreement.

In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, attitudes on the British left hardened quickly into a self-satisfied conviction that opposition was justified, together with the belief in many quarters that the UK’s involvement in Iraq was emblematic of a New Labour administration that was mendacious, servile to the US and scornful of the UN, the European Union and the rest of the “international community”. This was, and still is, the view of many senior officials. The attitude entailed – not everywhere, it ought to be said – a deliberate blindness to the dangers of a Saddam-led Iraq and to the clear danger that his determination to become a WMD-armed state would pose. There was blindness, too, to the American and British containment of Iraq, with almost no support from other European states by means of a no-fly zone over Kurdish areas. And little attention was paid to the failure of the French, the Russians (who led the opposition to the invasion), the Germans and any other Europeans to develop what the American political philosopher Michael Walzer has called the “little war” alternative to the “big war” by the US and the UK – a little war that would have tightened the sanctions regime to the point where Saddam might have been required to change his behaviour.

There was some left-wing support for the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq, which came mainly from elements in the British trade unions, rallied in large part by the tireless work of Abdullah Muhsin, an official of the students’ union in Iraq who had been forced to emigrate, and aided by the parliamentary researcher Gary Kent. Muhsin, Kent and others put before the left in this country the facts of the suppression of trade unions and workers’ movements, as well as calling for the occupying forces to leave Iraq and hand over power to democratic parties. The support came in the form of a handful of conference resolutions and a few visits to Iraq in solidarity (I went on one, as a journalist), but it had little practical effect.

There has also been a wilful blindness to the passivity of the EU on this and other security matters – something that is becoming more salient as the US furls its global security umbrella and concentrates on developing a relationship with China. Europe has not and probably will not (at least not soon) develop anything like a common security and defence policy. Strategic thinking is required, therefore, especially on the part of the major states, about how Europe could operate as a loose gathering of countries to promote peace and freedom beyond its borders. Unfortunately, much of the left’s rhetoric has remained on the level of blame – for the US, New Labour and Israel – with little engagement with the threats, and possibilities, of the world as it is now.

Those of us who were for the invasion may still be “right” – right, that is, on the kind of timescale assumed in Zhou Enlai’s supposed remark to Henry Kissinger in 1971 to the effect that it was “too soon to tell” what the consequences were of the French Revolution two centuries earlier. (It now seems likely that Zhou was referring to the 1968 students’ revolt in Paris, but, as a US diplomat present at the conversation said, the misunderstanding was “too delicious to invite correction”.) It cannot be known what would have happened if Saddam had remained in power: my guess is that sanctions would have decayed and that relatively soon there would have been a WMD-armed Iraq, just as there is likely to be a nuclear-armed Iran and already is a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Rightly or wrongly, we were too sanguine about the prospects of regime change, especially in the light of the mess made of it. This was perhaps inevitable, because even well-trained armies are good at destroying but not fitted for constructing. In my case, nearly a decade of reporting in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for the Financial Times predisposed me to see western intervention (not military in that instance) as benign, as I believe it generally was. But we did not anticipate that Iraqi forces who hated the US – including those loyal to Saddam – would dominate after the invasion, that the population would not be active in ensuring democratic choice as it had been in, say, Poland, and that the west had limited staying power. We were much influenced by Kanan Makiya’s searing book Cruelty and Silence (1993), which detailed the horrors of Iraq under Saddam and called for intervention – an intervention, the author argued, that would be greeted with “sweets and flowers”.

However, the responsibility to protect remains a powerful moral imperative. It must remain part of the armoury of those states with the power and the will to stop tyranny where it is possible to do so and where intervention is likely to work – as it did in Sierra Leone, in Kosovo and ultimately in Bosnia. It may work in Mali. More thought needs to be given to how it might work in Syria. For the left, the responsibility to protect should be part of a progressive view of global problems. That the principle has become synonymous with a kind of refurbished imperialism is a sign of decadence.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor of the Financial Times and a former editor of the New Statesman

A protestor hurls stones at a poster of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on 10 April 2003. Photograph: Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

Photo: Getty
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Emily Thornberry: Why I'm sticking with Jeremy Corbyn

Labour's shadow foreign secretary has explained to her local party why she will vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election.

 

I hope you are all enjoying a good Bank Holiday weekend.

Since returning from holiday, I have been catching up with many of your messages asking me how I am planning to vote in the current Labour leadership election, and giving me your views.

I thought I should write to the membership of Islington South and Finsbury and explain my thinking.

As many of you know, it is my view that our response to the Brexit vote should not have been to turn in on ourselves. At a time of grave constitutional and economic challenge for our country, it was incumbent on us to rise to this threat and ensure that the Labour party should defend the interests of our communities and not allow the Tories a free hand.

I believed that this was a time for people to unite and think of the country, not to turn inwards and indulge in a coup attempt against a leader elected with an overwhelming mandate less than a year ago.

It will therefore come as no surprise to my local party to learn that, having remained totally loyal to the democratically-elected leader of our party since his election, I will stay loyal to Jeremy during the contest that has arisen from that coup, and he will have my vote in this election.

