By Geoffrey Wheatcroft (THE GUARDIAN, 26/02/07):
Now that everyone apart from Dick Cheney recognises that the Iraq war has been an appalling failure, and now that all the original justifications for the war have long since collapsed, where do those who originally supported it turn? Some just pretend it never happened, or that they really never approved of it.There is a deafening patter of paws as sundry politicians and pundits rush to the side of this sinking ship, and there have been many displays of selective amnesia worthy of Tony Blair himself. Why, not far from this very page angry voices can be heard condemning as criminal folly a war they once praised enthusiastically. A cynic might even speculate that if the operation had turned into anything that could plausibly be represented as a success, some of these latter-day peaceniks would now be trumpeting victory and denouncing those who always opposed the invasion as fainthearts or traitors.
But such about-turns are not so easy for the MPs who voted for the war four years ago, and especially for members of the government. As Peter Hain says, with apparent honesty: “No Labour minister, as I was at the time, can shirk responsibility for it.” So what to do, given the scale of disaster and the collapse of those original justifications?
The answer is a rewriting of history just as dishonest in its way as the original dossiers, or Blair’s claim that Saddam was a “serious and current” threat to this country. Look closely at the answers given last week to the Guardian by the cabinet ministers who now aspire to the deputy Labour leadership, or perhaps something higher.
These really boil down to two points. One is that “the intelligence was plain wrong” (Hain) or that “although we now know the intelligence was wrong I think the case for war was made in good faith” (Hilary Benn). The other is that the war has at least had one beneficial outcome: “Removing Saddam Hussein from power was essential for the peace of the region, for the protection of the Iraqi people, and for our own security” (Hazel Blears), or “I don’t regret that Saddam is no longer in power” (Benn).
His words are echoed by Blair’s diminished and beleaguered band of apologists in the press, the most eminent of whom is perhaps Philip Stephens of the Financial Times. When, he writes, he supports Tony Blair to his friends for sincerely believing the world would be a better place without Saddam Hussein, the reactions have been such that “I could have been defending a child molester”.
No, not a child molester, just someone with a psychopathic ability to forget what he has previously done and said, which he seems to have passed on to others. Blair himself is now far beyond reason, but Benn and Blears should begin each day by saying 10 times: We did not go to war to depose Saddam Hussein. That was indeed the object of those in Washington who dreamed up the war: destroying Saddam, or regime change for the sake of regime change.
But it was specifically not the purpose of British participation. Blair had been told by his own attorney general – in a moment of lucidity and candour before Lord Goldsmith mysteriously changed his mind – that regime change as such was an insufficient legal basis for war. And he knew that even his most servile and corrupt MPs would hesitate to support a war on that basis alone.
After all, Blair himself had originally said that we were not fighting to remove Saddam. On October 13 2004, he abused Charles Kennedy and the Lib Dems for their opposition to the war. If they had had their way, “Saddam Hussein and his sons would still be running Iraq … And that is why I took the stand I did.” Then how, the Labour backbencher Bob Wareing asked, could the prime minister “explain his statement to this House on February 25 2003 when he said, ‘Even now, today, we are offering Saddam the prospect of voluntarily disarmament through the UN. I detest his regime but even now he could save it by complying with the UN’s demand’?”
As for Benn’s “the intelligence was wrong”, it is wearisome to point out that the intelligence was not wrong at all, since it was concocted to justify a decision for war which had already been taken. For all the foolish phrases we hear, there were no “intelligence failures” before the war: it was a success. Malign critics of Blair “insist he tricked, lied and cheated Britain into war”, Stephens laments, “no matter how many objective inquiries say otherwise”.
Oh, come on. Even if we hadn’t guessed at the time just how specious the dossiers were, and even if we didn’t suspect that Lord Hutton’s report was a bizarre whitewash consistently at odds with the evidence he had heard, we know what Robin Cook thought about the intelligence when he first saw it: “I was taken aback at how thin the dossier was. There was a striking absence of any recent and alarming firm intelligence.” (For all the proper admiration Cook earned, he would have done more good if he had said this before the war began, rather than after he had resigned.)
Above all we have the evidence, as John Humphrys reminded Blair last Thursday, of the devastating “Downing Street memo” of July 23 2002. It was written in strictest secrecy for the eyes of Blair and a few close colleagues, summarising the latest meetings in Washington between the heads of British intelligence and their American counterparts.
“There was a perceptible shift in attitude,” the memo says in completely unambiguous words. “Military action was now seen as inevitable. 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.” When they read that last sentence, how on earth can these ministers continue to maintain – how dare they still pretend – that the “intelligence was wholly wrong”, as though this was an innocent error?
When I write about this now I feel like a pub bore. “Have I said this before? Or maybe you knew that already.” But of course I’ve said it, as many others have, and of course you know. We know that we were taken into a needless, foolish, illegal, immoral and ultimately catastrophic war.
We know that Blair committed the country to war long before he ever has admitted, or can admit. We know that parliament and people were deceived by the prime minister and his cabal, wilfully but not accidentally, since it would have been politically impossible for this country to have participated in the war if the full truth had been told. We know that claims about “WMD” were not some unhappy accident, but a necessity forced upon Blair after he had persuaded himself that he must at all costs support George Bush, right or wrong. We know that the case for war was not made in good faith.
The only people who appear not to know this are our rulers. They cannot acknowledge it, and are obliged to stick to a false account of events. It’s anyone’s guess how long it will be before Iraq recovers from the last four years. Another question is how long it will be before political life in this country recovers from the damage inflicted on it.