On Friday, Tony Blair went before a Privy Council Inquiry into the causes and origins of the Iraq War. In of itself, this was not some terrible ordeal. The inquiry is genuinely set with a broad frame of reference to provide a definitive report as to why and how the British government undertook a military intervention to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Last January, Blair gave evidence in an oral session which satisfied the commission and infuriated those whose feelings on the matter and person range from accusations of criminal actions when Prime Minister, to a simpler attempt to damn him on ‘moral’ grounds.
I reserve my condemnation for the lazy attacks before the last election by Cameron and Clegg et al for attempting to describe an open, broad inquiry as an “establishment stitch-up” and feel that this further poisons the waters of liberal government in this country and furthermore sets the stage for yet another repeat of calls for a possible sixth inquiry. It should be clear to readers of this blog, by now, that those critics, not acting from opportunistic motives will be not be satisfied until they see Blair convicted of imaginary crimes.
Nonetheless, this issue does not stop with the political figures pursuing a vendetta of self-aggrandisement and of hatred towards Tony Blair. This addresses further problems in our public culture of a priori assumptions dominating the public narrative, excessively moralistic judgement in application to politics and political decision making, and the collective refusal of the majority of the intellectual and political classes of this country to realistically face up to the demands of Britain’s place in the world and how that should be determined.
Briefly speaking on the last point, to which I shall return later on, two strands of thought have emerged from the Conservative Party dominated coalition government in the last six months. The first is the abandonment of any ideals of actively intervening abroad to promote a set liberal democratic political ideals; at present, the Foreign Office is offering lip service to Tunisian democrats and liberals but remains in the mode of a school of thought which focuses on a narrowly pragmatic schema of prescribed ‘national interests’.
William Hague speaks for the government of ‘restoring Britain’s greatness abroad’ but seems to think this can be achieved only through trade deals and fawning to autocratic states in hope of access to natural resources.
The second is the abandonment of liberal democratic allies, symbolised most effectively in the condemnatory rhetoric directed towards Israel. Privately, the government has abandoned any support of democratic or liberal groups abroad and in bastardised Machiavellian fashion, seeks rapprochement with regimes which only regard us with distaste. In this game, we will lose to China which has no qualms about the realities of realpolitik.
Returning to the first of my tripartite themes, regarding the dominance of certain a priori assumptions in the public sphere, it should be evident from what follows below that these are materially damaging our political culture and that both the thematic assumptions and their effects upon politics is currently symbolised in the increasingly mythological debate centred on the figure of Blair.
Turning to the assumptions first, the first is the confusion of criminal and international law. The former is law proscribing individuals from conducting certain actions on pain of penalties enacted in law. The latter is a series of agreements between states, commonly regarded as formally binding, though with few methods of enforcement and commonly flouted outside of the liberal democratic Western states. It is only relatively recently that state leaders and officials have come to be regarded as even liable to criminal prosecution for state acts which violate certain aspects of international law, namely aggressive warfare, genocide and breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
Blair is commonly accused of explicit and also more commonly of implicit criminal behaviour; whether the bellowing of the ‘peace’ protesters in London, the increasingly repetitious statements of opinion from ex-politicians such as Clare Short, or the lazy articles of journalists regurgitating summaries of evidence given to the Iraq Inquiry, such as those reporting Lord Goldsmith’s apparent shift of opinion since January 2010 regarding the legality of war in 2003. The complexities of the issue are not give but more commonly, the existence of legal reasoning favouring the case for war is barely acknowledged.
The case for war states that Security Council Resolution 1441 was the trigger for war with the failure of Saddam to comply with the previous UNSC resolutions on Iraq regarding both the ending of the military action in 1991 and the conduct of the weapons inspection regime. The failure to comply brought Saddam into non-compliance with both 1441 and the earlier resolutions and the legal case for war was made. Or rather, it was reactivated. Saddam’s disarmament was the contingent factor in ending the 1991 hostilities and there existed only a ceasefire. In legal and military terms, a ceasefire may expire or be broken if the conditions are breached. There was no case against war in international law.
