What have we learnt? That if we didn’t know we should have asked
In Baghdad in 2010, seven years into the Third Gulf War, I was working with the UN, helping Iraq’s Independent Election Commission manage their access to information duties without misleading, deceiving or denying the local media.
For people who supported the 2003 invasion, the general success of that election was proof positive of their prescient good sense. In fact the vote only embedded the sectarianism that fed the fresh hell to come. But for a while it was possible for foreigners to ask without irony or ignorance, if things were better for Iraqis thanks to the US-UK led invasion. More so than continued life under Saddam would have been.
A mournful Iraqi replied, without bitterness, but tear-inducing honesty, that this was like asking a man which was worse: the floods that drowned his wife or the famine that killed his children. They had no choice in the matter and never did. The only people with choices were the British politicians and journalists who had the freedom to challenge the decision to wreak holy hell on Iraq in the name of regime change in 2003.
This freedom, as we now understand from the Chilcot Report, was selectively applied. Required to give their consent to the most important decision a government can make, the decision to go to war, our leaders failed to properly examine the case and its myriad inconsistencies.
The UK government and Parliament failed to ensure that the options for deterrence and containment of Saddam’s aggressions had truly been exhausted before going to war. They failed to ensure that there was a legal case and a practical capacity for the UK to act pre-emptively against Saddam’s direct threat to the UK — or even if such a threat really existed. It was a collective responsibility and thus a collective betrayal. And as British MP Crispin Blunt pointed out today, the media were just as at fault.
The Guardian’s Maggie O’Kane put it best when asked whether knowing what Slobodan Milosevic was doing, if the media should have pressed harder for armed intervention in Bosnia. It wasn’t, she replied, the media’s job to tell you what to do. It’s the media’s job to make sure you can’t say you didn’t know.
Now plenty say just that about Iraq. They say they didn’t know. They didn’t know Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by the Iraqi regime as he sought to make the case for military action. But it was plain to see Blair had changed the game that he had defined from the UK intervention in Sierra Leone onwards.
Bosnia & Kosovo were crises where a political response to vicious dictatorship and humanitarian disaster was the default position and war the option. Blair & Bush reversed that for Iraq, as for their own reasons so did the pro-war commentariat. War became the default position, and a political response the option.
That’s what makes them failed warriors rather than failed humanitarians. I am the latter, and would rather be so, even forced. I am not — like almost all my generation of reporters who worked through the Bosnian war and Rwanda — an outright opponent of so-called armed ‘humanitarian intervention’. Merely from experience, a sceptic.
I can’t speak for the pro-war commentariat. I note only that many would call themselves left-wingers. Here I cite Kanan Makiya, whose incredible book Republic of Fear did so much to expose the horror of Saddam’s rule. “Bodies matter,” Makiya told the NYT’s Dexter Filkins. “I come from a tradition in the far left, back a long time ago in my life, where I ran into a whole number of people for whom bodies did not count. You know: the historical process, the victory for the working class. The great big idea that could take place at the expense of any number of bodies because ultimately, in the very, very long run, lives would be saved. I would not make that argument anymore. It is utterly repugnant to me.”
I know the argument. Saddam, mercifully, is gone. In broad political terms Iraq is led by a much less cruel and authoritarian state. Yet some 250 people were killed this week as they took their Iftar meal in Baghdad. As the Guardian points out, the war that followed our invasion has killed as many people, most of them civilians, as died on the Allied side at the Somme.
The Iraqi people are today where they were when Makiya described their life under Saddam: “overwhelmed by the unbridled growth of the means of violence, compromised in its terror”. You can’t say you didn’t know.