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Big guns of the press all quiet on the Iraqi front

Where have all the voices who backed the military adventure gone? Joy Lo Dico reports on the surrender of the columnists

In August 2005, as the violence intensified in Iraq, The New York Times said there was talk of withdrawing Coalition troops in the following spring. The Times's Matthew Parris seized on it. Like a soldier stepping over the edge of the trench to see if he will draw fire, he asked where all the pro-war commentators had gone.

"Why don't they sing out, the armchair warriors of Fleet Street? George W Bush and his friends are preparing to scuttle Iraq, and nobody's complaining," wrote Parris. "Where are those who urged our forces in, now that the political will to keep them there is faltering?

David Aaronovitch, Parris's colleague at The Times, rose to the challenge. "Here's my apology on the 'disaster' of the Iraq war" was the tile of his riposte in December 2005. But it was not a climbdown from one of the most vehement advocates of war. Aaronovitch, a former darling of the left wing, only apologised for the failings of Donald Rumsfeld, Abu Ghraib and reconstruction. He was still believed going to war was the right thing to do. He was one of the few left.

"Many of those who lost their belief in the war and enthusiasm for the war have fallen silent rather than writing breast-beating columns," says Parris now.

And then there were those who just threw in the towel in light of the evidence. Mary Ann Sieghart at The Times, Johann Hari at The Independent and Max Hastings, writing for the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, all capitulated.

So how did the pro-war view gain such purchase in the press? Rewind to 2002 and an age of relative innocence. "At the time, Tony Blair enjoyed extraordinary faith among the commentariat – he was good at publicity and Alastair Campbell was very active," says Simon Jenkins, also at The Times and a consistent opponent of the war.

"The famous speech on the dossier [on wea- pons of mass destruction being released in 45 minutes] was really impressive – I remember hearing it and thinking it was right. Then I was deeply suspicious. There was a huge government machine behind the war and hysterical briefings from the Cabinet Office on the terror threat looming over Britain every Friday. People were put into a state of mind where you thought you might be unpatriotic if you didn't agree."

Max Hastings was one of those. Having started out against military action in Iraq, by the outbreak of the war he was a "deeply reluctant" conscript, swung along by the threats of WMD. "I was less influenced by the dossier than by my own direct contacts in the intelligence community," says Hastings. "I believed what they believed – that there were WMDs. I shouldn't have done. I was foolish enough to be persuaded by it."

As that belief faded, and the US-led occupation became less convincing, Hastings found himself in rapid retreat. He now describes Iraq as "a catastrophe".

Parris also held the WMD claim to be true, though not a justification. "Mostly on WMD we believed what we were told," he explains. "I'm not ashamed about having believed what I was told."

His Times colleague Mary Ann Sieghart concurs: "If the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee produces a dossier saying that they are convinced that there's a very strong case that Saddam has WMD, who are we to question that?"

Sieghart withdrew her support for the war in 2004, in the main because the moral case for war had been undermined by Abu Ghraib, but weapons of mass destruction might have saved the case.

"With hindsight we were taken to war on false pretences," she says. "If those WMDs had turned up I would have remained in favour of it."

The failure to find WMD was not a hurdle for all. For Nick Cohen at The Observer and Johann Hari at The Independent, it gave more breathing space for the arguments of the Euston Manifesto, which set out to prize the soul of the Labour left away from the anti-war movement cheer-led by George Galloway and back to an Orwellian position of supporting the oppressed – even if that meant teaming up with the US. It was an opportunity to further their intellectual positions.

In February 2004, Hari wrote that the supposed stashes of anthrax "were always a stupid reason for launching a war" – the best reason being that "the Iraqi people wanted and needed it". Meanwhile, Cohen returned to his theme that the war's objective should always have been to topple Saddam's barbaric regime.

David Aaronovitch, then writing for The Guardian, found himself having to do some rapid footwork to regain his pro-war stance. In 2003, he wrote: "If nothing is eventually found then I – as a supporter of the war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government."

By 2004, he was a "WMD agnostic", asking: "Wasn't war in the end the only way of bringing down the tyranny of Saddam?" An argument that has broadly sustained him since.

The division consumed the left wing. "The war is so important. If you are of the Left and pro-war and you found yourself with all your comrades on the other side, it mattered desperately," says Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, whose writing has been steadfastly anti-war. "There were real people dying. It wasn't a frivolous question of taste or opinion. It is likely to push you further and further towards being angry with the people whose side you used to be on.

"I think Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch are very good columnists and writers, and I agree with them on quite a lot of things," she adds. "But I do think the war has tipped them further into being angry with the left because it was such a painful and bitter divide."

Hari eventually recanted in March 2006 on the grounds that the Iraqi people no longer backed the invasion, and last year he questioned whether the Euston Manifesto group had misjudged the situation.

"Those on the pro-war left who ostentatiously claim Orwell's mantle have forgotten what made him great – the power to face inconvenient truths."

However, for Cohen at least, the battle is yet to be won. "I'm very struck, certainly in my world of liberal intelligentsia, how it is forever 'Marx 2003', says Cohen. "Forever people taking to the streets in London and Stop the War, and there hasn't been a great deal of movement since because movement would raise some rather awkward questions."

Unlike Cohen, many in the pro-war camp have moved, but he might be surprised to learn that Toynbee admits she considered turning. "Although I strongly opposed the war, I was also holding my breath, waiting for the moment when I might become pro-war – when it might look perhaps as if the surge might actually work," she says.

"I would very happily have eaten any number of hats if in the early days Iraq had looked as if it was going to be OK ... had it been a quick and relatively bloodless outcome. Who knows, I might even have said it was the right thing to do very early on. By now its too late and there's been too much blood spilt to say it was ever the right thing to do.

"We who opposed the war may feel vindicated, but I would not have minded in the least changing my mind and admitting I was wrong."

As yet no commentator has penned the great "mea culpa" on being wrong in opposing the Iraq invasion.