To return to a priori assumptions, these complex arguments are not unacknowledged by the media journalists by perpetuating a myth that the war was illegal, which more than any other element has distorted public knowledge and prevented a rational debate. Instead we find the same few points repeated: Did 1441 authorise force? Did the US and UK act precipitously in not allowing the Hans Blix group to complete its inspections? Was the war planned to go ahead regardless? Did Blair agree to war in Camp David?
The same group of debating points teleologically point towards the conclusion of abuse of the UN, violation of international law, the power of personalities and cliques as hidden elites feeding conspiratorial versions of history, and finally convicting the UK and US of ‘aggressive warfare’. With this teleology securing the conviction of the bien pensants in the culpable wickedness of the traitor Blair and the American Empire, no rational objection can be offered because the emotional argument has been closed.
With this in place, we see the trivialisation and sentimentalisation of the issues of the war; the morbid obsession with the dead soldiers, the perverse obsession with figures of Iraqi dead far exceeding reasonable estimates and the self-satisfied accusations made against the government of moral responsibility for the deaths of all those involved; though rarely spoken in those terms, the preferred expression was the emotionally laden term ‘war crime’. The anti-war critics and their followers in the media continually implied the deaths in Iraq were directly and maliciously caused by the protagonists. No matter that within a year, the British and US armies together with such allies as could be found were fighting hard just to retain control of the ground from Syrian and Iranian sponsored, funded and trained insurgencies, or that within two more years a vicious civil war would break out.
The British and US occupiers had made mistakes certainly but mistakes are not terminologically the same as decisions made with a deliberated aim of achieving that particular outcome. The political and strategic follies of the first four years could not constitute a war crime attributable to the political leaders, though there is some question as to what information the British cabinet was being given by the MoD between summer 2003 and autumn 2008.
Dr Richard North explored the shameful history of the occupation of southern Iraq by the British Army; the failure to acknowledge the breakdown of law and order on the ground, the spread of the Islamist militias turning Basra into an Islamic state, the increasingly lawlessness of the society in which the Army found itself the unwilling governing authority. The failure to protect property and life was a breach of the Army’s duty of care towards the people of Iraq.
Both the Army and the Cabinet placed faith in the rapid training and deployment of freshly created native security forces but ignored manifold signals and unhappy reports from the ground about the weakness and unreliability of the Iraqi security forces and both strenuously denied until 2008 by both government and Army.
But where I depart from Dr North’s conclusion is that I don’t believe the government was informed of the true situation on the ground and that an unconscious elision of interests occurred, where government remained nervous of an anti-war media and sceptical public and the Army protected its future weapons programmes by projecting calm on the ground. This of course began to fall apart when British troops began to be killed in increasing numbers by Improvised Explosive Devices, especially EFP devices as symbolised in the Snatch Land Rover controversy.
As time has gone on, Labour politicians and some Conservatives have begun to realise that something is seriously amiss in the Armed Forces and at the Ministry of Defence.
Yet, in Britain the media remains as culpable in terms of failures as the British government and military. The British media, so assiduous in reporting every possible scandal of British malpractise, or hints of illegality in the pre-war period, gloating over the number of dead with a moralising tone, failed utterly to notice something was amiss with southern Iraq until well into 2006 when the campaign to provide better protection for the soldiers on patrol was mounted.
The a priori assumptions blinded the complacent media to signs that events on the ground were beginning to spiral out of control. Once this began to catch on, part of the media debate centred upon issues of force protection but too much time was spent using the disaster unfolding in southern Iraq to condemn Tony Blair for the 2003 decision. An addition to moral schadenfreude served the media and the country ill.
A second of these assumptions was partially related to the first; the conviction of many that the threat from Islamic terrorism was either overstated or the government under Tony Blair was overreacting. The ID cards programme suffered terribly from this persistent fantasy; a programme which, once established would have simplified administrative processing, ID requirements and improved police and counterterrorism effectiveness was nonetheless treated with the utmost suspicion. Not even the attacks of the 7th July 2005 would shake this assumption fully from the public sphere.
