A public school housemaster once described the difficulties, and amusements, of explaining the principles of school justice to ill-behaved youths. A boy would arrive in his study, complaining that he had been unfairly punished by Mr Snooks. The housemaster would remind him that he had spent the entire term making a thorough nuisance of himself in Mr Snooks's lessons. If this detention might not have been strictly merited, what about the other 20 which he had somehow evaded? But boys were invariably deaf to such reasoning; they would merely slouch away with a weight of grievance on their shoulders.
Just like Alastair Campbell now; he has responded to recent events by wallowing in truculence and self-pity. Of course he was innocent of inserting the 45 minutes to WMD passage in a joint intelligence committee document. John Scarlett of the JIC and Richard Dearlove of MI6 – both outstanding public servants – would never have permitted it. Yet even if Mr Campbell is innocent on this occasion, that is a matter for irony, not sympathy.
Earlier in his career, Alastair Campbell spent several happy years halfway up Robert Maxwell's fundament. That unlovely vantage point not only influenced his entire approach to politics. As he has been, in effect, deputy prime minister since 1997 – John Prescott, the nominal holder of that post, is to brainpower what Alastair Campbell is to integrity – it has also corrupted the Blair government. Hence a further irony. Though Tony Blair has always been reluctant to acknowledge any moral debts to his predecessors in the Labour party, the resulting vacuum is being filled by a large, pervasive, posthumous presence: Bob Maxwell.
The reasons which Tony Blair has given for going to war with Iraq are about as reliable as one of Mr Maxwell's share issue prospectuses. This has one unfortunate consequence. As Mr Blair has been incapable of honesty, a good case is in danger of going by default. Presented with the spectacle of their Prime Minister skipping shiftily from exaggeration to falsehood, just like Squealer in Animal Farm trying to cover up his latest raid on the truth, the public is increasingly inclined to believe that the Iraq war was unjustified and immoral, and that Tony Blair dragged Britain into it out of lapdog abasement to a dunce president.
That version of events is now believed by many intelligent and thoughtful persons, yet it is a grotesque parody. This war was not undertaken lightly. It only occurred because powerful arguments prevailed over innate caution. Those arguments were not based solely on self-interest. They were also moral and humanitarian.
The British Intelligence community did lay the groundwork for war. For four years, they had tried to persuade Tony Blair of the danger that terrorist groups might acquire weapons of mass destruction. Their counterparts across the Atlantic were engaged in a similar enterprise, with Bill Clinton.
Neither man was keen to listen, though Mr Blair had more excuse. It was not that his mind was elsewhere, on dry-cleaning bills: merely that he did not see how the problem could be solved. Then came 9/11, and Tony Blair was instantly seized by urgency. He did not want to go down in history as the fainéant premier who had chuntered on about his projects while the terrorists were hatching theirs. So he joined President Bush's project for the Middle East.
That leads us to an interesting question, which historians will be debating for decades to come. At what stage did the Bush project – among the riskiest, most audacious and most idealistic enterprises ever embarked upon by a great power –become fully articulated in the minds of men? When did Mr Blair fully realise what he had signed up to? For Mr Bush had decided to deal with the terrorist threat by draining the stagnant, poisoned waters in which the terrorists swam. Some neoconservative intellectuals who occupy key posts in the Bush administration – Paul Wolfowitz, in particular – were mentally prepared for a 9/11. They had already been insisting that the world could never be safe as long as the Middle East was terror-genic: that there had to be a geopolitical reconstruction of the entire region.
This also led some neocons to a position which they did not find instinctively appealing. To a far greater extent than those who demonise them will ever accept, they did recognise almost from the outset that there could not be stability in the region without a Palestinian state. So President Bush decided that America's security would always be impaired as long as the oppressed millions of the Middle East did not enjoy a minimum of human and political rights. This does not mean that America is committed to endless military adventures. The administration's reluctance to use force unless it is absolutely necessary can now be witnessed in Liberia. Moreover, Mr Bush has to be re-elected; he is most unlikely to start another war before the first Wednesday in November 2004.
But he did decide to start the process of Middle East change with regime change in Iraq, for a number of compelling reasons. For years, Saddam Hussein had been trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. He was also in breach of nearly a score of UN resolutions and of the 1991 peace terms. There was no problem with a casus belli.
It appears that the Anglo-American intelligence services did overestimate Saddam's WMD holdings. It is very hard to acquire reliable intelligence in Iraq. Saddam has devoted a lot of effort to deterring or eliminating potential suppliers of humint (human intelligence). So perhaps those responsible for making the Western assessments conflated his malice with his capability. If so, it was a fault on the right side. Saddam was the great patron of evil throughout the region and the wider world. Why wait until he did possess the terrible weaponry which he craved? Equally, a better dispensation for the Iraqi people has been the first fruit of the allied victory. The torture chambers are out of business.
It is true that not everyone in Iraq is full of gratitude, but whoever thought that they would be? Here, there is a problem with our American allies. Unlike we British, they are not natural imperialists. They have no enthusiasm for the long haul of ruling conquered peoples until they are fit to govern themselves. In Washington, they tend to believe that democracy is a super-drug which will cure all known ills. Open the jeep's tailgate, hand out candies to the kids and votes to their parents, and everything will be fine.
It was never going to be that simple. But the war was simple. In advance, I remember predicting that 500 allied deaths was the minimum we could reasonably expect and that the toll could well reach four figures. As the victory was so cheap, we should have resilience in the bank.
In Iran, meanwhile, the regime is crumbling. In Saudi, there is great interest in reform. In Israel/Palestine, the prospects for peace have never been better. There is an easy moral case to be made for the war, yet Tony Blair has too little moral presence to make it. As he would not trust the British people, it is hardly surprising that they now withhold their trust from him.
Peter Oborne is away.