Moral blackmail will not do
Failure to find WMD damages Blair - and the doctrine of pre-emption
Saturday July 19, 2003
Tony Blair would have us believe that the furore over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been manufactured by some improbable alliance of a machiavellian BBC, Labour malcontents and Tory opportunists. If only it were true it would give a whole new meaning to the third way. The truth is, however, both more sobering and more disturbing. It goes to the very heart of whether we really have a healthy parliamentary democracy and proper accountable government in Britain today.
A decision to go to war is the most serious and most difficult decision any prime minister will ever take. When that war is to be with a country that has not attacked you, we are in new territory for a modern British government. When it is, furthermore, a war waged without the express approval of the UN and with the nation and parliament deeply divided, the reasons and the justification have to be clear, demonstrable and consistent.
The prime minister, in his address to Congress, declared that history would forgive him and President Bush, even if WMD were never found in Iraq, because of the undoubted bestiality of Saddam Hussein and his regime. We are challenged to admit that without the war Saddam would still be in power, able to terrorise both his own people and his neighbours.
This attempt at moral blackmail will not do. The issue is not whether the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. Of course it is. It would also be a better place without Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-il, Fidel Castro and a host of other tyrants and despots, but there is no intention of the British government to support wars in order to get rid of them.
Nor did Tony Blair call for an invasion of Iraq during the first five years of his prime ministership, when Saddam was as evil as he was last year. During that period the prime minister supported the strict enforcement of sanctions and the no-fly zone that had been the policy of the Clinton administration in Washington and the Major government in London.
What changed was George Bush's arrival in the White House and 9/11. Thereafter Blair recognised that in order to retain the confidence of the new president, and to ensure British influence in Washington, he would have to support regime change in Iraq and the new doctrine of pre-emptive wars. He knew that geopolitical arguments would be unlikely to convince the Labour party or the British public of the need for war.
But he also, rather shrewdly, concluded that a combination of an imminent threat of WMD in the hands of Saddam Hussein combined with a reminder of the human rights abuses of his regime would have the best prospect of swinging recalcitrant MPs and the British public behind him.
This led directly to dodgy dossiers, weapons that could be launched in 45 minutes and an unhealthy reliance on raw intelligence reports. I don't doubt that Blair was sincere in his protestations. Disraeli's remark about Gladstone is very apposite: "He could convince most people of most things and himself of almost anything." I was one of those who, with deep reservations, concluded that if there was reliable evidence available to the British government and if they and the US were determined to go to war they should have our support, and the quicker it was over the better.
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of the failure to find WMD and the resultant deep belief that parliament and the public were misled on the supreme issue of peace and war.
It has deeply damaged the trust the prime minister previously enjoyed. This has been made worse by his refusal to admit that, however unwittingly, he might have misled the nation. Even Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon have accepted that they might have got it wrong and that the threat from WMD might have, in fact, been no worse than it had been for years. But Blair has spent weeks refusing to acknowledge this. The only implicit admission of failure is the new claim that evidence of "programmes" for WMD rather than the weapons themselves, will, undoubtedly, be found. Not a shred of evidence to support this is forthcoming.
For Blair the omens are serious. Normally, when a prime minister is under pressure he can fall back on the support of the grassroots of his own party. In Blair's case it is the grassroots of Labour that loathe him most. Come back Ramsay MacDonald. All is forgiven.
Nor can the prime minister claim that in seeking to remain close to the US he was following the precedent of all his predecessors since Churchill. Of course, it is sensible for Britain to continue as America's closest ally, but this has not stopped previous prime ministers - Labour and Tory - from distancing themselves from Washington when circumstances so justified.
Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam. Margaret Thatcher did not allow her warm relationship with Ronald Reagan to prevent her bitter criticism of the US, both over the invasion of Grenada and over the American attempt to impose sanctions on European countries trading with the Soviet Union over gas pipelines in the 1980s. I was sent by Thatcher to Washington to try and sort out the latter problem. I reached a compromise with the US deputy secretary of state, Kenneth Dam. The only thing we couldn't agree was whether the compromise should be known as the Rifkind/Dam or the Dam/Rifkind agreement. The Americans preferred the latter.
The failure to find WMD is also crucial to the credibility of the new US doctrine of pre-emption. There is nothing illogical, unethical or undesirable in hitting an enemy first whom you know is planning to hit you. That is no more than a form of self-defence. But that must be subject to two major considerations. First, it cannot be a right for the US alone. If it is valid it must be available to any member of the UN in comparable circumstances. That alone would make the world a very dangerous place.
Second, pre-emptive war could only be justified if, either before or after you launch it, you are able to produce credible evidence of the intention of the other state to attack you. In the case of Iraq there has been no evidence of an intention by Saddam to attack the US. The failure to find WMD suggests that nor was there any intention to launch an early attack against any of his neighbours.
That does not mean that Saddam Hussein was not a dangerous and unpredictable menace. It does mean that, in the absence of significant international support, the Americans and the British were unwise to launch an invasion of a sovereign state. It would be ironic and rather sad if the US Congress came to that conclusion before the British prime minister. It would not be surprising.
· Sir Malcolm Rifkind was defence secretary from 1992-95 and foreign secretary from 1995-97.