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15 March 2023

The road to war in Iraq

Could a resolute cabinet and a more sceptical press have stopped Tony Blair?

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

How did it happen? Twenty years on it’s effortless to declare that the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was a catastrophic failure, and pointless to say so: who now disagrees? It was the most damaging adventure by any British government since 1945, far worse than the Suez ­fiasco in 1956. In fact, the Iraq War now seems for us what the American grand strategist George Kennan called the world war of 1914: “the great ­seminal catastrophe of this century” from which all subsequent calamities have flowed.

Not only were the consequences of the Iraq War wretched, the reasons given for the ­invasion proved to be false. There cannot be many, even among Tony Blair’s dwindling band of admirers, who still pretend that those claims for war were made in good faith.

Not long before his death in 2018, Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, said that Blair was the only person who could have stopped the war. That’s untrue, and meaningless. It is untrue because the Bush administration would have proceeded anyway with the invasion regardless of British backing. In the summer of 2002, when George W Bush told Blair that Britain didn’t need to participate, the Labour leader insisted: “I will be with you, whatever.” Those words also demonstrate why Annan’s claim was meaningless: Blair wanted British troops to take part in any ­invasion of Saddam ­Hussein’s Iraq.

Far more than with Suez, British action in Iraq was in defiance of ­popular opinion. On 15 February 2003 more than 1.5 million people protested against the war in London, and opposition was expressed in the opinion polls in the weeks before troops were deployed.  When the House of Commons voted in favour of Blair’s motion for war on 18 March 2003, 139 Labour MPs, along with every Liberal Democrat and a few Tories, voted for the contrary amendment, which said that “the case for war against Iraq has not yet been established”, words now hard to argue with.

So how did it happen? Despite public sentiment and the weakness of his case, Blair was counting on the corrupt servility of his cabinet and Labour MPs, as well as the supine credulity of the media. His estimation of both proved correct. British participation in the Iraq War was a dismal failure of British politics and journalism, which have barely recovered.

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[See also: Jack Straw: the Iraq War split the West and aided Putin]

Go back to where the story begins. A group of American neoconservative ideologues, including Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, along with the right-wing militarists Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, regarded Saddam Hussein as the greatest enemy of the US and of Israel and had wanted to overthrow him since the Gulf War of 1990-91. In 2000, those men came to power when Bush won the presidential election. As soon as he was inaugurated the White House began planning the destruction of Saddam, and less than nine months later the 11 September ­attacks in New York City gave Bush and his cabal an excuse for enacting those plans.

Visiting the US after 9/11, Blair met Bush, who told the Labour leader that when ­Afghanistan was dealt with, the administration would turn to Iraq. Blair expressed his solidarity with the Americans in his speech to the Labour Party conference in October 2001. “We were with you at the first. We will stay with you to the last,” he said, adding that “the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor, from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they too are our cause.”

That was what his audience – both Labour MPs and the progressive commentariat – wanted to hear. The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee was ecstatic. Writing under the revealing headline, “He promised to take on the world. And I believed him”, she said the speech “will stand as a moment ­British politics became vigorously, ­unashamedly social democratic. The day it became missionary and almost Swedish in pursuit of universal justice.”

Six months later, in April 2002, Blair visited Bush in Crawford, ­Texas. The US president and Rumsfeld, his defence secretary, ­repeated that British troops weren’t needed for the Iraq operation. But Blair was committed and began to make the case for war.

[See also: Being right about the Iraq war has made the left insufferable]

First came the September “dossier”, which claimed that Saddam had armaments that could be weaponised within 45 minutes, producing the Sun’s feverish front-page headline “Brits 45 mins from doom”. The “dodgy dossier” followed in the new year, with fragmentary intelligence about Saddam’s supposed weapons programme. The document’s sources included a paper written by a student at California State ­University, cut-and-pasted under the supervision of Alastair Campbell, Blair’s ruthless communications director.

As Blair well knew, the true purpose of the war wasn’t to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) but regime change, albeit in contravention of international law and the UN. The neoconservatives in Washington, and Cheney and Rumsfeld, who wanted to enhance and project American power, made no secret of their contempt for international law and their loathing of the UN. Blair’s task was to sell this war to Labour MPs and a liberal media who professed to revere international law and global bodies such as the UN. 

We know that some Labour MPs voted for the war against their better judgement. Peter Mandelson was Blair’s original consigliere but in the winter of 2001 he was out of office, having been removed from cabinet. He has since confessed that he warned Blair at the time that no Arab or Muslim country would support an American-led invasion of Iraq. Much as those countries disliked Saddam, they shared his suspicion of the US and his hostility towards Israel.

