What the Butler saw

...had little to do with the war itself.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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Lord Butler of Brockwell has spoken – and now we know that there were ‘serious flaws’ in Britain’s intelligence for going to war with Iraq, that the Joint Intelligence Committee shouldn’t have said that Iraq could use WMD within 45 minutes, that the government’s 2002 dossier pushed the available intelligence to its ‘outer limits’, that Tony Blair’s statement to MPs on the day the dossier was published gave the impression that the intelligence was ‘firmer and fuller’ than it really was, but that Blair generally acted in ‘good faith’ (1). Anyone expecting a verdict on whether the war was right or wrong – or on what Blair and his ministers did rather than on what they said – will have to look somewhere other than Butler’s 196 pages.

Flicking through Butler is a bit like watching Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Both explore who said what to whom, or who made up what and why, in the run-up to the war. Both are concerned more with the processes through which the decision to invade Iraq was reached – Moore with the relationship between President Bush and oilmen that apparently made war economically beneficial for the House of Bush, Butler with backroom meetings and ‘informal oral presentations’ between British ministers about the pre-war intelligence – than with the invasion itself. Moore is seen as a camera-totin’ agent provocateur – but exposing what goes on behind closed doors is what passes for politics today, everywhere from radical documentaries to formal inquiries into intelligence failures.

Butler’s report, commissioned by foreign secretary Jack Straw in February to ‘investigate the accuracy of the intelligence on Iraqi WMD up to March 2003’, is only the latest domestic debate about Iraq that mentions everything except the invasion of Iraq. The Hutton Inquiry before Butler was not about the war, either; its 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 being exposed as the BBC’s source for reports questioning Britain’s intelligence. Lord Hutton of Bresagh said little about the government’s public actions (war, occupation, etc), but he did dump 9,000 pages of government documents, including emails, internal memos and scribbled notes, on to the internet.

Outside of the plush chambers where Hutton and Butler discussed the finer details of the pre-war intelligence, the government’s critics have also obsessed on what happened before the war rather than on the war itself. Newspaper columnists, opposition politicians and radical protesters challenge New Labour over two specifically pre-war issues – the overblown claims about Saddam’s WMD and the question of whether the war was legal. They describe the failure to find WMD as an ‘indictment of the London and Washington governments’; others question whether Blair put pressure on the Attorney General in March 2003 to state publicly that the war was legal, and call on the government to publish its legal advice. Again, these are legalistic debates rather than political ones – they are narrow discussions of whether those who launched the war did deceitful things beforehand, rather than a political challenge to their right to launch a war in the first place.

From Hutton to parliament to the front pages of the papers and now Butler, all we have had are technical discussions of the pre-war processes. This points to a big problem with our cynical, anti-political climate. When public debate is concerned more with what goes on behind closed doors than with what takes place in the public arena, big issues can pass unchallenged as we spend our time chasing evidence that someone, somewhere lied or said something dishonest. So while Butler has given us yet more internal government material to gape at and analyse, moral and political questions about whether it was right to invade and occupy a sovereign state go unasked. Instead, Blair and co are chastised more for their private chats than for their rather heinous public actions.

In such a climate, the debate about Iraq becomes an entirely self-reflecting one. When the main concern is with personalities and what they said to each other before the war, it seems that Iraq can only be understood in terms of what it means for individuals here at home. So today, before the publication of Butler, one journalist described Iraq as ‘a boil aching for the lance’, and called on Blair to ‘perform the procedure on himself’. ‘Luckily for Labour’, he wrote, ‘the war is tied so closely to Blair that his departure would, by itself, signal a close to the Iraq chapter’ (2). This is where focusing on process over politics gets us – to a situation where a war that caused great suffering in Iraq is discussed in terms of what it means for Labour’s petty internal squabbling. In the absence of a serious political debate about the war and its consequences, no one can really be held responsible for what happened in Iraq; it’s just an ugly boil on the body politic that needs to be soothed with the balm of a Hutton or a Butler, or gotten rid of through the resignation of Blair.

This separation of politics and process is best seen in the Tories’ attitude to the whole affair. The Tory Party supported the war, yet over the past year it has constantly sought to make mileage out of criticising the way in which the war was prepared and argued for. Conservative leader Michael Howard even withdrew from the Butler inquiry shortly after its launch, complaining that its remit was too narrow – he wanted it to examine ‘individual actions’ as well as the reliability of the intelligence. So even full-on war supporters can take part in bashing the government over who said and did what before the bombs started dropping.

This kind of criticism might cause Blair some embarrassment, but it does nothing to challenge his war in Iraq; indeed, it has allowed him to assume the moral highground on Iraq. Blair’s critics focus on intelligence failings and legal questions because on the more fundamental issue of Britain’s right to intervene in Iraq they are in full agreement with Blair. Their opposition to the war is a tactical rather than a principled one. Blair has sought to exploit this fact by playing the trump card of humanitarianism and ‘doing the right thing’ against his critics. So while ministers pored over Butler today, picking out anything that might embarrass the prime minister, Blair declared that the world was ‘better off’ and ‘safer and secure’ as a result of Britain’s war on Iraq – a claim that many of his so-called critics fully endorse.

Why has this war, more than any other in living memory, been so interrogated – not only by the media but by the elite? House of Commons select committees have already conducted two inquiries into the pre-war intelligence, followed by Hutton’s investigation of David Kelly’s suicide, and now Butler’s 196-page report on how the intelligence was used by various individuals. It cannot be because the government did something shocking and unusual by using dodgy intelligence to justify a war. Indeed, while Britain and America’s use of inaccurate intelligence over Iraq deserves to be ridiculed, it barely compares to the lies and propaganda peddled in wars gone by – including the first Gulf War of 1991, which many of those who bemoan today’s intelligence supported.

Rather, such internal wrangling over Gulf War II points to deep divisions within the elite. In earlier times of war, when British leaders had a clearer sense of what they stood for and why, internal concerns over intelligence or tactics or conduct would have been kept in check by a broader sense of mission. Today, in the absence of ideological or political coherence, there is little to stop internal doubts from going public in a big way. Indeed, it was defence and intelligence officials who first leaked doubts about intelligence over Iraq, which led to Hutton and Butler. These inquiries provide a snapshot of an elite that can’t hold the line on anything today – even war.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) ‘Serious flaws’ in Iraq intelligence, BBC News, 14 July 2004

(2) A failure of the system, Jonathan Freedland, Guardian, 14 July 2004

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