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.
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 year ago?’
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.