In August 2002 the veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman, who was then chair of the  Culture Media and Sport Committee, wrote an essay in the Spectator entitled “Why I ­oppose an attack on Iraq”. He lucidly explained why such a war would be unjustified and likely calamitous. But at the end Kaufman declared that, if it came to a vote in parliament, “my loyalty to Blair would lead me to vote with him”. In March, like Mandelson, Kaufman voted in favour for what he knew to be an ­unjustified war – out of loyalty. Kaufman was just obeying instructions. Is it any wonder politicians have fallen into such disrepute among the public?

[See also: George Bush’s Iraq War gaffe is unintentionally revealing]

The media’s record over Iraq was just as dismal. Rupert Murdoch warmly supported the war, not least because he said that the best result of invading the oil-rich country would be“$20 a barrel for oil”. All of Murdoch’s London papers supported military action (across Murdoch’s media empire we should not forget his one paper that did oppose the war, the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier). Individual columnists such as Simon Jenkins and Matthew Parris were allowed to voice their opposition in the Times, but Murdoch has never minded dissenting voices as long as they don’t affect the main tendency of his titles. Murdoch ­always saw the Sun as his most ­important paper, and it was gung-ho for war: “He’s got ’em, let’s get him”, it declared on its front page on 25 September 2002.

At one time the Daily Telegraph might have expressed reservations about the war, and seemed that the Iraq adventure was worse than Suez, when Britain and France colluded with Israel to attack Egypt and remove another dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, before the US stopped them. More than 40 years later, the British now conspired with the Americans, against French and German opposition.

One of the great “Ifs…” of recent history is to imagine what would have happened if, instead of allying himself with Bush, Blair had made common cause with the French president, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, in expressing sympathy for the US after 9/11 but warning that an invasion of Iraq would be disastrous. It could have transformed the course of European history, and we might never have had Brexit.

However misbegotten beforehand, and however much it miscarried in the event, the Suez enterprise could, at a pinch, be defended in terms of the British national interest. Our participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq could not be. In fact, it was gravely damaging to the national interest. Patriotic Conservatives might once have seen this, but the Tories and the right-wing press had become so in awe of American power that they failed to anticipate the coming catastrophe.

If that failure was lamentable, the liberal press was dismaying. The Observer fell right behind Blair and his war, and while the Guardian didn’t wholeheartedly ­support the invasion, it wrote in a leader on 12 March 2003 that “there is one thing Mr Blair cannot be accused of: he may be wrong on Iraq, badly wrong, but he has never been less than honest”. Who could possibly say that today? This was a disastrous failure of journalistic scepticism.

Some of the paper’s columnists were also willing helpmeets of Blair. Timothy Garton Ash wrote in March 2003 that if anyone could have persuaded him of the necessity of war it was Blair in his “magnificent speech to the House of Commons” justifying the invasion. A year later, with still no evidence of WMDs, Garton Ash doubled down, writing: “You may think Blair is a Bliar; I don’t. I’m sure he was convinced that Saddam had those weapons and therefore acted in good faith.”

In which case, Garton Ash decided that the blame must lie with the intelligence services, who for their own base purposes had deliberately fed Blair with misleading information. “Scarlett must go,” Garton Ash declared in October 2004. As chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, John Scarlett had been responsible for the “false prospectus” on which Britain went to war in Iraq. The ­possibility didn’t occur to Garton Ash that the intelligence services had been acting as Blair told them to, and that what had happened was much like the scene in Citizen Kane, where the newspaper publisher Kane receives a cable from his correspondent stating: “Girls delightful in Cuba. Could send you prose poems about scenery but… There is no war,” to which Kane replies – as Blair in effect said to Scarlett – “You provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war.”

There was a comparable problem for Toynbee, who didn’t like the war but was undone by her partisanship. Had we been taken into Iraq by a Tory government she would no doubt have said that it was a wicked crime, but she couldn’t bring herself to say that about a “progressive” government. And so, she wrote awkwardly in August 2003,  “To be sure, the prime minister hyped the evidence … He over-egged it, as he was bound to.”

Maybe somebody should have offered remedial history lessons at the Guardian. Far from hyping or over-egging or exaggerating the case for war, British governments and prime ministers have habitually exaggerated the case for peace. In 1854, Lord Aberdeen hated the Crimean War into which he was being inexorably drawn; in 1899 Lord Salisbury said he was being dragged into the futile Boer War by Alfred Milner “and his jingo supporters”; in 1914 the Asquith cabinet drew back from war until the last moment. And did Neville Chamberlain “hype the evidence” for Second World War in 1939? He did the opposite, and has been traduced for it ever since.

The land invasion of Iraq began on 20 March 2003, and Baghdad was taken on 9 April. On the BBC news that evening, Andrew Marr, then the BBC’s chief political editor, said that at Downing Street, “the main mood is unbridled relief… There were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history. Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren’t going to thank him (because they’re only human) for being right when they’ve been wrong. He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. … Tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.”

