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Weapons of self-destruction

The WMD debacle is a crisis of the British elite's own making.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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Saddam’s elusive weapons of mass destruction seem to be causing more destruction in Britain’s corridors of power than in Iraq. The failure to find WMD in postwar Iraq has led to a shouting match among the British elite, with leaks, claims and counter-claims about the reliability of the pre-war evidence.

John Reid, leader of the House of Commons, says ‘rogue elements’ in the intelligence services are questioning the evidence in order to undermine the government. Cabinet ministers accuse shadowy spies of ‘skulduggery’. Over 50 New Labour MPs signed a Commons motion demanding an inquiry into British intelligence, causing one loyal Blair official to say, ‘They must really hate us…’.

Now, both the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee and the House of Commons Foreign Relations Committee have launched investigations into the pre-war evidence (1).

A foreign venture that was meant to bring New Labour together seems only to be tearing it apart. Far from closing ranks in a time of war, sections of the British elite are at each other’s throats – over who made up what, when and why, and whether the war in Iraq was justified. What went wrong?

The WMD debacle is a crisis of the British elite’s own making. The incessant leaking and blame-shifting over the weapons evidence points to a deeper uncertainty among the British authorities. In earlier times of war, when the British elite had a clearer sense of what it stood for, internal concerns about intelligence, tactics or conduct would have been resolved in private.

Today, in the absence of any ideological or political coherence, there is little to stop internal squabbles from going public. With the weapons crisis, the British elite is shooting itself in the foot.

The pressure on Blair’s government over WMD is entirely internally generated – by Britain’s own political, military and intelligence officials. There has been no outside, oppositional force storming parliament and demanding answers about the pre-war evidence. The much talked-about million-strong anti-war movement, which staged some big marches in London in the run-up to the war, has all but disappeared. The current frenzy over Britain’s dodgy evidence started life in Whitehall and Millbank.

British intelligence officials were picking holes in the government’s evidence weeks before the war started. On 5 February – the day that US secretary of state Colin Powell gave his evidence against Saddam to the UN – British intelligence officials gave a document marked ‘Top Secret’ to the BBC, which said that, contrary to American and British claims, there ‘are no current links between the Iraqi regime and the al-Qaeda network’, and some of the evidence about weapons had been exaggerated (2). The leak was seen by many as an attempt to undermine Britain’s war effort by causing a rift between British and US officials.

For the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan, who was handed the ‘Top Secret’ document, this was ‘an almost unprecedented leak’, an attempt by sections of the intelligence community to launch a ‘shot across the politicians’ bows’ (3). Gilligan claimed that throughout January and February, intelligence sources told the BBC that ‘there is growing disquiet at the way their work is being politicised to support the case for war in Iraq’ (4).

Doubts about the pre-war evidence were also raised, and slyly aired, by some within political circles. On 7 February, the media discovered that sections of a British dossier on Iraq, published five days earlier, had been plagiarised. Excerpts from a Californian student’s thesis and from articles in the defence journal Jane’s Intelligence Review had been cut and pasted into the dossier. And apparently, some in the media were helped in their enquiries into the dodgy dossier by further leaks from within the Cabinet Office – the heart of the British government (5).

In recent weeks, the infighting and leaking over Britain’s evidence has, in the words of one report, ‘spun out of control’. According to the UK Independent, there has been a ‘stream of leaks from anonymous security sources suggesting that Blair’s aides, including Alistair Campbell [the government’s spindoctor-in-chief], doctored intelligence reports to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons’ (6).

This is where the evidence crisis came from – within the ranks of the British elite. Now, in the postwar period, some government critics are merely feeding off this self-made crisis for their own ends. Former Cabinet minister Clare Short, Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and others, are latching on to the evidence issue as a means of challenging Blair’s government – not because they’ve suddenly discovered some principles or become anti-war, but because they recognise it as a point of weakness that they can exploit.

Consider Short – she didn’t resign from the Cabinet over the evidence, but over the question of who would run postwar Iraq. Yet now she kicks up a stink about the evidence because it’s a convenient excuse for her own behaviour (see Hiding behind the weapons, by Brendan O’Neill). Iain Duncan Smith has broken the bipartisan ranks over Iraq by demanding a public inquiry into the evidence – a bit rich from a politician who called the war in Iraq ‘noble’ and who greeted an earlier government dossier with the words: ‘The evidence produced in the government’s report shows clearly that Iraq is still pursuing its weapons of mass destruction programme….’ (7)

Short, Duncan Smith et al are not challenging Britain’s intervention in Iraq, so much as throwing salt into an open wound.

It was the divided and defensive British authorities that made the weapons crisis – and now they make it worse every day. Internal incoherence allowed doubts about the evidence to become such a big issue, and the government’s defensiveness ensures it remains a big issue. The more cagey British ministers become about the evidence, the more likely are their opponents, and the media, to continue obsessing on the issue.

Yet while the current crisis comes from within the elite, it is nothing like the internal clashes of the past. John Reid hints at a political conspiracy, where faceless intelligence officials, unhappy that there is a Labour government, try to undermine Blair. As The Times (London) reports, Reid’s allegations about ‘rogue intelligence elements’ are reminiscent of ‘claims that MI5 sabotaged Harold Wilson’s Labour governments in the 1960s and 70s’ (8), when sections of the British elite judged that their interests would be better served by a Tory rather than a Labour government.

Reid’s claims give a political gloss to what in fact seems to be a highly personalised, backstabbing clash among the authorities. Today’s crisis is not a re-run of the clashes of the 1960s and 70s. There is no right-wing cabal of old-style security officials challenging what it perceives to be a leftish government. On the contrary, many of the intelligence and security officials who have done the evidence leaking have raised concerns about storming off to war, while it was the Labour government that insisted that war was right.

For all the claims of a political conspiracy, the clashes over the weapons evidence have been entirely personal in character. According to The Times (London), ‘paranoia [has] swept through Labour ranks’. When told that more Labour MPs had started questioning the pre-war evidence, one junior minister said: ‘What have they got against us? Why are they doing this to us?’ Another said: ‘They are so bitter and twisted. The problem for us is, why?’ One Labour minister wonders whether Labour is suffering from ‘irritable backbencher syndrome’, where backbiting and bitching, rather than political debate, are the order of the day (9).

This looks less like a case of political disagreement over how things should be done and who should do them, and more like a petty insult-fest – where the authorities squabble, argue and bicker publicly, passing the blame and the buck for the Iraq crisis from one department (or individual) to another.

The current public spat is about much more than the Iraqi weapons evidence. In earlier eras, when the British elite had a clearer sense of what its interests were and of its role in the world, it would have been unthinkable for such petty internal divisions to go so public. While there were some big splits within the elite, these were over major political disagreements, with each side adopting clearly defined principled positions. Squabbles over military tactics and specific war aims would have been debated and resolved in private, subsumed beneath the broader interests of the elite.

Today, in our post-ideological times, there is less for the elite to rally around. When British officials have increasingly little sense of what ties them together, of what values and ideas they all agree on, there is little to stop their divisions spilling from inside Whitehall into the wider world – spurred on by often bitter, individuated members of the elite, no longer bound by any idea of a collective goal.

For all the talk of the threat posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, it sometimes seems as if the British elite is its own worst enemy.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Firestorm swirls around Blair, MSNBC News, 4 June 2003

(2) Leaked report rejects Iraqi al-Qaeda link, BBC News, 5 February 2003

(3) Leaked report rejects Iraqi al-Qaeda link, BBC News, 5 February 2003

(4) Leaked report rejects Iraqi al-Qaeda link, BBC News, 5 February 2003

(5) See Leaky battleships, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) Will Blair’s most loyal aide be the fall guy for weapons debacle?, Andrew Grice, Independent, 4 June 2003

(7) Iain Duncan Smith’s statement on Iraq, BBC News, 24 September 2002

(8) ‘Rogue spies out to get us – Labour’, Tom Baldwin, The Times (London), 4 June 2003

(9) Labour gripped by paranoia as whips condemn hateful attacks, Melissa Kite and Greg Hurst, The Times (London), 4 June 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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