Throughout our lives, there are times when we make the wrong decisions. We choose one course of action over another, we support one thing where another may have been the more correct point of view and we express remorse when our decisions are proven to be wrong.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing and with hindsight I would say that at the time I would never have supported the war in Iraq.
I should qualify that last statement: I supported the British government undertaking to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. I believed that it was a logical and highly justified endeavour, I mean why wouldn’t I? This was a concerted military action to remove a tyrannical despot from power and free a people from a regime of terror that claimed so many of their fellow citizens. It would also serve to protect us from his potentially hostile intent. I refused to believe those who said that it was an illegitimate war and supported the Blair position in this area.
But 13 years and almost 300,000 deaths later, I can say unequivocally that I was wrong.
The process by which a government admits it made a mistake is a much more complicated one and is generally not legislated for in any constitution. It becomes the province of the individual politician or government to determine the legitimacy or illegitimacy of any action undertaken, they have to be seen to take responsibility for their actions both previous and current. In the continuance of this imperative, the UK government called for a public enquiry into the government’s actions in both the lead up and the aftermath of the Iraq war.
Testimony was taken, evidence analysed, reports written and a week ago the results of this enquiry were made known to the general public and more particularly to the families of those who died as a result of this war.
At 6,000 pages the report is the most detailed examination of the Iraq war to date and its publication has shown the failings and backroom politics of the Blair administration during this period.
So you might be wondering, what else is there left to say that hasn’t already been said?
While the individual truths of the conflict and the lead up to it are slowly being disclosed, the key thing that characterises both the war in Iraq and the lead up to it is failure. Failures of international systems of law and governance and failures of the political process in the UK.
The Prime Minister of the time, Tony Blair has become a scapegoat for the systemic failures that allowed the war in Iraq to take place in the first place. If these systems had been as robust as is intended and portrayed, then war would have been impossible. Any concerted action by the Prime Minister with such a course in mind should have been checked at once by the cabinet, the party and the people of the UK. It was not, and the actions that Tony Blair undertook to force the country to war qualify as an abuse of executive power.
In his eagerness to support our American allies, he became blind to the severely questionable legality of invading a country which posed no immediate threat to the United Kingdom. The intelligence and security services failed to produce significant evidence of any so-called “weapons of mass destruction” and the case for invasion was a fudged coalition of half-truths, presented to the British people as concrete facts.
That is not to say that there was not significant opposition to the potential invasion of Iraq. Four senior ministers within the cabinet publicly voiced their opposition and were forced to resign. Public protests were widespread in both the UK and the US and many of our international partners voiced their opposition in the EU and in the United Nations.
Mr Blair conducted secret meetings with individuals outside of the regular parliamentary system, ignoring political procedure when it suited his aims. Political pressure was brought to bear on members of parliament, by both whip and lobby to force them to vote in the affirmative for war.
This absence of cabinet legitimacy prevented the instruments of government being used effectively once the decision to go to war was taken. As a direct result of this failure to utilise effective government our troops went into the war without the tools to effectively wage it, which contributed to the high number of service deaths in the conflict. Indeed, once the war ended, this failure to use government prevented the ability to produce a coherent strategy for the post war environment, allowing the Bush administration to pursue its damaging policy of complete structural destruction of the Iraqi system of government.
A country should at its heart, not plan for war and should exercise all possible actions to avoid this through diplomatic means. It is impossible to talk about the diplomatic methods to avoid war without addressing the chief diplomatic body of the time: The United Nations.
An organisation of mutual collaboration, designed to provide a check to the dictatorial and despotic ambitions of member countries as the previous League of Nations failed to do. In this endeavour it utterly failed to provide a significant check against the invasion ambitions of the US and UK. Its resolutions, while well-meaning were completely ignored when it suited the Bush administration and by proxy the Blair government. It should have pressed the member nations to exert political pressure on the US and UK and backed it up with the prospect of sanctions, both pre and post invasion. The gesture of placing Weapons inspectors in Iraq was a token one and achieved absolutely nothing but prolonging the period before war was declared regardless.
All efforts at diplomacy failed, but realistically was there any chance of them succeeding at all? Old animosities from the previous Iraq conflict, coupled with the American desire to fight back at the so-called “Axis of Evil” made the chances of a peaceful diplomatic solution very slim.
The American people, shocked out of their isolation by their biggest tragedy since Pearl Harbour in 9/11 can be somewhat forgiven for having an appetite for revenge. The American congress, however cannot be forgiven for allowing President Bush to pursue this agenda without a clear plan for the aftermath and for allowing their intelligence agencies to manipulate intelligence to suit a flimsy case.
An American politician advocating peaceful solutions at this time would like their UK counterparts be shouted down albeit more vociferously by their own people. In the aftermath of the war, the public opinion changed dramatically, as the US Army and its government became bogged down in the quagmire.
The failure to clearly plan for the aftermath of the War and the rush to utterly destroy the existing political structures of Iraq created the power vacuum and ultimately created the conditions for the Islamic State movement to exist. This is the greatest failure of the war in Iraq and has contributed to many more deaths and terrorist acts over the years following the cessation of operations.
The civilian enquiry into the War in Iraq should be applauded for both being thorough and unequivocal in its judgments, but such a mechanism should be in place in the constitution of this country and should not have to rely on civilian oversight. The problem with this, particularly in the UK is that Parliament is essentially the presence of the Crown in politics and as such cannot be seen to be wrong.
The weight of evidence, high number of deaths and obvious manipulation of government necessitates the need for strong political changes in this area. These changes must occur not just in the UK but in both the United States and the United Nations.
What can we do in the UK to prevent such a situation occurring in the future?
Changes in legislation to ensure that a Prime Minister cannot operate independently of his cabinet, the introduction of large-scale political engagement in the war making process be it from the populous or ministers independent of cabinet and party and the reintroduction of the historic practice of impeachment for those who flout constitutional law.
Additionally, we have to create a mechanism where civilian oversight in both foreign policy and the practice of war making becomes a legitimate function of government. Abuses of executive power should be documented and prevented via legislation and judicial restraints. It should not take a public outcry for these things to come to light, it should be parliamentary practice to review.
We have to create a climate where making war truly becomes a last resort and is conducted as a legitimate constitutional act, controlled by parliament and with the full consent of the people. I do accept that there are always situations where wars do not conform to these sorts of absolute aims, but by maintaining these absolute maxims and conditions we can more effectively manage the hardest duty of any government: declaring war.
© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.