Two Cheers for Sir Tony

The guffaws which have greeted Tony Blair’s knighthood have largely centred around his decision to join the USA in going to war with Iraq. As befits a true Harrumpfer, my own objections to the man arise from practically everything about his career except his decision to invade Iraq, and I suspect that history may judge him more favourably than current received wisdom suggests. Literally nobody I know agrees with me on this, but hey, I’m a Harrumpfer – it’s what we do.

As for the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction around which the case against Blair pivots, I have a problem – one that I invite Harrumpfers to solve, if they can.

The incompetence with which Bush’s men conducted the early Iraqi occupation greatly assisted the passing into orthodoxy of the assertion that there were never any WMDs in Iraq in the first place, but I’m not sure it stacks up. I read Richard Butler’s book ‘Saddam Defiant. The Threat Of Weapons Of Mass Destruction, And The Crisis Of Global Security’, about his ordeal as a UN weapons inspector. In it he describes in considerable detail being shown by the Iraqis disassembled and/or wrecked weapons, and lamenting, not their absence, but the fact that the Iraqis had so messed them up as to make counting them impossible. His hosts weren’t trying to say they had no WMD material, they were trying to persuade him that what they were showing him was all the material there was to see, and he was afraid he was only seeing part of it. That he was indeed looking at the remains of a WMD development program seemed not to be in doubt, or even to be seriously contended.

A few months later, after the invasion, the WMDs had vanished, not only from Iraq, but from Richard Butler’s account of the matter, at the many interviews and after-dinner speaking engagements that followed the expiry of his tenure. How do we reconcile these contradictions? Is it simply a question of a case of lecture-feeitis on Butler’s part? But if so, the fact remains – he found components of WMDs, and clear evidence of a program of development intended to arm the Iraqi state with viable weapons. Can any Harrumpfers shed any light?

In truth, the real problem with Saddam was that whether or not he really had viable nuclear weapons was beside the point. In no small part through his tergiversations over weapons inspections, he had acquired the reputation of a possessor/developer of WMD. In diplomatic terms, that’s really as good as having them in the flesh, so to speak (better, actually – you don’t have to go through the undignified and expensive process of importing a squad of Frenchmen to show you how to do it.) Churchill saw this essentially diplomatic character of nuclear weapons when he replied upon being asked if he thought Stalin wanted war “I don’t believe he wants war, but I believe he wants the fruits of war”.

Saddam had shown himself willing to use chemical WMD in his wars against Iran and against his own Kurdish people, a fact which must weigh in his favour in the minds of his many diplomatic adversaries. Would he have used his nuclear weaponry on the battlefield, once it had been brought to operational maturity? I doubt it; he must have known that the response would be catastrophic and would probably kill him. But I’m not certain, and neither could anyone else be. That’s the power of the ‘crazy guy’ strategy. The diplomatic fruits of being an unpredictable man with a history of unprovoked aggression, believed to have WMDs (as he was no doubt learning from North Korea’s example) were immense, and in my view, worth depriving him of by force. Interestingly, Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad” seemed to be of a similar view, and he knows a thing or two about Iraq, so I am in good, if admittedly very limited company.

Another excellent examination is to be found in “Explaining the Iraq War”, by Frank P. Harvey. Harvey tackles the counterfactual proposition that, had Al Gore defeated George W. Bush, he would not have gone to war. Painstakingly, he analyses the public pronouncements of the leading Democrats of the day, and conclusively demonstrates that they were every bit as adamant in their insistence that Saddam must not be allowed to defy the UN resolutions with impunity. Incidentally, Joe Biden is extensively quoted, and shows himself to be a political weathervane without any discernible principles. But I digress. Harvey makes it clear that Saddam Hussein had, by his own actions, rendered the destruction of his own nuclear weapons program unverifiable. Time and again, throughout the book, he establishes that the only way to ensure that Saddam was no longer able to threaten his adversaries was to collar the man himself, yet even as he makes this ineluctable case, he seems gripped by cognitive dissonance, and cannot let go of the idea that the invasion was wrong.

Saddam Hussein almost certainly destroyed his own nuclear weapons program long before the decision was made to invade Iraq. But, with his eyes firmly on his neighbour Iran, and believing that the West would never muster the unity of purpose to attack him, he did so in such a way that the destruction could not be verified, thus preserving his ‘crazy man’ diplomatic status, and the power it gave him. But Bush and Blair, in my opinion, were too impatient, and too distrustful of their constituents’ intellects to risk running this slightly nuanced argument, and made themselves hostages to fortune with their absurd “45 minute” stories. Interestingly our own John Howard refrained, to his eternal credit, from this tactical blunder.

Two cheers, then, for Sir Tony.

Tom Forrester-Paton

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