The latest attempt to move on from the Iraq war
was set out by Prime Minister Blair last weekend. He was quoted by
the BBC as saying: "We do say sorry for all those people who have died,
but I cannot apologize for taking the country to war." In other words, he's
sorry for the tens of thousands of dead Iraqis1 (families machine-gunned
in their cars at checkpoints or because they drove too close to some frightened
and heavily armed American soldiers, innocent people killed by bombs or snipers
because they refused to leave their homes at the behest of the occupying forces,
or just those caught
in the crossfire between the two sides) but they were a price worth paying,
as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously declared of the Iraqis
who died under sanctions.
Is "sorry, but it was worth it" enough?
In one sense, it may well prove to be so. Despite the much-discussed hostility
toward Mr. Blair among UK voters over the decision to attack Iraq and the deceptive
way it was sold to the British people (one remarkable Sunday Mirror/Observer
MORI poll is quoted
by the BBC as saying that "fewer than 25 percent of Labour voters want Tony
Blair to serve a full third term … if reelected"!), it will be a real upset
if Labour does not retain a substantial majority after Thursday's election (once
the likely legal disputes over postal voting fraud have been concluded). So
Blair will probably be prime minister again, and although for tactical reasons
there will be little immediate triumphalism2, that will be sufficient for an "accountability moment"
for British politicians, as it was for Bush in America ("Bush
Says Election Ratified Iraq Policy"). There are a number of reasons
why a Labour victory (and thus, the reelection of Blair as prime minister) is
overwhelmingly likely3. In fact, of course, Labour will have been reelected despite
Iraq, but that won't prevent the result from being used, in due course, to close
down discussion of the issue.
To decent people, though, who are aware of the issues and facts, it will be
a moral obscenity to see this argument succeed. We now know that Iraq was no
real threat to us. We know that the Blair regime took inadequate and qualified
intelligence information and presented it as being sufficient to justify conclusions
that proved to be wholly incorrect. This was done in order to shore up declining
popular support for the attack and to win a vote in Parliament on the decision
to go to war. We know that the regime took equivocal advice on the legality
of the attack in the absence of a UN authorization and presented it as a conclusion
stripped of its caveats, in order to reassure those who doubted4. We know that, as a result of the decision to attack
Iraq, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis (men, women, and children) have been
killed in the last two years, the infrastructure of the country has been destroyed,
and ongoing violence kills 500 to 1,000 Iraqis a month, according to a Brookings
Institute study quoted in the Australian Daily Telegraph on April 22.
A full-blown civil war is certainly a possibility for the future, though those
kinds of numbers hardly suggest peace and tranquility as it is. The reader should
bear in mind that the population of Iraq is roughly half that of the UK, so
the equivalent in the UK would be one to two thousand people dying violently
each month. Meanwhile, Iraqis have been locked up and mistreated by the American
occupying forces in huge numbers, based on little more than vague suspicions,
and held in places like Abu Ghraib.
To show for all this, a supposedly democratic but actually sectarian and probably
very unstable Iraqi government has been installed in place of the former dictatorship.
We are expected to give the Blair and Bush governments the credit if, after
all this, the luckless Iraqi people do eventually manage to find their way to
peace and stability. If we are angry about what has been done, or question whether
it was worth it, we are inevitably asked whether we aren't pleased that Saddam
is gone5, or reminded that this supposedly democratic government
is in place. The correct political response to this disingenuous political question
– to ask if the tens of thousands of dead Iraqis can be assumed to be "pleased"
about it – is rarely returned with sufficient force.
Call me picky if you like, but I don't believe that "sorry, but it was worth
it" is good enough.
Blair should clearly have resigned when his original "weapons of mass destruction"
justification was demonstrated to have been at best a misjudgment, and at worst
a deliberate deception6. This would have allowed the election to be fought
on other issues, rather than muddied by his trying to cling to power in order
to be able to match his idol Margaret Thatcher's
three election wins.
One of the advantages of the British constitutional structure is that it does
allow for the easy adoption of new requirements by precedent. A recent example
has been the call
by Gordon Brown for the precedent of the Commons vote on the attack on Iraq
(for all it has been shown since to have been flawed by the deceptive information
on which the government win was based) to be used for future decisions to take
Britain to war. This makes sense, where we are talking about "elective wars"
– i.e., wars the British government chooses to enter for reasons of national
policy. The "royal prerogative," whereby the prime minister can take military
action on his own initiative, should remain, but only for necessary defensive
action (against "ongoing armed attack" as the well-known phrase has it).
This distinction between elective wars and defensive wars is a useful and important
one (it reflects the Article 51 exception in the UN treaty). When the UK is
attacked, a prime minister has an immediate duty to take steps for the national
defense. In contrast, when a prime minister decides whether to engage in an
elective war, he is balancing the advantages as he sees them of a successful
outcome of that war against the risks of failure and (more importantly, in the
case of Iraq) the costs of war – in particular, the lives of servicemen and
civilians. When he chooses to go to war, as Blair did in the case of Iraq, he
is deciding that those lives are worth the policy benefits he sees as likely
to flow from the war. He is saying that he knows innocent people will die (though
he may not know how many), but those deaths are "worth it."
