Ten years after Iraq: 'illusion of consensus' that sent us to war
How did we fall for it? Why were the sceptics ignored? And is it about to happen all over again in Syria?
TEN YEARS ago today, America and Britain launched their mission to overthrow the military regime of Saddam Hussein. They did so on a false prospectus, to put it politely.
The casus belli - that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction to be launched in under an hour - was quickly revealed as fiction. What bits and pieces he did have of chemical weaponry were old and not fit for use.
What ensued was one of the most expensive military operations in history – the trillion-dollar war in Joseph Stiglitz's phrase – with Iraq turned first into a playground for al-Qaeda, and now with a government and army in Baghdad whose closest ally is in Tehran.
How did we fall for it? How is that the Bush and Blair regimes were so successful in hosing down, marginalising and silencing the sceptics?
In the New York Times, the Nobel laureate economist and commentator Paul Krugman addresses the question of why the dissenters on Iraq initially were ridiculed and ignored – several million of them marching in the cities of the UK on a February weekend in 2003 – and Washington and Whitehall got away with their deceitful propaganda.
The striking thing in the run-up to war, he suggests, was the "illusion of consensus”. Everyone appeared to believe in the case for war – opponents were "out of the mainstream”.
As result, "anyone who dissented, no matter how qualified, was ipso facto labeled as unworthy of consideration. This was true in political circles; it was equally true of much of the press, which effectively took sides and joined the war party.”
In Britain the lack of editorial question was evident in 2002 after Tony Blair's April visit to Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Blair and Alastair Campbell tuned their court of political commentators and lobby hacks particularly well. One Westminster review programme on Radio 4 "assumed” that it was "likely” that Britain would go to war in Iraq by the following spring.
Looking back, the clues were obvious that things were not quite what they seemed. In September 2002, Blair published his so-called intelligence dossier on Iraq's WMD arsenal – which, of course, was nothing of the sort because all doubts and caveats, the stuff of intelligence reporting, were absent.
No sooner was the dossier released than the Evening Standard rushed out its first edition proclaiming '45 minutes from attack' – a headline I suspect originated in Downing Street than a Kensington newsroom.
And so it went on. The low point was the ducking and weaving of the Attorney General about the legal case for war. The high point was the resignation speech of Labour MP Robin Cook as Leader of the House. He claimed that when he had been Foreign Secretary, and therefore in charge of MI6, he had seen nothing that suggested Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction that posed a massive and serious threat to British interests, lives and territory. Nothing in Cook's speech has ever been disputed.
Several weeks before the war began I got a phone call relaying a message from the commander of the escort to the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix. The officer, a former British Army major, wanted me to know in no uncertain terms that in the 30 sites designated by the CIA and MI6 as WMD facilities, nothing had been found – they were "dry wells”. I relayed this to my newspaper editor at the time, to be completely blanked. Criticism of the case for war, the signs that British forces in Basra were in a quagmire, received similar treatment.
The failures of the media to ask the right questions loud enough has been more than matched by the abject performance of public inquiry into the Iraq debacle – starting with Hutton and Butler, which willfully ignored vital evidence and sources, and concluding with the Chilcot Inquiry, now destined for the long grass beyond the next election.
And it'll get worse for the media if the proposals for press regulation go ahead, however watered down. Imagine what would have happened if Alastair Campbell had enjoyed even a smidgen of statutory powers over the press, especially during the row over Andrew Gilligan and the death of Dr Kelly?
On the ground itself the march of folly of British foreign policy adventurism and intervention seems destined to continue. Britain, along with France and the US, is actively contemplating arming "insurgents” in Syria. This is despite not really knowing who many of them are.
Last year, according to intelligence analysis, there were some 600 attacks and bombings by al-Qaeda groups in Syria - a tally never achieved in the years when Iraq's own al-Qaeda was at its height. The same assessment claims that more that 1,000 foreign fighters have moved into Syria over the past year.
Many could now benefit from Whitehall's funds, equipment and armaments. Would you believe it? ·