Opinion: Blood on our hands?

Academic evidence to the Iraq Inquiry points to the Government’s terrible planning, but the hearings’ remit is too narrow to tackle the big questions: the war’s legitimacy, the state’s culpability and the public’s responsibility. Tim Dunne writes

December 6, 2009

The purpose of the Iraq Inquiry, according to Sir John Chilcot, the former Whitehall mandarin overseeing proceedings, is to establish what happened in Iraq, “to evaluate what went well and what did not, and crucially why”, so that lessons can be learnt. To an academic audience, this sounds like a fairly straightforward examination question. Are we going to get an answer that is safe, over-reliant on official views and largely uncritical, or one that is penetrating and leaves decision-makers nowhere to hide?

Not surprisingly, the early media responses to the hearings have rushed to the former view. As the Arabic-language news network al-Jazeera puts it, this is the Establishment listening to the Establishment. On the basis of what officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence have said on the pre-invasion planning, al-Jazeera’s position is not without merit.

Perhaps unusually for an inquiry into British politics, there are two academics on the five-person committee: Sir Martin Gilbert, prolific University of Cambridge historian and biographer of Winston Churchill, and Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the few voices on international security who is listened to by governments.

Sir Lawrence’s contribution to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “Kosovo moment” is widely known. Before boarding a flight to the US in the early stages of the conflict, Mr Blair’s foreign policy adviser, Jonathan Powell, called Sir Lawrence to ask for his help in formulating the criteria for “humanitarian intervention”.

After a walk in the park, the academic faxed back a list of bullet points that became the centrepiece of Mr Blair’s “Doctrine of the International Community” speech, delivered at the Economic Club of Chicago on 24 April 1999.

It is easy to draw the wrong conclusion from Sir Lawrence’s internationalism and its appeal to the Blair Administration. The point is not that he is too much of an insider, as many have claimed. Rather, the question is why British planners did not operationalise the intervention criteria in the case of Iraq? If they had, we would not have gone to war.

“Are we sure of our case?” was one of the tests for humanitarian intervention; reports to the United Nations Security Council by Hans Blix and his team of inspectors provide an authoritative “no”.

“Have we exhausted all diplomatic means?” was another. Again, the answer given by the UN Security Council, which is recognised to have authority over international peace and security matters, was “no” – hence the absence of a consensus that would have enabled a second resolution.

It is likely that a significant part of the inquiry will concern itself with a further test for intervention: namely, whether we can be confident that armed force is going to do any good. On what grounds were UK decision-makers prepared to give war a chance?

The basis of this judgment was scrutinised by academics and journalists prior to the Iraq Inquiry being opened for business. Michael Clarke (the Royal United Services Institute) and Patrick Cockburn (The Independent) gave oral briefings, while Toby Dodge (Queen Mary, University of London), George Joffe (Cambridge) and Gareth Stansfield (University of Exeter) looked at detailed research-based papers, available on the inquiry website.

What is apparent from the analysis presented by these experts on Iraqi politics is that the Blair Administration should not have been so sanguine about the efficacy of force.

In a hard-hitting essay, Professor Stansfield argues that key assumptions on the part of the planners were unfounded. Two related myths contributed to the post-war malaise: that Iraq was a unitary state, and that it could survive decapitation. “These assumptions”, he claims, “proved to be wrong, with the result that the post-invasion setting was unpredictable, unstable and often unmanageable.”

Dr Dodge’s analysis supports this position. He informed the inquiry that Iraq’s descent into violence from the “end” of the war in 2003 was caused by the “drastic reduction” in the capacity of the Iraqi state. De-Ba’athification was critical to this process, as hundreds of thousands of civil servants and soldiers were made redundant, sowing resentment and creating a security vacuum.

The specialists are uncompromisingly critical of US and UK decision-making. Yet it is reasonable to doubt whether better planning and execution would have made this a legitimate war. To address this, the Iraq Inquiry would need to broaden its remit to include an appraisal of the state institutions that enabled the war to happen.

In his commentaries on the hearings, the journalist Simon Jenkins has persuasively argued that no amount of evidence from officials will address the fundamental political questions: why did Parliament fail to adequately scrutinise the Government’s case? Why did members of the Cabinet – including the current Prime Minister – allow themselves to be marginalised? And why did the UK’s diplomatic strategy spectacularly fail to build a broad coalition in favour of military action?

In case all that lets the rest of us off the hook, the mother of all inquiries would ask why public opinion did not swing against Mr Blair once it became clear that the Security Council was not going to authorise “all necessary means” to disarm Iraq. Surely this is one of the lessons that a liberal public must learn. It was our wrong war, too.

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