The BBC was particularly guilty with such documentaries as The Power of Nightmares, implying a deliberate intention of using the crisis of Islamic terrorism to enforce a more authoritarian programme on British society. The charlatan posturing of Shami Chakrabati and Liberty symbolised the impotence of the civil liberties defenders once locked into an agenda of resisting authoritarian government, indeed staking their credibility on defending men whose ambition was the slaughter of British people but whose situation merited defence by the civil liberties lobby. Ideology triumphed over reality.
In the last two years, public opinion – always less sceptical of the threat of Islamic terrorism, together with the continuous presence within the public policy community of those advertising the dangers of Islamic terrorist movements, shifted the direction of public debate.
The assumptions that had underpinned the illusions of the British media began to fall apart but still the myth of Blair the criminal persists.
This myth continues to harm our public debate because it holds our attention in the past.
Iraq is still in need of assistance, caught between the Syrians and Iranians, still combating a desultory AQI campaign, experiencing continuous difficulties between Kurd, Sunni and Shia, and still enduring the presence of the loathsome Moqtada al-Sadr.
Iran is building a nuclear bomb, held up temporarily by technical problems probably resulting from Israeli or US sabotage, continues to fund, train and support terrorism around the region and is slowly creating a hegemonic position in the Middle East with dangerous consequences in the medium term for British interests.
Syria remains the forgotten problem. Syria’s role in Iraq impacted the US Army and Marines far more than the British Army but nonetheless proceeds hand-in-hand with Iran in creating a hostile hegemonic bloc in the Middle East, while promoting, training and hosting terrorist groups.
Our fixation upon Iraq in 2003 has held us back from tackling these dangerous states when they were afraid and from opposing these states now that they are confident.
Indeed our courage has shrunk to the point of a myopic obsession with some form of result in Afghanistan, scarcely acknowledging the increasingly malign role of Iran and refusing to confront the open truth of Jihadi Islam in Pakistan, we are heading for a tactical victory but a strategic defeat.
We have already strayed into my second point, which concerns an excessively moralistic judgement in relation to political decision-making.
This has already distorted institutional understanding of international law, damaged efforts to combat terrorism in the UK and abroad, seen savage falsehoods perpetuated about Israel, and threatens to turn public debate into favour of a parade of secular pieties. We are not speaking here of the morality of the individual, who must choose a course of action based upon his reason but of the increasingly dictatorial morality dictated by groups of right-thinkers. Influenced by social pressure, others will follow suit, seeking to maintain their social approval by acting and speaking as expected. Stepping outside the line can invite social exclusion.
Speaking about Islamist terrorism always incurs the risk of being labelled racist or Islamophobic. Speaking of the aggressive or terrorist instincts of certain states often invokes a pious response that it is some how provoked or to be blamed upon Western actions. The Arab campaign to destroy Israel was turned around to become the struggle of a people against Western colonialism. International law was reduced in public debate to a handful of quotes about the Geneva Conventions, moulded to an idea of what moral judgement should inform our actions.
When morality becomes law, injustice is swift to follow.
We are beset with demands to act immediately at the personal, social and state level on what self-selected voices declare to an emergency, yet any rational analysis of decision-making should surely emphasise the law of unintended consequences and urge caution and humility. The demand for emotion over reason is a dangerous offering to public debate. I contend that this is most easily demonstrated in the reflexive condemnation of the Iraq war but also of the demand to withdraw soldiers from the conflict without regard to the security of the people of that nation. At no time was a substantive or serious plan offered to stabilise Iraq; instead the demands followed a pattern which one might describe as modelled upon original sin whereby the accounting for the original sin of war would negate the chaos inflicted upon Iraq.
The same pattern is evident in the varying shades of opinion on Israeli guilt. The sin can range from settlements to the establishment of Israel itself. In each case, the retraction of the sinful act is implicitly supposed to negate the retribution. Yet, in every case once the agents of the retribution are studied, the fantasy of retracted sin collapses. The enemies of Israel are rooted in a fundamental rejection of the idea of Jewish self-rule with regular calls made to evict or exterminate the Jewish population. A collapsed Israel would mean a second Holocaust; yet anti-zionists use language originally applicable to the Holocaust to describe the intent and projected outcome of Israeli policies.
