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

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage