The UK’s intended Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war will be confined to examining the behaviour of Tony Blair’s Labour government leading up to British participation in the G.W. Bush Administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. Maybe we shall find out why Mr. Blair did not follow Harold Wilson’s precedent over Vietnam and refuse British involvement in Iraq.
But a bigger question needing an answer is: how did Britain’s parliamentary, and America’s presidential democracy both fail so spectacularly in the lead-up to the Iraq war? How was it that UK and US elected representatives in Parliament and Congress – Labour and Conservative, Republican and Democrat – came to authorise the war (Parliament, 18 March 2003, 412-149, House of Representatives 10 October 2002, 296-133, Senate next day 77-23). How did such overwhelming majorities ignore the equally overwhelming non-secret evidence of the unacceptably severe worldwide repercussions almost certain to follow an invasion not approved by the UN Security Council?
Yet there were several distinguished voices, on both right and left, warning against an “unapproved” invasion. For example Brent Scowcroft, widely respected Republican top security guru, warned on 4 August 2002 that an invasion “could turn the whole region into a cauldron and thus destroy the ‘war on terrorism’”,.and Robin Cook, former British Labour Foreign Secretary, in his resignation speech on 17 March 2003, stressed the dire consequences for the West of losing the extraordinary worldwide backing the US had achieved after “9/11”. Ignored too, by Senators and major media alike, was veteran Senator Byrd’s even more forceful and prescient speech of 12 February 2003 setting out the principal reasons against giving war powers to President G.W. Bush.
We are not talking rocket science – just a basic knowledge of foreign affairs and a dose of common sense! My own piece in The Independent on 10 September 2002 merely voiced what many well qualified observers had warned months before – that 9/11 was clearly designed to provoke a unilateral disproportionate and ill-directed response from the United States to destabilise the Middle East, provoke a clash of civilisations, and create worldwide economic and political havoc to Al Qaeda’s advantage. President Bush’s occupation of Afghanistan had been all but unanimously supported, so 9/11 had not succeeded. But an invasion of Iraq could prove to be just what Al Qaeda had sought.
In 2002 any elected representative could have done as Senator Byrd did and gather their own cogent reasons for opposing an Iraq war. Among those circulating then:-
It would be folly to start a pre-emptive war in Iraq with Afghanistan still unfinished business. It would inevitably lose to Iraq top priority for troops and reconstruction – so putting the whole Afghanistan operation at risk.
An invasion would greatly help Al Qaeda in stirring up anti-Western and anti-Israeli bitterness when what was needed to undercut Al Qaeda’s appeal was a major attempt to cure the running sore of Israel/Palestine.
An invasion not approved by the UN Security Council would split the West, the Western stance in the UN, and weaken NATO.
A weakened UN would inhibit the emergence after the Cold War of a new era of cooperation indispensable for confronting, not only terrorism, but other great issues from genocide to existential challenges, like climate change.
Occupying a second Muslim country would help Al Qaeda provoke the “clash of civilisations” it needed to expand its destabilising influence – not just from Pakistan to Morocco, but within the Western countries.
Iran’s tentative co-operation in 2002 over the removal of the Taliban and Al Qaeda would likely be replaced by a struggle for influence in Iraq once US forces arrived on its western as well as on its eastern frontier.
Because Iraq is fissiparous – replete with ethnic and religious divides -. serious civil disturbance must be anticipated unless Saddam Hussein were immediately replaced by a firm interim governor. But the projected troop levels would be too low to cope,.and Britain had complained to the US of a lack of planning for the occupation and eventual withdrawal.
Saddam Hussein’s fascist style secular government was doing the West’s work – preventing Al Qaeda from getting a foothold in Iraq. So Iraq could wait at least while the French plan for beefed up inspections ran its course.
Independent experts were agreed that Iraq was far from obtaining nuclear weapons and had no means of effective delivery abroad of any chemical or biological weapons. Invading Iraq would impede the urgent international effort required to deal with North Korea’s then imminent nuclear capability.
Vice President Cheney and his fellow neo-conservatives in top positions in the Bush administration evidently saw the occupation of Iraq as the key to clinching US dominance in a uni-polar world – so ensuring success for their much publicised Project for New American Century. A dazzling prospect for the G W Bush presidency, but one clearly contradicted both by the realities of the Middle East and by the determined opposition to US hegemony of Russia, China and others.
With such compelling arguments around – all of which proved correct - what prevented a cross-party refusal to follow Bush and Blair? Party loyalty on such a crucial issue should not have choked debate in the UK parliament just because the party leaders, Mr. Blair and Mr. Duncan Smith, were pro-war. Or do backbench MPs and members of Congress no longer perceive themselves as watchdogs for their constituents and their country? Were many simply beguiled by the intelligence that was obviously being manipulated? How many humanitarians voted primarily to end a cruel tyranny? How many mistakenly believed Iraq would be a cake-walk? How many failed to seek independent advice on foreign affairs? How many – particularly in Congress – were influenced by electoral considerations?
While the UK and the US commend the virtues of democracy to the world we need to ask with Senator Byrd at that fateful Senate Debate why was the Senate – and equally the UK Parliament – “silent - ominously, dreadfully silent”. Why was there “no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out to the nation the pros and cons of this particular war?“ This is all the more extraordinary when the British people were demonstrating widespread opposition to the proposed invasion and polls suggested a majority of Americans did not want an invasion without the British.
This grave failure of democracy in both the UK and the US must be explained and the facts faced if the political and media “establishments” of both countries are to make the fundamental readjustments needed to move on from the G. W. Bush era of confrontation and its dire worldwide consequences, into a long overdue era of international cooperation made possible by the end of the Cold War.
John Pedler, a former British diplomat with worldwide experience, is now a diplomatic consultant based in France. An old Indochina hand, he warned that invading Iraq could lead to two “Vietnams” – in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was a founder of the Cambodia Trust.
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