Both the military and the spooks are opposed to war on Iraq
Blair hasn't even convinced his own security establishment
Monday February 24, 2003
Why now? The question is of course being asked by those opposed to a war against Iraq, and those who have not made up their minds. But it has also been asked by one of the most senior Whitehall officials at the centre of the fight against terrorism. The message was clear: the threat posed by Islamist extremists is much greater than that posed by Saddam Hussein. And it will get worse when the US and Britain attack Iraq.
Tony Blair may not want to admit it, but this is the common view throughout the higher reaches of government. As a leaked secret document from the defence intelligence staff puts it: "Al-Qaida will take advantage of the situation for its own aims but it will not be acting as a proxy group on behalf of the Iraqi regime." Osama bin Laden must be praying for a US assault on Iraq.
"Do we help or hinder the essential struggle against terrorism by attacking Iraq?" asks the former Conservative foreign minister, Lord Hurd. "Would we thus turn the Middle East into a set of friendly democratic capitalist societies ready to make peace with Israel, or into a region of sullen humiliation, a fertile and almost inexhaustible recruiting ground for further terrorists for whom Britain is a main target?" He poses the rhetorical questions in the latest journal of the Royal United Services Institute.
Blair says "now" because George Bush says so. Put it another way, had Washington decided to continue with a policy of containment, Blair would have followed suit. This, too, is the common view in Whitehall. It helps explain the government's problem in justifying a war.
Claims that the Iraqi regime is linked with al-Qaida were dropped when ministers failed to provide the evidence. Blair and his ministers follow the wind from Washington and then counter public opinion at home. First, the objective was to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. When the UN inspectors reported progress and "intelligence" dossiers were seen to be bogus, the emphasis shifted to regime change. When this was met with objections, notably of legality, Blair went for the moral high ground.
The objectives were muddied further when Blair defended the "moral case" for war as follows: "It is not the reason we act. That must be according to the UN mandate on weapons of mass destruction. But it is the reason, frankly, why if we do have to act, we should do so with a clear conscience."
Then, as Blair added the humanitarian case for war to the moral one, his spokesman further confused the message. "If Saddam cooperates," he said, "then he can stay in power." A senior adviser to Blair remarked recently that the Bush administration's aim is the "export of American democracy" throughout the Middle East; and Blair shared this vision.
In his new book, Paradise and Power, the former US state department official Robert Kagan argues: "America did not change on September 11. It only became more itself. The myth of America's 'isolationist' tradition is remarkably resilient. But it is a myth. Expansion of territory and influence has been the inescapable reality of American history."
British and American military commanders are hoping for a quick collapse of the regime, leaving the existing Iraqi state infrastructure, including the Republican Guard, to maintain law and order. Iraqi forces will be "monitored" by British and American officers to keep them in line. Hopelessly optimistic or not, the scenario has little to do with democracy.
But let's say the objectives do include exporting democracy. Does that mean giving the Shi'a majority in Iraq a free vote? What if the Kurds vote for independence? Turkey's generals are calling for a return to emergency rule in the Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey. Does the export of democracy cover Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, including authoritarian Oman, in effect a British protectorate? Or Egypt, one of the largest recipients of American aid?
The latest issue of Le Monde Diplomatique reminds us that the US supported Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, the Shah in Iran, Somoza in Nicaragua, Batista in Cuba, Pinochet in Chile, and Mobutu in Congo/Zaire. "Some of the bloodiest tyrants are still supported by the US," it adds, noting that Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea was received with full honours by Bush last September. Now the US is cuddling up to Uzbekistan, another country with an appalling human-rights record, because it is convenient for US bases.
Ah, says the government, but Saddam poses a unique threat, not only to his own citizens - ministers now claim they have intelligence that the Iraqi dictator is planning to poison all Iraqi Shi'as - but to the national security of Britain and the US.
The US, meanwhile, barters with Turkey for bases from which to attack Iraq. How much is a decision opposing the will of more than 90% of Turks worth in dollars? What is the morality in bribing the UN security council to support a war waged, we are told, on moral grounds?
Every time Blair and his ministers repeat a truth - that Saddam used gas against the Kurds and Iranian troops in the 1980s - they remind us that Britain responded by secretly encouraging exports of even more nuclear and other arms-related equipment to Iraq while Washington supplied the regime with more crucial intelligence.
In his speech on the "moral case" for war last Friday, Jack Straw referred to Saddam's "ethnic cleansing" of the Marsh Arabs in the 1990s. That was after the US and Britain encouraged the south, and the Kurds in the north, to rise up following the 1991 Gulf war, only to betray them. The southern "no-fly" zone is said by Britain and the US to be a humanitarian initiative, yet it has not achieved any humanitarian purpose, any more than sanctions have. Its purpose is to disable potential threats to US and British forces rather than to protect the Iraqi people - US and British planes have bombed Iraqi missile, radar and communications systems 40 times this year, the last occasion on Saturday.
While those responsible for protecting Britain's national security are concerned about the increased threat of terrorism from a military attack on Iraq, there is deep disquiet in Britain's military establishment about the confused objectives of a war and a pre-emptive strike against a country that poses no threat to the attackers. The latest dispute over the marginal excess range of Iraq's Samoud 2 missiles only highlights the weakness of the US-British argument.
Saddam may believe he has nothing to gain by cooperating fully with UN inspectors if the Bush administration has already decided to invade, whatever concessions he makes. But those advocating war have yet to make anything like a convincing case for military action.
7 Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security editor