I have been thinking for a while about writing something on the way so many people in politics, diplomacy and the media are rewriting history to suit their own agenda or to evade their own responsibilities. Then this morning, reading online the coverage of Geoff Hoon’s evidence yesterday, I came across this piece in The Independent by Labour MP Denis MacShane, which sums it up rather well.
So, by kind permission of Denis, here is a guest blog for the day.
‘Which of the many senior politicians caught in the long-running debate over the Iraq conflict said that Saddam Hussein “most certainly has chemical and biological weapons and is working towards a nuclear capacity” and that the now famous dossier “contains confirmation of information that we either knew or most certainly should have been willing to assume?”
Not Jack Straw nor Geoff Hoon, whose evidence to Sir John Chilcot is central to the inquiry. Not an Alastair Campbell parrot but the Right Honourable Sir Menzies Campbell MP QC, speaking in the debate in the Commons in September 2002 when the now infamous dossier was published. The point is made not to mock Ming Campbell, whose views changed as events unfolded, but as a reminder that the Chilcot Inquiry is taking an increasingly surreal turn as it discusses not the history of what happened but the contemporary passions of protagonists nearly a decade later.
Not many MPs are given the title honourable these days. Yet as Hoon showed yesterday he accepts his responsibility and does not seek to resile from his judgements. Contrast that to the top mandarins and diplomats who took every honour, school-fee, bonus, pension, and post-retirement job that the British establishment bestows upon its senior state servants. Now they suddenly discover a conscience and that all along they were worried about the Prime Minister’s Iraq strategy.
None of them said so at the time. None of them resigned. None of them can produce a memo sent to Downing Street setting out objections. I sat in Jack Straw’s office in the Commons as we waited for the vote that would say Yes or No to military action. Neither he nor I knew how the vote would go. Blaming Blair is fashionable. But it is the Commons that made the decision. And two years later the people handsomely re-elected the MPs who voted to topple Saddam.
No Tory will give evidence. Yet at the time the Conservatives were far more gung-ho than Blair. William Hague told the Commons in September 2002 that “400 nuclear sites and installations had been concealed in farmhouses and even schools in Iraq” and argued that “the risk of leaving the regime on its course today far outweigh the risk of taking action quite soon.”
Far from Blair hoodwinking parliament, the fact is that as Saddam continued to defy UN resolutions and make impossible a full investigation by Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors there was a cross-party view that Saddam had to be dealt with.
Jack Straw has produced a memo sent a full year before the action took place. It outlines the obvious problems and pitfalls ahead. But Straw threw himself with his customary energy into securing the first UN resolution. I was his deputy at the time. Straw was a collegiate minister holding daily meetings with his team of senior officials, ministers and advisers as well as a weekly lunch for a wider group.
At none of those meetings was the slightest doubt raised that Saddam had to be tackled. No one resigned. Robin Cook and Clare Short did but too late in the day to affect policy and in the latter case only after first endorsing the invasion. Cook had chilled the Commons’ blood with his descriptions of Saddam’s WMD in 1998 when he launched air patrols and attacks on Iraq. I never heard him doubt then the intelligence which led him to claim Iraq had WMD.
There was also a cross-media consensus. Today the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph give full coverage to every remark at Chilcot which casts a bad light on Blair. But at the time, the Murdoch-Rothermere-Black Brothers press was rooting for war.
And what of Europe? The majority of European governments supported action. Germany was the big exception. In 1990, no one asked Germany to send troops to the first Iraq war. All Chancellor Helmut Kohl did was sign a cheque as the German constitution prohibited the expedition of German soldiers outside the country. His successor, Gerhard Schröder, changed his country’s constitution to allow German soldiers to fight and die abroad. But in September 2002, in a hard-fought election against his rightist opponent, Edmund Stoiber, the social democrat Schröder found himself under pressure on Iraq. Stoiber announced he would ban US warplanes flying over Germany in the event of the war. Schröder trumped him by announcing German opposition and neutrality.
But from Portugal to Poland, from Finland to Italy, European governments either sat on their hands or expressly endorsed the Bush line even if public opinion was hostile. In 2010 the EU’s political elites agree the war was a mistake. But not at the time.
Nor do people recall that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld thought Tony Blair to be an irritating, whining Brit as he argued that more time should be given to UN resolutions. With China and Russia and then in due course France threatening a veto, the chances of a UN resolution were zero just as they had been zero over Kosovo and will be zero over Iran. The UN can transform itself into the League of Nations with alacrity when it suits Moscow and Beijing and, in 2003, Paris.
I argued as Europe minister at the time that we should focus more effort on shaping a European political response but the focus was always the United States, Washington, and going to see George W Bush and Colin Powell rather than European partners. Britain’s half-in, half-out approach to Europe meant that US not Europe dictated policy. As it does today.
But the invasion took place. Its aftermath we know. Osama Bin Laden and other jihadi Islamists had already undertaken terrorist attacks – the Paris Metro in 1995, the Luxor massacre in 1997 – long before anyone had heard of George W Bush or Alastair Campbell.
