This article appeared in The Independent
20 January 2010
Objections I never heard in 2003
Plenty of those now eager to cast Blair in a bad light supported war in Iraq at the time
Which of the many senior politicians caught in the long-running debate over the Iraq conflict said that Saddam Hussein "most certainly has chemical and biological weapons and is working towards a nuclear capacity" and that the now famous dossier "contains confirmation of information that we either knew or most certainly should have been willing to assume?"
Not Jack Straw nor Geoff Hoon, whose evidence to Sir John Chilcot is central to the inquiry. Not an Alastair Campbell parrot but the Right Honourable Sir Menzies Campbell MP QC, speaking in the debate in the Commons in September 2002 when the now infamous dossier was published. The point is made not to mock Ming Campbell, whose views changed as events unfolded, but as a reminder that the Chilcot Inquiry is taking an increasingly surreal turn as it discusses not the history of what happened but the contemporary passions of protagonists nearly a decade later.
Not many MPs are given the title honourable these days. Yet as Hoon showed yesterday he accepts his responsibility and does not seek to resile from his judgements. Contrast that to the top mandarins and diplomats who took every honour, school-fee, bonus, pension, and post-retirement job that the British establishment bestows upon its senior state servants. Now they suddenly discover a conscience and that all along they were worried about the Prime Minister's Iraq strategy.
None of them said so at the time. None of them resigned. None of them can produce a memo sent to Downing Street setting out objections. I sat in Jack Straw's office in the Commons as we waited for the vote that would say Yes or No to military action. Neither he nor I knew how the vote would go. Blaming Blair is fashionable. But it is the Commons that made the decision. And two years later the people handsomely re-elected the MPs who voted to topple Saddam.
No Tory will give evidence. Yet at the time the Conservatives were far more gung-ho than Blair. William Hague told the Commons in September 2002 that "400 nuclear sites and installations had been concealed in farmhouses and even schools in Iraq" and argued that "the risk of leaving the regime on its course today far outweigh the risk of taking action quite soon."
Far from Blair hoodwinking parliament, the fact is that as Saddam continued to defy UN resolutions and make impossible a full investigation by Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors there was a cross-party view that Saddam had to be dealt with.
Jack Straw has produced a memo sent a full year before the action took place. It outlines the obvious problems and pitfalls ahead. But Straw threw himself with his customary energy into securing the first UN resolution. I was his deputy at the time. Straw was a collegiate minister holding daily meetings with his team of senior officials, ministers and advisers as well as a weekly lunch for a wider group.
At none of those meetings was the slightest doubt raised that Saddam had to be tackled. No one resigned. Robin Cook and Clare Short did but too late in the day to affect policy and in the latter case only after first endorsing the invasion. Cook had chilled the Commons' blood with his descriptions of Saddam's WMD in 1998 when he launched air patrols and attacks on Iraq. I never heard him doubt then the intelligence which led him to claim Iraq had WMD.
There was also a cross-media consensus. Today the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph give full coverage to every remark at Chilcot which casts a bad light on Blair. But at the time, the Murdoch-Rothermere-Black Brothers press was rooting for war.
And what of Europe? The majority of European governments supported action. Germany was the big exception. In 1990, no one asked Germany to send troops to the first Iraq war. All Chancellor Helmut Kohl did was sign a cheque as the German constitution prohibited the expedition of German soldiers outside the country. His successor, Gerhard Schröder, changed his country's constitution to allow German soldiers to fight and die abroad. But in September 2002, in a hard-fought election against his rightist opponent, Edmund Stoiber, the social democrat Schröder found himself under pressure on Iraq. Stoiber announced he would ban US warplanes flying over Germany in the event of the war. Schröder trumped him by announcing German opposition and neutrality.
But from Portugal to Poland, from Finland to Italy, European governments either sat on their hands or expressly endorsed the Bush line even if public opinion was hostile. In 2010 the EU's political elites agree the war was a mistake. But not at the time.
Nor do people recall that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld thought Tony Blair to be an irritating, whining Brit as he argued that more time should be given to UN resolutions. With China and Russia and then in due course France threatening a veto, the chances of a UN resolution were zero just as they had been zero over Kosovo and will be zero over Iran. The UN can transform itself into the League of Nations with alacrity when it suits Moscow and Beijing and, in 2003, Paris.
I argued as Europe minister at the time that we should focus more effort on shaping a European political response but the focus was always the United States, Washington, and going to see George W Bush and Colin Powell rather than European partners. Britain's half-in, half-out approach to Europe meant that US not Europe dictated policy. As it does today.
But the invasion took place. Its aftermath we know. Osama Bin Laden and other jihadi Islamists had already undertaken terrorist attacks – the Paris Metro in 1995, the Luxor massacre in 1997 – long before anyone had heard of George W Bush or Alastair Campbell.
History will judge whether deposing Saddam Hussein was a good or bad thing. But the Chilcot inquiry should focus on what happened in 2002 and 2003. The efforts in 2010 by those who supported the intervention to re-write history have Stalin as well as Saddam laughing in their graves.