WMD or not, Blair had already made up his mind
The PM was incapable of detaching himself from Bush's march to war
Tuesday June 3, 2003
The infamous weapons of mass destruction were a crucial pretext for Britain going to war against Iraq, but they were not the prime cause. They didn't drive the strategy. The originating, compulsive, inescapable reason was something different and, I think, more infamous. Unless we understand that, it's impossible to make sense of the bitter flounderings of Tony Blair and Jack Straw as they try to defend what is being exposed as a saga of duplicity.
What lay deeper than the weapons and whether or not they existed was a twin commitment. First, the American decision that, short of Saddam Hussein being assassinated or going into exile, war was going to happen: a decision, it is now clear, that had been made by last August at the latest. And second, the visceral inability of Mr Blair to contemplate detaching this country from whatever Washington decided. He did this in solidarity with George Bush on September 11. But arguably it began to happen earlier, when he journeyed to Camp David immediately after Bush's election, returning to pronounce him, contrary to most popular impressions, a wise and balanced statesman.
Whenever it happened, the pledge to support Bush's world view became a crucial limitation on our prime minister's independent judgment. It lay behind every decision the British took. Yes, Blair helped persuade Bush to take the UN route - but it's apparent that he never intended to do anything other than follow along if and when Bush reneged on it. All those words about war not being inevitable were for the birds. Yes, Blair urged delay, but for a period whose main effect was to allow time to assemble the US and UK armies for attack, by which time it was inconceivable, even when almost invited to by Donald Rumsfeld, that the Brits would pull out. Yes, Blair beat his head against the wall in defence of the case for Saddam possessing biological/chemical/nuclear weapons that posed an imminent threat to the UK - but he loaded the benefit of any doubt in favour of war rather than no war.
The current argument about WMD, in other words, is proceeding on a false premise. We're asked to believe that if we, the British, had doubted the existence of the weapons, we would not have gone to war. Every time Straw embarks on another of his tortuous assertions that WMD did and do exist, though they've not yet been found, the corollary is that we were always capable of acting differently. The truth is that we had a prior, if unadmitted, commitment to stick with Bush, come what may. So we became impaled on an American analysis that ranked the weapons as a quite secondary pretext.
This was to be suspected at the time, but has now become indisputable. Paul Wolfowitz reveals that the discovery of WMD was merely a "bureaucratic" detail, necessary to broaden support for the war. Rumsfeld admits that he doesn't expect to find any WMD, and blithely claims this doesn't matter. The entire US performance through autumn and winter at the UN can now be starkly seen as a sham, conducted to keep Blair and a few others sweet. Washington needed one faithful ally, and was prepared to go this far to secure him, no doubt mindful of his frequent, self-abnegating assertion - the strangest diplomatic axiom ever laid down by a prime minister - that British policy must be guided by the need to protect Washington from isolation.
I don't doubt Blair's sincerity in wanting to persuade himself and the voters, as well as the soldiers he sent to war, that the threat posed by Saddam's WMD was the total reason for the conflict. He does sincerity very well, as we saw again yesterday in his raging dismissal of Clare Short's painful charges. He does it well because he cannot believe otherwise.
He needed those WMD last autumn, to keep the right side of international law. He needed them in March, when he discussed openly with colleagues the chances of his having to resign if he lost the Labour majority for war in the House of Commons. His entire life depended on persuading enough MPs that the weapons were a real and present danger, 45 minutes away. He needs them today, to deflect the uproar in the Labour party. He has every reason for sincerely believing in his own sincere belief that the weapons will be found.
So strong is his sincerity, however, that he has tried to underpin it by bending the language and the truth. The first sign came a few weeks ago, when Straw started shifting tenses. Instead of saying that Iraq contains weapons of mass destruction, the foreign secretary began to blur "has" into "had", to cope with the inconvenient possibility that the weapons had been destroyed some time before war began. Yet if the past tense is all we can now be sure of, what is left of the claim that Saddam posed an imminent threat to Britain's national security?
More blatant was Downing Street's serial exploitation of MI6 and GCHQ material in ways quite disrespectful of the health warnings that invariably accompany intelligence reports to ministers. They became raw facts for manipulation by a government machine that has spent six years treating all facts - speeches, statistics, meetings, journeys, policy commitments - as the beginning of a propaganda spin. A cautious sceptic might have doubted whether MI6 material too could have been devoured into this maw: it belongs, after all, in a secret world with its own rules. But when thinly veiled MI6 rebuttals of Downing Street assertions appear on the BBC - a practice seldom, if ever, seen before - one understands the price that is being paid to defend Tony Blair's sincerity.
One response to this dismal history is to agree the need for a public inquiry. We need a fair judgment on how much deception was involved in setting the war in motion, with all its dangers and deaths. Did soldiers die in a cause falsely described from the start? The issue seems at least as serious as the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial in 1992, which led John Major to set up the arms-for-Iraq inquiry. There could be no more independent judge to investigate it than Lord Richard Scott.
But that would merely be the forensic side. The bigger question is about Blair's political judgment. What happened over Saddam's weapons gives the most striking recent insight into the cost of policies that start from thraldom to Washington. Whether or not they existed during the run-up to war turns out to have been irrelevant to Bush, and to have mattered to Britain only as cover for a war policy into which we were ineluctably trapped months before.
The trend predates Blair, of course. It has been in the DNA of prime ministers for 60 years. But Blair takes further than any predecessor a refusal, in the field of defence and foreign policy, to mark the smallest distance between himself and a hard right president from whom, in most other respects, he should be alien. Believing in his influence as much as his sincerity, he now sees it in ruins.