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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.