1 October 2004


Like Ian Aitken in last week’s Tribune, I’m amazed at how little has been made of the Daily Telegraph’s revelations the week before last (click here) that Tony Blair was warned long before the invasion of Iraq — by none other than Jack Straw — that the US had done little or nothing to plan for the “morning after”, and that as a result there was a serious risk of replacing Saddam Hussein with something just as bad or even worse.

For Straw’s warning was and is the most convincing argument against the war — that its aftermath was irresponsibly ill-thought-through.

There were and are other anti-war arguments, to be sure. In the months before the invasion took place, the most potent (lest we forget) was that it was dangerously reckless to take on a mad dictator who was probably armed with chemical and biological weapons and had previously been prepared to use them.

If the American and British governments were right about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction — and nearly everyone at the time thought they were, including Dr David Kelly, whatever his doubts about the presentation of the evidence — taking Saddam on in battle was crazy. It wasn’t quite as bonkers as, say, responding to the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 with an ultimatum to the Kremlin, but it wasn’t far off. Even a last-ditch use by Saddam of “battlefield” sarin nerve gas weapons against civilian targets would wreak terrible damage, the peacenik Cassandras warned (myself among them).

In fact, of course, it turned out that we were wrong — and so were the US and UK governments. The invasion was easily accomplished by the American-led coalition. Saddam’s army crumbled away, and he didn’t use those feared WMD. Indeed, it transpired that his chemical and biological weapons didn’t exist (or at least couldn’t be found).

Subsequently, the anti-war lobby changed track. It plugged away relentlessly with two claims: one, that the US and the UK went to war against Saddam on a premise they knew was false, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and lied to us all; and two, that the invasion was illegal in the absence of a new UN resolution supporting it.

This line of argument is still very much alive — it was restated last week by Tribune’s leader column, and I’m sure it was very much to the fore in the minds of anti-war delegates at the Labour conference as they prepared for this week’s debate on Iraq in Brighton (still to take place as I write).

There's no doubt that this case against the war is superficially strong. It has been clear all along that Saddam’s supposed possession of WMD — or more accurately his refusal to co-operate with the UN inspectors charged with ensuring that he had given up the WMD he once had — was not the real reason the Bush administration decided to take Saddam out but was rather the pretext it chose to clothe with legitimacy its goal of regime change. It is certainly true that WMD was central to Blair’s public case for backing Bush. No one can deny that the WMD have not so far been discovered. And the second UN resolution was not passed.

But so what? It doesn’t follow from all this either that Bush and Blair knowingly deceived us about WMD or that they went to war illegally. It’s far more plausible that the US and British governments simply put the best gloss they could on the evidence available at the time — which with the benefit of hindsight turns out to have been shonky, but, well, no one knew that then. And the invasion of Iraq is at very least defensible in terms of international law because of the UN resolutions on WMD that Saddam blatantly defied, even if the WMD didn't actually exist.

More fundamentally, there’s the problem that international law is an ass. It makes the sovereignty of any state — no matter how unjust, undemocratic or bloody — pretty much inviolable so long as it stays just the right side of genocide or invading its neighbours. Even if the invasion of Iraq was against international law (and I don’t think it was), that in itself wouldn’t make it wrong. Regime change, as long as it resulted in a free democratic Iraq and was achieved with minimal casualties, was a worthy goal.

What the documents leaked to the Telegraph show, however, is that Blair backed Bush even though he was warned by Straw that the US administration simply hadn’t thought through what regime change should entail beyond smashing up Saddam’s state machine, and that the result of this lack of "morning after" planning could be chaos or a new dictatorship. In ignoring his foriegn secretary’s advice, Blair showed himself to be an extraordinarily rash gambler who is blind to the consequences of his actions. It's for this reason rather than any other that we should question his fitness for office.

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