This culture of group-centred morality, clothed in the languages of law and necessity, has become an obstruction to clear debate. When the tone becomes hysterical as frequently around the subject of Blair, evidence and reason are rejected and the group turn back to the pre-ordained conclusions demanded by the (teleological) process. Nothing Blair will ever say, nothing ever produced, no eventual outcome will vindicate Blair in the eyes of those who consider him a war criminal because the accusation is not concerned with outcomes but with a metaphysical statement.
Will this phenomena remain concentrated on Blair or does it cast a wider net? I believe that we find it at its most intense when focused on Blair, turning him into a mythological signifier within the internal debate, whereby Blair becomes an agent of sin, bringing evil into this world. But it is not limited to him. The readiness to cast conservatives and those who oppose grand political projects as wicked contributes to an anti-democratic atmosphere. How can we have a debate when your opponent believes you can never be right?
This also ties into the third point; the failure of most of the political and intellectual classes to acknowledge the demands of our place in the world, or indeed to realistically contemplate what that place should be!
Our obsession with Blair holds us back from facing the domestic and foreign policy challenges of the present. Instead of focusing on the rise of Islamist movements in the Middle East (and in Europe), when these are noticed, inevitably someone in public life will blame it upon Blair and the Iraq War (as well as Israel and the USA). The obsession with causes denies agency to Islamism and demotes it to a native reaction to supposed Western provocation. Ignorant of the history of Islamism, we do not acknowledge that its ideology is a revolutionary one, primarily focused on the reunification of the Islamic world under a theocratic system. Nor do we allow ourselves to be persuaded by evidence that Islamism is a prime motor for terrorism and aggression against the West, against religious and ethnic minorities, despite the copious evidence presented across the whole world!
In geopolitics, we come unstuck when trying to debate the Iranian problem because we persist in a fantasy that Iranian intransigence was caused by the invasion of Iraq. Rational analysis might offer an opinion to the contrary, noting that Iran and Syria became more not less cooperative following in 2003 and Libya gave up its nuclear weapons programme. We refuse to study the history of the Islamic Republic, refuse to note the fundamental hostility to the West found in its rhetoric, official texts, founding work by Khomenei or in its sponsorship of terrorist movements which espouse similar ideals. We refuse to listen to the exiles, refuse to acknowledge the depth of depravity to which the regime will sink as following the protested elections in 2009.
The West has persistently attempted to tackle the Iranian nuclear weapons programme with negotiation and a very slowly stiffening sanctions regime. Yet we won’t acknowledge that Iran relies upon Russian and Chinese support in the Security Council and for economic and military development. In dealing with Iran, we have to deal with the greater powers of Russia and China; this is ignored because it is too hard or too easy to blame on Blair.
This leads back to the wider question above. What role is Britain going to play in the world?
We’ve already mentioned the defence cuts and change in British diplomatic posture. This suggests that the current model of British activity is to be non-interventionist, focused on trade and diplomatic links but increasingly focused upon the nexus of the European Union. Is Britain to become an adjunct of the European diplomatic mission? If so what does this mean for our place in the world.
In an internal sense, it means we have moved away from an ancient posture of independence to one of cooperative subservience. This can be seen in the creation of the EU Diplomatic Service and in the continued moves towards a common EU military force. Given the EU history of diplomacy and intervention, it is not likely to be one to be externally focused upon threats from other nations; indeed, I hope the reader will forgive my cynicism when I believe that the purpose of a common EU military force will be to keep European arms manufacturers in order sheets. It may even be far more about protecting domestic political interests. I look forward to the fireworks when equipment harmonisation begins – the French firm Nextor (Leclerc) and the German firm Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (Leopard 2) are major national firms and one will have to lose out when the future European main battle tank is chosen.
Is this ultimately in British interests as this prescribes an emphasis on diplomatic interventionism but not military? The EU has been following a model of ‘soft power’ for decades now, yet it is the USA which commands respect and fear around the world. We focus on the Iraq War as a wrong but we neither acknowledge that this was a successful extension of military strength, or a model for an alternative approach to world affairs.
