Wednesday, 8 December 2010

REVISITED: Was Blair right to take us to war?

I originally wrote the following piece on 30 January 2010, after Lord Goldsmith and Tony Blair had appeared to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances and decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Today we learn that Blair is to be recalled to be questioned further. Perhaps it is opportune to revisit my treatment of the matter in January. Comments welcome as ever...

I clearly remember the events of 11th September 2001. I was meeting colleagues who had flown in from Texas when the news reached us. I could not help but feel for their shock and horror as their country was so terribly attacked. And as a Briton I knew that my country was equally vulnerable to attack. Having lived my first three decades under the threat of Irish terrorism, my natural instinct was to deal robustly with terrorists using military force as necessary.

So it was with a heavy heart, but firm resolve, that I decided that I was in full support of my country's military involvement in defeating the Taliban of Afghanistan. It was clearly they who had sheltered, trained and supported the al-Qaeda terrorists who carried out the attacks on New York, and posed a continued threat to the rest of us.

I was rather less resolute in supporting action against Iraq. The 1991 war to kick Saddam out of Kuwait was a clearly justified action to defeat an aggressor who had a carried out an illegal and unwarranted invasion of another country. It was as justified in my mind as the British action in the Falklands War of 1982. Stopping the allied advance before it reached Baghdad, and leaving Saddam in power, was a strategic error of monumental proportions. We'd had our opportunity and rationale to topple him but had failed. That, I concluded, was that. And while Saddam was clearly a nasty piece of work, his ability to wage war had been severely curtailed.

There was nothing to suggest that Saddam had even the remotest involvement in September 11th. Yet Fox News and US public opinion would not let facts get in the way of a good story, and repeated polls revealed that a majority of US citizens believed that Saddam was to blame. It was clear to me that Iraq was being set up for attack under a highly dubious pretext.

Hans Blix and the UN Monitoring Commission investigating Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) reported clear obstruction by Iraqi officials and claimed to have indications that Saddam was working on WMD. But they could produce no hard evidence. By the time he was withdrawn from Iraq, Blix cautioned that there was a very real likelihood that Saddam had no such capability. It was quite possible that Saddam was blustering and posturing about his WMD capabilities to save face in the Arab world, without giving the UN a smoking gun with which to justify an attack. And in hindsight, this appears to be precisely what he was doing.

But at the time, the terrorist threat of WMD following September 11th was being used as rationale for war. And while I personally did not believe regime change to be justified, or that Saddam had been involved in 9/11, the threat of Saddam's WMD being used against the West, bolstered by the supposedly clear evidence which was hinted at in the Iraq Dossier, was the deciding factor which persuaded me that my country, my government and my Prime Minister were right to take military action. And after much deliberation on the matter, I decided that Mr Blair was right.

But like many, many others, the absence of material evidence that Saddam had any WMD capability at all has left the bitter taste of deceit in my mouth. I have become quite angry at being misled, at the carnage inflicted on the people of Iraq, the diversion of focus away from the real threat in Afghanistan and the obscene money being made by US oil- and security-companies as a direct result of this ill-conceived war.

So what does the evidence from Lord Goldsmith and Tony Blair himself at the Chilcot Inquiry this week reveal?

In a nutshell, the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has explained the apparent change in his stance before the war. He said that he initially advised that it would be "safer" to obtain a fresh UN resolution, but that following a visit to the US he advised that using previous UN resolutions including 1441, it may be possible to construct a "reasonable case" for war but that it was by no means certain that a court would concur with that argument. Cutting through the manoeuvring bullshit, I take this to mean that the legal basis for the war was highly questionable.

Mr Blair on the other hand explained that following 9/11 the risk from extremists was perceived to be far more real. Fair enough. He went on to admit that there was no legal case for regime change, but instead focussed on the perceived threat of WMD and previous UN resolutions which Lord Goldsmith had already testified was legally unsound. On this basis it is very difficult to conclude that the war was legal under international law. He committed our forces to action on the basis of a "reasonable argument" which Lord goldsmith could construct without any expectation that a court would later uphold as being legal.

As far as the law is concerned then, there would appear to be a very real case for Mr Blair to answer. As I tend not to be particularly extreme in my political views, it is therefore somewhat surprising that I should conclude that Mr Blair should be brought to answer for his actions in an International Court. But despite the risk of appearing to side with the protesters demonstrating outside the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, this is precisely my conclusion.

So, Mr Blair may have acted illegally. But was he right or not? Certainly on the WMD front he was not. There has not emerged one shred of evidence that Saddam had any WMD capability whatsoever. But his main argument at the Chilcot Inquiry focussed on the fact that Saddam was "wicked" and that both Iraq and the world were better off without him. While few would argue that Saddam was anything other than a brutal and cruel despot, it is difficult to resolve the benefit of his removal with the tragedy of 100,000 to 600,000 Iraqi civilian casualties, the deaths of coalition military personnel, the consequent lack of progress in Afghanistan and the injury to diplomacy and the rule of international law.

It is often said that the harm caused to Iraq during and since the war is no greater than that under Saddam. While this is a dubious claim indeed, it misses the point that Saddam was responsible for his atrocities but since the war the consequent atrocities are the responsibility of the invaders. And western forces killing people are no better than Iraqi forces killing people.

Given this reasoning, I am faced with the inescapable conclusion that Mr Blair was indeed wrong to go to war against Iraq. If he had waited for evidence of genuine threat to come to light, the legal and moral case would probably be quite different. But he did not. He chose to go to war on a flimsy legal basis and with very weak intelligence. In doing so he caused a great deal of harm in return for eliminating a non-existent threat.

In conclusion, I believe that I and many others were deceived into supporting the war, that Mr Blair was wrong to take this country to war on the basis he did, and that there is a very real legal case for him to answer in an International court.

I wonder what Chilcot will conclude.

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