The least a man in such a position ought to be required to do is to sacrifice
his own position, along with the lives he is prepared to sacrifice. A British
prime minister who chooses to take the country into an elective war should be
required to resign thereafter. If he believes in the action so strongly that
he is prepared to see innocents killed for it, he should be prepared to take
The British system does not involve the election of a prime minister by the
people, but the election of 600-odd members of Parliament to represent the people
of Britain. Those MPs then choose one from their number to be prime minister.
Though it is human nature to regard oneself as indispensable in a job, no individual
ever is actually as important as he or she believes. Likewise, though it is
human nature to overstate the importance of the individual at the top, the replacement
of one prime minister by another will never necessarily be bad for the UK. Going
to war voluntarily should be a difficult decision. Let us make sure there
can be no question that a prime minister who chooses to do so really does believe
the price is worth paying.
study published last October showing 100,000 deaths as a conservative
estimate of the direct or indirect consequences of the attack, with violence
as the largest single cause of death, remains the best estimate available.
Of course, the U.S. and UK governments declined to attempt any sort of count
because they knew the figures could only harm them politically, and they
(evidently rightly) calculated that most of the British and American people
wouldn't care enough about the deaths of foreigners to force them to keep
See this week's Observer article; "Iraq,
the Secret U.S. Visit, and an Angry Military Chief." Quote:
"A growing number of ministers are now arguing for an extended
diet of humble pie, even if Labour is returned with a healthy majority.
There must, they argue, be no triumphalism, and not just over Iraq: too
many voters are angry and disillusioned about issues ranging from public
services to immigration.
"'If we get back with a reduced majority, we cannot have a scintilla
of arrogance: he's got to show he's clocked it,' says one senior minister."
Most people still insist that Iraq is very low on their list of priorities
in choosing how to vote. Domestic issues loom larger. For most, it seems
either they simply base their vote on their own material self-interest (and
they see the Labour Party as the best choice for this), or they claim they
have to vote Labour to preserve various aspects of the welfare state. Apparently
slightly more funding for the welfare state at home weighs more heavily
in these people's shriveled social consciences than responsibility for the
mass killing of foreigners in far away countries. Furthermore, the British
electoral system is currently heavily biased against the Conservative Party
– the Electoral
Reform Society recently noted that the Conservatives "need to lead by
something like four points to draw level in seats, and by about nine in
order to enjoy a bare overall majority." Combined with a low turnout, this
means that the Labour Party needs the active support of a surprisingly small
number of people to win power again – they
only received 10.7 million votes in 2001, and this gave them 412 seats
out of 659 in the Commons. Furthermore, the main supposed opposition party,
the Conservative Party, failed to carry out its proper role in the case
of the attack on Iraq, and supported the government. Those who opposed the
attack therefore have to go to the third party, the Liberal Democrats, or
various other fringe parties, to find a positive home for their vote.
The legal issue is – or should be – actually a lot simpler than the lawyers
(inevitably) would have it. This country formally agreed to renounce war as
a tool of national policy when it signed up to the UN Charter. We agreed
that we would only go to war if the war was explicitly authorized by the
UN. The only exception was the obvious one of necessary defense, which was
set out in Article 51 of the
treaty. Since then, the difficulty of getting UN authorization for the use
of war as a tool of national policy has rankled with many, and there has
been much trying to wiggle out of the commitment by claiming there are other
legal issues. "Humanitarian intervention" has been one popular rationalization,
as in the Kosovo attack. Another, as in the case of the U.S./ UK position
on Iraq, has been to try to pretend that authorization has actually been
given despite the UN specifically refusing to give it. Thus, the contortions
and absurdities discussed in the recently published attorney
general's advice, where he had to try to take seriously the U.S. and
UK regimes' absurd contention that it was necessary to go to war to enforce
compliance with UN resolutions, when the UN itself declined to authorize
the attack, or the frankly stupid and blatantly self-serving American position
that it is for states to decide when a UN resolution has been breached,
rather than the UN itself. At least the attorney general dismisses the laughable
"unreasonable veto" argument that was put forward by the Blair regime when
it was asking the Commons to support the attack on Iraq despite the failure
to secure UN authorization.
One commentator suggested the
following parallel for the "aren't you pleased that Saddam is gone?"
tactic. A man, having seen a poisonous spider on the wall of the garage,
disposes of it by driving the family car into the wall, destroying the spider
along with the car and the garage. When the man's wife remonstrates with
him, he angrily retorts: "I have to infer from that statement that
you would be happier if that spider were still crawling up the wall."
Papers disclosed in this weekend's Sunday Times further confirm
that Blair had personally promised George Bush in April 2002 that he, and
Britain, would support the intended attack on Iraq. ("Blair
Planned Iraq War From Start")
This article originally appeared at LibertyForum.org.