What would you have done? Would you have left Saddam Hussein in power? The inquiry, familiar to all of us who opposed the war, is put in a finger-stabbing sort of way – as though that clinched it; as though the answer is so obvious that the peaceniks can only stammer. Just ask them what they would have done and watch them squirm!
Elsewhere, the tactic is more typical of left-wing polemicists than of the Right. 'How could you stand by and see...?' is a favourite way of arguing for state intervention (and taxpayers' money) for any amount of expensive interference with nature. Any Tory with guts learns to summon them when reminded of dying patients, hungry jobseekers, sinking industries, failing railways or freezing pensioners, and asked, 'What would you do?' We answer 'nothing' and duck the flying eggs. But when it comes to what should be done about Saddam, we who answer 'nothing' face the missiles from the Right, newly converted to the Something Ought To Be Done brigade. On Iraq, neoconservatives deploy the gambit much as a warrior confronts a pacifist by demanding to know what he would do if somebody tried to rape his sister.
I cannot answer the rape question for pacifists, not being one. But as someone certain that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder, perhaps I should say what I would I have done.
Now let me oblige my interrogators by squirming. I should count it a mark of humanity to squirm. In some disputes I do not find the answers easy or (a different thing) easy to proclaim. If I were not troubled by the existence in the world of tyrants, troubled to know how far it is our duty to remove such men, and embarrassed to put into words the conclusion that it may not always be my duty, I would not be human.
Yet the bare question – What would I have done? – presents no difficulty at all. The 'I' in question being M. Parris, Times columnist and Another Voice in The Spectator, what I would have done is to write articles inveighing against the invasion of Iraq. I did. Question answered. 'What would you have done?' is an inchoate inquiry unless the 'you' is tied down. What I would have done if I were me is what I did do. What I would have done if I were Tony Blair is what Tony Blair did do. What my interrogator is probably after, however, is an answer to a question like, 'If the decision were up to you, what would you have done?'
But still that is not enough. Which decision? Iain Duncan Smith's? Jack Straw's? Tony Blair's? The United States' President's? Mark Steyn's? God's? Taking those cases one by one, let me tell you what I would have done if I had been able to dictate the decision each took. It would be different in each case. A tug may pull hard to starboard in order fractionally to moderate a liner's course.
I am not sure that the leader of the Conservative party – any leader of the Conservative party – should get himself into the position of pitting the Opposition against a war which his country is plainly set to fight. Had I been Iain Duncan Smith, but inhabited by the conviction which inhabits Matthew Parris – that war was the wrong policy for Britain – I should have fired at the government a stream of questions about the reasons and the evidence for their decision. My aim would have been to leave the country with the impression that HM Opposition was deeply sceptical: unconvinced rather than actively opposed. Every Tory statement would have ended with a question-mark, and when asked whether my party in government would have joined the war, my reply would have been that it was impossible to say without knowing what the PM claimed to know.
Had I been the Foreign Secretary – but inhabited, etc. – I would probably have resigned when Robin Cook did. This might have toppled the Prime Minister, but the threat beforehand might, equally, have headed him off.
Had I been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – but inhabited, etc. – I should nevertheless not have gone so far as to side with France and Germany, even though I privately agreed with them. I would have positioned Britain delicately but firmly on the fence, agreed to honour existing understandings about the US use of British facilities, 'understood' the American position, 'understood' the French position, undertaken to keep open lines of communication with friends on all sides, and found that present demands on British armed forces made it impossible that we should send troops ourselves. This would have been an awkward and unsatisfactory business, was probably the Foreign Office's preferred policy, and would best have served British interests.
Had I been President of the United States I would not have invaded. This means Saddam Hussein would still be in power, but given what we now know about the state of his armed forces, his grip might not have held for much longer. Hans Blix and his inspectors would have been sent back; and months, perhaps years, of blowing hot and cold on both sides would have resumed.
International law would not have been violated, swollen-headed neocons would not have gained sway, the yee-hah tendency in US foreign policy would have been restrained, precedents for future unilateral regime-changes would not have been set, Nato would be intact, the UN Security Council would not have been damaged, America's relationship with Europe would have remained good, and Britain would still be on speaking terms with our EU partners. The multitudes killed by Saddam would still be dead, but this war has not resurrected them. If he had resumed his massacres, the world could have debated the wisdom of threatening force on honest humanitarian grounds rather than trumped-up charges about WMDs.
If I had been Mark Steyn – but inhabited, etc. – I would have reflected that rude neoconservatism was what I did and I had better carry on doing it. But it would have struck me that, being Britain's window into that uncouth world, the occasional wink as I explained it to them would not go amiss with readers who would like me all the more for being a witty guide with an eye and ear not only for the vanities of my opponents, but for folly on my own side too.
And if I had been God, I would not have created Saddam.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.