History will judge whether deposing Saddam Hussein was a good or bad thing. But the Chilcot inquiry should focus on what happened in 2002 and 2003. The efforts in 2010 by those who supported the intervention to re-write history have Stalin as well as Saddam laughing in their graves.
Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was Minister of State at the Foreign Office 2002-2005
I saw this piece too, and as someone who was not in favoir of the war, I nonetheless agreed with his sentiments, which clearly you share. The display of some of the mandarins in particular has been shocking. It has also underlined why minsters and prime ministers need their own team of people who can be relied upon to be loyal. After seeing your and Mr Powell’s comments on the former ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, I watched his evidence on the inquiry website (which is excellent as a previous commenter said). What a silly showboating performance. Mr Powell’s putdown – that he was 30 miles away – was excellent. Good luck in your work. I disagreed with the war, but I support your right to defend yourself as you did, and it is always good to see conviction in action
Am I the only one who actually believes we were right to get shot of Saddam, and who wishes we would do the same to Mugabe? Your guest is right to point out Hague by the way. Gung ho then. Opportunistic now
Aww poor Mr Campbell are the papers being nasty to you?
MacShane is a Blair groupie as you are, Alastair. The sophistries in his little piece are clear for anyone to see and don’t even deserve a riposte. It would be interesting to see if Ming Campbell, who was right all along about Iraq unlike all of you, will respond. I doubt if he will bother. The inept Inquiry is at least shedding a little more light to make the beetles scuttle for cover. They will find some cover (not much) in your blog.
Among the rewritten histories – nobody mentions that Hans Blix was in no doubt Saddam had WMD, also he said Saddam had taken a decision not to disarm. Also David Kelly supported the war and said that the dossier was an accurate portrayal of Saddam’s WMD. Chirac and Schroeder both said he had WMD. The Tories were criticising Blair for not doing enough to deal with Saddam. every time Hague speaks on this he shows why he would not be a good foreign secretary. Will nobody remind him of what he said back then?
As he often does, Denis MacShane has written a lot of good sense. I’d forgotten about Sir Menzies Campbell’s certainty but I well recall William Hague and the rest of the Tory frontbench baying at Tony Blair to stop pussyfooting about and to get fully behind our bestest ever ally, the US.
I wonder if Saddam Hussein also thought his country still had WMD. It certainly suited him to give the world the impression that it did. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the general who had to tell him they didn’t exist if he thought they did.
Being more science than arts orientated and having worked a bit in risk management, I have difficulty with people who declare themselves absolutely certain about anything. Especially about anything as complex as the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War. I sympathise with whichever Chinese leader it was who said not long ago (or did he really say it?) that it’s far too early yet to say whether the French Revolutions were successes…
“And what of Europe? The majority of European governments supported action. Germany was the big exception.”
Erm, France anyone?
The fact that they were the ones who promised to veto any second UN Resolution seems to have been conveniently forgotten.
I have read all the transcripts of evidence and watched the coverage of some of those attending. The line of questioning is predictable. I remain shocked too as reflected in the article by Denis MacShane of the testimony by many senior civil servants. I ask myself why? The Foreign Office officials appear to have resented that matters normally undertaken by them were been taken at No10. I include our former Ambassadors and was delighted to hear Jonathan Powell say that not only was MR Meyer 30 milea away from Crawford but he was not included in the inner circle. A most sensible decision. I think too that many of our top civil servants do not live in the real world – a world that is changing and makes them unfit to deal with the erosion of their once mighty power. Also, with hindsight – they need to look at their futures and distance themselves from a war which has been subject to so many public enquiries. After all, I read continuously of former high ranking civil servants earning lucrative sums on the boards of many of our companies. I actually think there is some merit in the US system where each administration appoints senior staff who share their politics.
I hope that Ming Campbell has sight of today’s Independent as he has used the enquiry to further his party’s election aims. He has managed to get himself invited to discuss the enquiry on television. I must say I have been very disappointed in him and he has not won me over with his arguments.
What concerns me now is that it is fashionable to interpret witnesses statements inaccurately in an attempt to mislead the public. I also think that on occasion some of the questioning by the panel has been more than robust and this often follows criticism in the media.
I have the conclusion of the final report already written.
After 9/11 USA asked the question how to prevent further terrorist attacks. As containment and deterrence do do work against terrorism, a strategy of bringing democracy to the region surrounding Iraq was chosen.
Then legitimate concerns over WMD, terrorism and humanitarian issues were used to implement this strategy.
In a letter dated 25 March 2002 Jack Straw wrote that regime change per se in no justification for military action. It could form part of the method of any strategy, but not a goal.
In evaluating the particular threat of WMD, two things were overlooked. Iraq had never begun work on a long-range missile-system. No country has ever built a warhead without simultaneously building a delivery system. And according to Scott Ritter (James Bamford: A Pretext For War, page 311), Israel had long known that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
Which brings me to the subject the strategists in USA forgot in the first place. In addition to bringing democracy to the region, Israel-Palestine conflict must also be settled.