The shadow of the five inquiries focuses our national attention on quite self-regarding and negative obsessions with perceived moral wrongs but only those wrongs which concern ourselves and never others. The final decline of the Armed Forces under the Coalition government puts paid to notions of projecting power and influence, let along humanitarian interventionism. The British political classes have taken fright at the unpopularity of a muscular foreign policy and so either leave open, or leave to others questions that are going to shape our strategic world in the next twenty years.
Russia is increasingly assertive. The invasion of Georgia was a splendid example of the impotence of the EU and the unwillingness of the Obama administration to back allies against enemies, lest this be seen to cause conflict. The senior EU leaders apart from Gordon Brown all called on both sides to stop fighting; however, Sarkozy actively pressured the Georgian leadership to accept Russian terms and blamed Georgia for igniting the war. A pro-western democracy was abandoned when faced with military aggression. One begins to wonder what will happen if Russia begins to conduct the same ‘chipping’ war against the Baltic states with their Russian minorities. Based upon past performances, one cannot place much faith in European protection.
Where does Britain stand in this? Do we simply pass our responsibility to the fool Catherine Ashton? Or do we say that we must build a defensive alliance against Russian aggression, lest another iron curtain descend?
China is a potential problem of increasing size and strength. The Chinese military has been aggressively upgrading in quality and capacity. The Chinese Navy is attempting to establish a carrier fleet, a prerequisite for power projection, while the Chinese economy becomes more and more important to the world. There are other worries. Much of the Western world’s manufacturing capacity is based in China. If there were a political crisis, how soon would the West find itself cut off from its sources of cheap goods? China is not necessarily an enemy but it could be. We do not know what intention their rulers have and there are a slowly increasing numbers of flash points, which could start shooting wars, such as Taiwan, the island disputes with Japan, the Spratly Islands claimed by multiple nations.
Additionally, China has heavily invested in Africa and is busily creating a new economic imperium there, untrammelled by Western consciences about human rights, democracy, corruption or environmentalism. China’s focus is on sustained economic growth to lift its population out of poverty and to create a power of the first-rank. Indeed, why should it not? But this must be a matter for us to consider in relation to ourselves.
No sign of this is to be seen in Britain beyond occasional economics articles, or the ritualistic ‘talks’ between leaders on human rights in China. One wonders what the Chinese leaders think of this or if it is just something to be brushed aside as the price of business. Our geo-strategic world has shrunk from the days of empire to the western periphery of Europe; yet we remain one of the richest, most advanced nations on the planet. Economically capable, a leader in military and scientific research and yet politically stunted and unable to honour the ideals of the recent past, notably democracy, liberal values, human rights and a freer happier world. Is the Foreign Office reduced to bargaining with tyrants, tutting at Israel and doling out foreign aid to please the newspapers?
It is time as we stand amidst the madness of crowds to seriously consider how to return to our past position of national glory. Our natural partner is the USA which shares with us so much history and so many cultural values. We live now in a world where revolutionary regimes are building weapons of mass destruction, subvert our allies and campaign against our values, seeking to plant their own. We live alongside a Russia freed from the shackles of Communism and happily rebuilding an empire of satellite states in which the freedom of the individual and the ideal of democracy are to be ended forever. And we live in the knowledge of a China which is likely to grow, even accounting for the demographics which are not hopeful for China in the next generation.
To which nation can those who which to emulate British ideals look? The USA is floundering, trying to be more European while fighting a long counter-insurgency campaign against Islamist terrorism. To Europe which proclaims democracy but practises it increasingly less, ruled as it is by selfish cliques and national interests always present beneath the surface? Or to Britain, where our political and media class are obsessed by a morally ‘impure’ foreign policy of eight years past, ruled by an inward looking coalition and whose national spirit is confused, divided and weak?
If we intend to honour our ideals, we must reaffirm our belief in our ideals and reaffirm our belief in a special British role in the world. Britain is the mother of all parliamentary democracy and we must not abandon our offspring. Tony Blair demonstrated how strong we could be, in spite of all our flaws. We should look to his example and find an independent and proud spirit once more.