I have not agreed with everything Jeremy has said and done since becoming the Labour leader last year, but where I have had disagreements with him, I have always found him and his team willing to get around a table, listen, reflect and discuss a way forward. And as long as that is possible, I would never consider walking away from that table.

But for those members who may disagree with that decision, and the way I will be voting in this election, let me explain my more fundamental reasons for doing so.

When I first started campaigning to become your MP in 2004, we were suffering as a party because our hierarchy and leadership were totally detached from the party’s membership. This not only meant that members across the country felt alienated, demoralised and ignored, but more importantly their collective understanding of what people’s fears and aspirations were, learnt from listening to the public and knocking on doors, was being deliberately overlooked.

What had begun as the necessary modernisation of the Labour party in 1994, showing how a belief in a dynamic market economy could be combined with the drive for social justice and the transformation of public services, had become distorted into an agenda where the test of every new policy from the leadership was how much it would antagonise the Labour party’s core membership.

Tuition fees, the attempt to marketise the NHS, the careless disregard of long cherished civil liberties and the drive to war in Iraq were being imposed by a leadership who convinced themselves that, if the members hated it, they were doing something right.

When I walked through the voting lobbies against the attempt to impose 90 days’ detention without charge in 2005, Tom Watson –then one of Tony Blair’s whips – growled at me that I was a ‘traitor’. But a traitor to who?

Not to the country, when this was a draconian measure designed to look tough on terrorism, but one that would undermine the cohesion of communities like ours, alienate people and actually undermine our security. My members knew this and I remember when Compass polled party members – at my instigation – it was clear this was the national view as well.

So who exactly was I betraying? Just a party hierarchy and a party leadership who were trying to shore up their relationship with the right-wing press by ‘taking on’ their members, and trying to out-flank the Tories on security.

When Jeremy stood for the leadership after the disaster of the 2015 election, the difference was palpable. Here finally was a candidate interested in listening to the party’s members, reflecting their views, and promising to represent them. As a result, hundreds of thousands more joined, including huge numbers who had left because of Iraq, tuition fees, and other issues.

Here we are now, less than a year after Jeremy’s overwhelming victory, and the party hierarchy – through decisions of the National Executive Committee - is attempting to overturn that result, quash Jeremy’s mandate, and put the party’s members back in their box. And they are doing so in the most naked way.

I was disgusted to see the attempts to try to stop Jeremy from getting on the ballot. And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, hundreds of thousands of fully paid-up Labour party members were excluded from taking part in the election, having been told the opposite when they joined. Third, your membership fees were spent on securing that decision through the courts. And then lastly, registered supporters, who had been told they could be involved in the Leadership election, were then told that they must increase their donation to £25 within two days to remain eligible for a vote.

Indeed, you should probably know that even to put on the social events we have held for local members in the last two months – occasions that have been really important to welcome in our new members – we have been forced to seek permission for each event from the party hierarchy.

In short, some people have done their level best to deny the party’s full membership a fair and equal vote in this contest, or even the chance to make their voices heard. Instead of welcoming the enthusiasm of our new members, instead of celebrating the strength of our mass membership, they have been behaving as if it is something to be afraid of.

As someone who spent nearly 30 years as a grass roots activist before becoming your MP, I cannot accept this.

But even more important, as someone who believes our party and our country are best served when our elected representatives and the party membership work together, I fundamentally disagree with this attempt to take us back to the years when our members were deliberately antagonised, alienated and ignored by the people who they helped to put in power.

Islington South and Finsbury Labour Party has a proud reputation for being one of the great campaigning local parties and our election results in the past 11 years have shown what can be done when the membership and its elected representatives work together with respect.

We now have the potential to replicate this success across the country, creating a national activist base that could be unlike anything else in modern British politics, taking our message into the street and onto the doorstep, and turning the activism of thousands into the support of millions.

I do not understand why anyone in the Labour party would want to turn their back on that membership, in the way that the party hierarchy have tried to do this summer.

Instead, it is time to unite as a party – the membership and the elected representatives alike – and together take our fight into the only contest that matters: getting this dreadful Tory government out of office, and punishing them for the mess into which they have plunged our country.

That is what we should have spent our summer doing – uniting, facing outwards, taking on the Tories, and energising the public to our cause – and that is again why I regret so much the chaos and distraction that this attempted coup against Jeremy has caused.

So my plea to all members, and one I will make to my fellow MPs, is this: whatever the outcome of this leadership election, we should stop the internal division, unite as a party, and take the fight to the Tories together.

And I would like my local party to know that I will remain totally loyal to the leader of our party, whoever he shall be.

In the meantime, you all know that I have a very full in-tray with constituency business, and with representing the party on Brexit, foreign affairs, and – together with Clive Lewis – our future defence policies.

I will be concentrating on this vital work in the run up to 24 September, rather than this unnecessary and divisive leadership contest. And when that is over, I hope we can all start focusing on those bigger issues on which Britain needs an effective, united opposition.

I know that not everyone will agree with the conclusions I have reached, but I am completely confident that in Islington South and Finsbury, we will continue to debate this and other issues in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs.