Blair still took us to war on a lie
To insist that the ends now justify the means is morally disgraceful
Saturday March 5, 2005
An Israeli conservative has said something sarcastic but apt about the struggle in the Holy Land. Historically the Arabs were the world's great warrior nation, while the Jews were the masters of debate and dialectic. But in this conflict, "the Arabs have lost every battle and the Jews have lost every argument".
It was a good line, and it's a useful distinction. Tony Blair now thinks he can claim victory in Iraq - but having won his battles, he must not be allowed to win the argument.
After Blair had forced his government, his party and his country into a war which most British people did not want, Iraq was conquered, Saddam was captured, and now elections have been held. And Blair could be forgiven for thinking that he has won the argument. He says there is "a ripple of change" in the Middle East ostensibly triggered by the new regime in Baghdad. There is much triumphalist, and maybe hubristic, cheering and jeering from supporters of the war, and even some former critics, Labour MPs and Guardian columnists among them, have been saying sheepishly that the war may after all have had a beneficial outcome.
But even if, and that is a pretty large "if", liberal democracy has been established in Iraq, and every Arab nation is clamouring for representative government, nothing about the causes of the war has been changed, except the subject. Our prime minister is very good at changing the subject, but he can only win his argument if the rest of us are prepared likewise to alter the historical record, to accept a long campaign of obfuscation, and to forget the simple fact that, although there might have been good reasons for the war, the reasons Blair gave could not have been good, since they weren't true.
Looking back, the crucial moment of Blair's imposture was not March 2003, when the war began, but the previous September. He made our flesh creep with claims about weapons of mass destruction ready for use within 45 minutes, and the almost more disgracefully false claim that Saddam represented a "serious and current" threat to British interests. And he got away with it, because even sceptics asked the wrong question.
Instead of, "does Saddam really possess noxious weaponry?" the question should have been, "is Saddam's weaponry, whatever it might be, the real reason for the war on which this country is about to embark, or is it a pretext, provided after Blair has already decided to go to war?" Which is to say that the absolutely crucial question was and is: When was the decision for war taken?
Grasping this was the climax of Hugo Young's career. "The great over-arching fact about the war that Blair will never admit but cannot convincingly deny," he said in a column shortly before his death, is that "he was committed to war months before he said he was". Blair's deepest falsehood was not so much the WMD claims as his pretence that he was "working for peace" and had made no military commitment - when he had certainly done so no later than his meeting with George Bush in Texas in April 2002.
Obfuscation took a new turn after no weapons were found. It was suggested, wrongly, that this had been, at worst, an error in good faith. Mary Ann Sieghart of the Times has said morosely that her friend Tony had assured her personally about the existence of WMD. If that was risible, far more so is the way in which she has since forgiven him. Blair "should be angry about having been led into war on the basis of false intelligence", she writes, and yet "not a single British spymaster has even lost his job". Can she really believe that Blair sat helplessly while those malign spooks fed him duff information?
What actually happened was very much in the spirit of Citizen Kane when his newspaper was fomenting war in Cuba. "I could write your prose poems about scenery," his correspondent cables, "but there's no war," to which Kane replies, "You provide the prose poems, I'll provide the war." That was what Blair said to John Scarlett, and to Lord Goldsmith also. The chairman of the JIC provided prose poems in the form of intelligence which appeared to justify the war militarily, as the attorney general gave his own in the form of a opinion justifying it legally.
Some supporters of the war have been more honest than others, although the "liberal hawks" still have difficulties. Michael Ignatieff says that he was dismayed by the failure to find WMD, but now recognises that the case for a "pre-emptive" war, against a tyrant who posed an "imminent danger", was wrong anyway, and that "the honest case for war was 'preventive' - to stop a tyrant with malignant intentions from acquiring lethal capabilities or transferring those capabilities to other enemies".
That seems fair enough - until Ignatieff adds glumly that "the problem for my side is that if the honest case had been put - for a preventive as opposed to a pre-emptive war - the war would have been even more unpopular than it was." Yes, that was indeed the problem for Blair, and it still is for those who now say that the war might have done good whatever its original rationale.
The Washington neoconservatives come out of the war far better than the Labour MPs. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle knew what they were doing, they always wanted a war to destroy Saddam - and they are disciples of Leo Strauss, who, following Plato's "noble lie", argued that "moral virtue" in a mass democracy means "controlling the unintelligent majority". Tony Blair also adopted the principle, even if he didn't spell it out like that.
No doubt politicians habitually sway from planned failure to unplanned success, and the law of unintended consequences operates all the time, but there is the separate fallacy of post hoc and propter hoc. Primitive peoples suffering from drought put a maiden to death and the rains come. Did the human sacrifice change the weather? Even if the war has changed Iraq from a despotic to a constitutional regime, it is outrageous to justify it thus when Blair had been advised that regime change would not provide a legal basis for war, and specifically said that this was not the reason for the invasion.
The arguments now being advanced are logically absurd, politically disastrous and morally disgraceful. Nothing will alter the fact the war was fought on a lie. If we concede that such means are justified by the ends, do we deserve ever to be told the truth again?
· Geoffrey Wheatcroft's book, The Strange Death of Tory England, is published this month