Shouldn’t the peaceniks just shut up
and move on?
After writing this I shall set out for Iraq.
The Times is sending me there, I am enormously lucky to go, and hope
to see as much as possible in the ten short days of my trip. The prospect
has concentrated my mind on something which has vexed me and others
who opposed the US–British invasion all through the year of trouble
and tragedy that has followed. It is the question of whether we peaceniks
are right to persist so doggedly in our criticism of the Prime Minister
and the US President, and in our pursuit of their answers to unanswered
questions about the reasons and justifications for war, now that that
war is over.
|‘You do realise it’s Saturday night,
After all, the occupation is a fait accompli. Few are more irritating
than those who, asked where to go next, reply that we shouldn’t be
starting from here. The search for ways of rescuing Iraq and its peoples
from their new plight might be thought more urgent than raking over
the coals of a row about whether we were right to rescue them from
their old one. ‘If you really care about Iraq as you say you do,’
our pro-war critics sometimes complain, ‘shouldn’t you be burying
the hatchet at home and thinking positively, as Mr Blair and the Americans
are trying to do, about the best way of sorting out difficulties there?
What do ordinary Iraqis care about Hutton, or Butler, or the 45-minute
warning, or who said what to whom back here in Britain more than a
We peaceniks nod sagely, for it is hard to disagree, but find ourselves
picking again at the old sore of why Messrs Bush and Blair did it
in the first place. Should we, then, kick the habit? Should we just
shut up (as I hear some Spectator readers cry) and, in Mr Blair’s
phraseology, ‘move on’? It may be presumptuous to speak on behalf
of that wide and ragged band who describe ourselves as against the
war on Iraq, but I honestly think I can. Though we disagree with each
other on much, we are all, almost to a woman and man, reluctant to
let go of this argument, and I am pretty confident I know the reasons.
Some of them are unworthy. We peaceniks well know, for instance, that
if the whole Iraqi business had gone swimmingly from day one, the
Bush and Blair pack and their media supporters — the Mark Steyns,
Michael Goves and David Aaronovitches, the William Shawcrosses and
Gerald Kaufmans — would be rubbing our noses in it mercilessly. In
my view they would be entitled to. Leading articles — ‘Where are they
now?’ — in the Daily Telegraph would be asking why we peaceniks hadn’t
said sorry. Our Prime Minister, always quick to crow, loves to characterise
half of humanity as the fainthearts, nay-sayers and doubting Thomases
who, if he had listened to them, would have wrecked all his best ideas.
Blairite ultras in the House of Commons would be tormenting those
on the Labour Left who made such trouble for the Prime Minister as
he prepared for war. Abroad and in more diplomatic language, the German
Chancellor and the President of France would be being sneeringly patronised
by Mr Blair because they had (as Donald Rumsfeld put it in the immediate
euphoria of victory) ‘temporarily lost their way’.
‘Well,’ we peaceniks think, ‘they would not have spared us. Why should
we spare them?’ But there are more adult reasons for refusing to let
our quarry go.
First, the most abstract. I am very much in favour of the culture
of blame. It matters in democratic politics that when our leaders
behave dishonestly in order to win our support, we do not let the
wrong drop simply because the damage has been done. Only in one sense
do I think Blair behaved honestly: he did believe that supporting
the Americans was the right thing to do. Assured of the overall rectitude
of his purpose, he then (we suspect) threw scruple to the wind in
executing it. If that can be demonstrated, then it would be a mark
not of generosity but of cynicism to shrug our shoulders and say ‘Hey,
that’s politics — move on.’
We devalue the whole idea of constitutional democracy if we let our
leaders insinuate that purity of purpose is all that really counts.
I think that if the Commons were misled it also counts, and if the
result was war it counts tremendously. Though a massacre of Shia Muslims
in Iraq today is of course more awful than the discovery that the
Attorney-General’s advice a year ago was more ambivalent than the
Prime Minister suggested, still the integrity of our politics here
in Britain does matter, in a quiet, un-urgent, unsensational but in
the end profound way.
And getting our analysis of recent history right matters if we are
to get the years ahead for Iraq right. If we persist in following
Bush and Blair in believing that this is (‘literally’, as Mr Blair
remarked last week) about Good vs Evil, then the occupying powers
are unlikely to understand the problems attending the creation of
a democratic state there. To a very great extent in America, and to
some extent in Britain, people were led to believe that what justified
intervention in Iraq was not just the threat Saddam Hussein posed
to his own people, or even the threat his weapons programmes posed
to us, but some kind of highly unspecified engagement between Iraq
(as it then was) and international ‘Terror’. As I have argued here
so often before, a Manichaean or dualist view of the universe has
been conjured from the horrors of September 11, in which bad or dangerous
people worldwide are insinuated to be somehow on the same side. The
hunger with which the US–British coalition keeps grasping at any suggestion
of links between Saddam and al-Qa’eda is testimony to that.
Dualism is a perversion of the world, and a distraction. Through the
fog of confusion, claim and counter-claim about current events in
Iraq, one truth strikes this columnist as luminously clear: to approach
the reconstruction of that country with the aim of identifying the
‘good’ people and supporting them against the ‘bad’ people will only
make matters worse. It matters, therefore, for reasons deeper than
historical accuracy or a proper humility that those who instigated
the war on Iraq admit that they miscalculated. In their hearts I think
most know it. Few of them, asked whether they would do it all again,
could reply without a telling pause.
The Conservative party never apologised for Suez, though slowly the
realisation crept upon almost everyone that it had been a terrible
mistake. Luckily ill health gave Sir Anthony Eden his reason for resignation,
and happily he later recovered. We should wish nobody ill health,
but for Tony Blair the appearance at least of ill health — nothing
grave, nothing from which he too could not later recover — would be
a stroke of fortune before the next election, not least for his own
place in history. We will not otherwise let go.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.
© 2004 The Spectator.co.uk