[See also: Leader: The Iraq War and its aftermath]

While the search for non-existent WMDs continued, Andrew Gilligan, the BBC’s defence and diplomatic correspondent at the time, said on 29 May on Radio 4’s Today that the government had “sexed up” the intelligence upon which the argument for war was based. This provoked a spasm of ungovernable rage from Campbell, who told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that Gilligan’s words were “a lie”. Gilligan had spoken to David Kelly, the well-informed authority on weapons of mass destruction. After Kelly’s name was leaked to the public he gave evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee in July, and days later he killed himself. Blair was travelling at the time, after a triumphal visit to Washington, where he was given a standing ovation by the US Congress.

When he learned about Kelly’s death, Blair told the correspondents covering his tour that Downing Street had nothing to do with Kelly’s name being made public. An inquiry was convened under Lord Hutton, whose report published in January 2004 denounced the BBC for having made “unfounded” allegations against the government. This led to the resignations of both Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke, the chairman and director-general of the BBC.

Even before it was later contradicted by the Butler Review and Chilcot Report, Hutton’s inquiry was widely seen as a whitewash. But it was applauded by Martin Kettle in the Guardian and Andrew Gowers in the Financial Times. Both said that Downing Street had been blameless, that the BBC’s conduct had been shocking, and that any journalists who had ever doubted Blair’s good faith should be ashamed of themselves.

Years later, the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley established that, less than three weeks before Blair spoke to the correspondents, there had been a secret meeting at Downing Street, where it was decided Kelly’s identity must be revealed. The meeting was chaired by Blair.

In 2005, a private memo written in July 2002 by Matthew Rycroft, an aide at No 10, was made public. Intended for the eyes of Blair, Scarlett and a handful of others, it summarised recent talks in Washington. “Military action was now seen as inevitable,” Rycroft wrote. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” So the intelligence hadn’t been “sexed up” just “fixed”. For that distinction Kelly had been hounded to his death.

Even if the fact of intelligence fixing wasn’t known at the time, there was sufficient ­evidence of the flimsiness of Blair’s case for war. What the Guardian should have said was what it had said as British troops went ashore at Suez in 1956: “It is wrong on every count — moral, military and political.” Better still it could have repeated what the Observer said at that time, a sentence penned by David ­Astor himself, the paper’s owner-editor: “We had not realised that our ­government was ­capable of such folly and such crookedness.” Those words could not be more appropriate for the Iraq War.

[See also: How do you cope after a western invasion? We hear from Iraqis rebuilding their lives]

A final, feeble excuse is that the ­horrors that unfolded in Iraq were unforeseeable before the invasion. In fact, they were not only foreseeable but foreseen. In 2012 Tony Blair was interviewed in the Financial Times. Asked about the horrors, he said, “When you take the lid off these deeply oppressive and dictatorial regimes, out comes the pouring of a whole lot of religious, tribal, cultural, ethnic poison, which is then multiplied by the actors in the region.” The interviewer was the FT’s then editor Lionel Barber, who pointed out “that was exactly what a small army of experts was telling [Blair] privately and publicly before the invasion of Iraq”.

Indeed it was. Michael Williams, a Foreign Office authority on the Middle East, who tried to warn Blair of the likely disastrous consequences of an invasion, was dismissed with the words, “That’s all history, Mike. This is about the future.” At the last meeting between Blair and Chirac before the war began, the French president – who had served as a conscript in the French army in the Algerian War – reminded Blair of the horrors of such wars, before warning that if the Americans and British thought they would be welcomed by the Iraqi people with open arms, they should think again. Chirac ended by asking if Blair realised that the invasion might precipitate a civil war.

The conversation has been recounted by Stephen Wall, then of the Foreign Office, who was present in the meeting. Wall added that as they were leaving Blair remarked, “Poor old Jacques, he just doesn’t get it.” As Wall says dryly, if superfluously, he turned out to have got it rather better than Blair. 

Even if the Bush administration could never have been prevented from invading Iraq, nor Blair from supporting them, he might have been stopped by a resolute cabinet, an honest Labour Party and a sceptical press. As it is, politicians and journalists must accept their share of blame for the enduring consequences of this awful misadventure. Much the worst of those consequences are in Iraq itself, where terrible bloodshed then morphed into another civil war in neighbouring Syria.

But the costs for this country have been grave enough, the decay affecting our politics, media, and standards of public debate. In 1956, the minister of state for foreign affairs ­Anthony Nutting resigned from the Eden government in protest at the Suez adventure. He subsequently published No End of a Lesson, a book about that dismal episode, with its title taken from Kipling “We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good.”

Has Iraq really taught us a lesson, or done us much good?

[See also: Arthur Snell interview: “Many world problems stem from the Iraq invasion”]

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe