Don’t mention the war

From WMD to the question of legality, every facet of the Iraq conflict has been publicly debated. Except one: the war itself.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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For months, controversies over Iraq – the elusive WMD, the dodgy dossiers, the legality of the war – have dominated political and media debate. As UK prime minister Tony Blair said in his speech on 5 March 2004, when the current row over whether the war was legal dies down, ‘another will take its place, and then another, and then another’ (1).

In Britain, there have been two inquiries into the pre-war intelligence, an inquiry into the suicide of a civil servant who was apparently worried about the intelligence, endless debates about WMD and the 45-minutes claim, and now a row over the legality or otherwise of attacking Iraq.

All of these ‘clashes’ over Iraq, from parliament to the courtroom to the front pages of the papers, have one thing in common – they are about the decision-making processes that led to the war, rather than about the war itself. They interrogate the private discussions that took place in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, rather than addressing the rights and wrongs of the invasion. They focus on the motivations of individual politicians and intelligence officials, rather than on the actions those individuals subsequently took in Iraq.

This highlights a big problem with today’s cynical, anti-political climate. When public debate is more concerned with what goes on behind closed doors – with who said what to whom and why – than with what takes place in the public arena, big issues can go unchallenged as we spend our time chasing evidence that someone somewhere lied or did something dishonest. While commentators and critics pore over every memo and minute written before the war, the war and occupation go on – with barely a peep raised about them.

The Hutton Inquiry was not about the war, however much commentators and anti-war activists might have fantasised that it was. Hutton’s remit was ‘urgently to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly’, the Ministry of Defence scientist who committed suicide in July 2003 after he was exposed as the BBC’s source for reports questioning Britain’s intelligence on Iraq.

Hutton was not remotely concerned with what Blair and his ministers said or did in public, which by the start of the inquiry (August 2003) included launching a war against a sovereign state and taking part in an occupation. Rather, Hutton pored over 9,000 pages of documents passed by the authorities to the inquiry, including emails and memos from the highest echelons of government. Hutton’s aim – shared by those excitable journalists who lapped up the documents after his lordship dumped them on the internet – was to find out which officials had been in which meetings about the intelligence on Iraq, and whether any official said anything to Kelly that might have pushed him over the edge. The question of the war didn’t get a look-in.

Still anti-war activists latched on to Hutton, in the hope that he would give Blair a bloody nose over Iraq. Rather than kickstart a public debate about the war, many in the anti-war lobby threw their lot in with the Hutton circus. They gathered outside the High Court to berate government ministers arriving to give evidence; on the eve of Hutton’s verdict in January 2004, Lindsey German, chair of the Stop the War Coalition, said she could smell the ‘scent of victory’. Not surprisingly, Hutton failed to deliver the verdict the anti-war lobby wanted – because he is a law lord, and law lords are not in the habit of bringing down governments over war; and more importantly, because his inquiry was not about the war.

Nor is the Butler Inquiry about the war; it is about the pre-war intelligence. Set up after the Bush administration initiated a similar inquiry in Washington (following Republican David Kay’s resignation from the Iraq Survey Group), the Butler Inquiry will ‘examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the government before the conflict, and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraq Survey Group since the end of the conflict’ (2).

Conservative leader Michael Howard pulled out of the Butler Inquiry, because he wanted its remit to include the ‘use of intelligence’ as well as the gathering of intelligence, so that there could also be ‘an examination of individual actions’ (3). Where the government wants an inquiry only into how the intelligence was put together before the war, Howard and co want to interrogate actions taken by individuals before the war. Anyone who thinks Butler will raise questions about the war itself should think again.

Outside of parliament and the Royal Courts of Justice, there is also next-to-no debate about the war. The government’s critics are not challenging Blair over the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but over two specifically pre-war issues – the overblown claims about Saddam’s WMD and the question of whether the war was legal.

Anti-war activists and commentators have leapt upon the failure to find WMD in postwar Iraq as evidence that Blair and Bush lied to us and launched a war on false premises. The missing weapons stand as an ‘indictment of the London and Washington governments’, says one anti-war writer. What kind of opponent of war needs the failure of intelligence to show that a war was wrong? If Kay and his Survey Group had found tons of anthrax, botulism and smallpox, would that have made the war okay? The anti-war lobby’s focus on the pre-war claims about WMD, and the postwar failure to find them, further reduces the debate about Iraq to technicalities – to numbers of weapons and levels of threat – rather than addressing moral and political questions about invading a nation state.

Today, the big debate is over whether the war was legal. Following claims that Blair put pressure on the Attorney General in March 2003 to state publicly that the war was legal, anti-war activists are calling on the government to publish its legal advice. Greenpeace activists in Southampton are trying to get the Attorney General summonsed to their local magistrates’ court to answer questions about the legality of the war; international lawyers based in Britain are trying to get Blair indicted at the International Criminal Court. Some in the anti-war lobby clearly have more faith in the judicial process than they do in open debate, as they invest their radical hopes in the judiciary rather than in the public.

Yet debating whether the war was legal is not the same thing as debating the war. It is legalistic debate, rather than a political one; it is a narrow discussion of whether those who launched the war jumped through the right hoops beforehand, rather than a political challenge to their right to launch a war in the first place. It is yet another technical discussion of the processes by which the decision to launch the war was reached. And attempting to force a decision that the war was illegal implicitly accepts that a ‘legal war’ would have been all right, or at least better. Veteran anti-war writers John Pilger and Tariq Ali, among others, constantly refer to the war in Iraq as an ‘illegal war’. What if it had been ‘legal’? What if the courts currently besieged by anti-war activists decide in their infinite wisdom that it was legal? Would that, like the potential discovery of WMD, make the war okay?

The focus on the pre-war intelligence and legality suggests that while some in the anti-war camp have technical quibbles about the current war in Iraq, they do not take a principled, political stance against Britain and America’s right to intervene abroad. That many of Blair’s critics have made intelligence failings and legal questions their main focus, rather than the war itself, indicates that their opposition is based more on tactics than principle. It is not that they are politically opposed to the intervention in Iraq, but that they were not convinced by the imminent nature of Saddam’s threat or the urgency of launching a war without first securing a legal ‘yes’ from the United Nations.

On the fundamental issue of intervention many of these critics cannot argue with Blair, because they fully accept the premise of his international mission to cure the world’s ills; they support Western intervention.

Some of the leading critics of invading Iraq were full-on cheerleaders of Blair’s earlier wars. Robin Cook, who resigned as Labour Leader of the House of Commons over Iraq, was foreign secretary during Blair and Clinton’s Kosovo war of 1999; Clare Short, who resigned as secretary of state for international development shortly after the war in Iraq, was a leading spokesperson for the Kosovo war. ‘This is a challenger for our generation. We must do what is right otherwise evil will triumph’, said Short of invading Kosovo (4). The debate about Iraq tends towards the technical, towards clashes over issues of legality and timing, because on the bigger political question there is no disagreement between the pro- and anti-war camps.

Indeed, Blair sought to exploit these points of agreement in his speech at the end of last week. He evoked memories of recent wars that won the support of many of those kicking up a stink over Iraq. ‘Kosovo, with ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians, was not a hard decision for most people’, he said. ‘Nor was Afghanistan after the shock of 11 September, nor was Sierra Leone.’ In an attempt to silence the spats, Blair played a trump card against his critics: humanitarianism. ‘[T]he notion of intervening on humanitarian grounds has been gaining currency’, he said, locating the war against Saddam’s regime within the humanitarian ethos. With the WMD claims rubbished and the legality of the war challenged, Blair fell back on humanitarianism – aware that wars launched on ‘humanitarian’ grounds have won the backing, and active support, of many of those raising technical issues about Iraq (5).

What is missing from these debates is politics. Instead there are endless discussions of UN resolutions, WMD, David Kelly’s suicide, whether the war was legal, illegal, ‘semi-legal’. The debate over Iraq has been reduced to an evidence-based dissection of everything but the war, where neither side is prepared to offer a political or moral defence or critique of the invasion. The pro-war lobby says Saddam had to go because he was in breach of UN resolutions 678, 687 and 1441, the anti-war lobby says the war wasn’t legal enough for its liking, while Blair tries to shut them all up by uttering the h-word.

It’s time we mentioned the war. The war should be opposed because it was wrong in principle, and a disaster in practice. Organising the world around the principle of intervention, where powerful states can override the sovereignty of other states, is a recipe for global instability and future conflict. In practice, the war created a political vacuum in Iraq, giving rise to widespread violence and uncertainty; outside intervention always exacerbates tensions rather than resolving them, storing up division and conflict for the future. In my political view, this means the war was wrong even if it was legal, even if it had the support of every single member state at the UN, and even if Saddam had a palace-full of nukes. Now who wants to debate that?

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Blair terror speech in full, BBC News, 5 March 2004

(2) Key facts: Iraq intelligence inquiry, BBC News, 3 February 2004

(3) Key facts: Iraq intelligence inquiry, BBC News, 3 February 2004

(4) Short: No going soft on fascism, BBC News, 23 May 1999

(5) Blair terror speech in full, BBC News, 5 March 2004

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Topics Politics


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