It was a debate which seemed to dance around the main issue.
The six-hour discussion on the British decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003 often focussed on issues such as the evidence – or lack of it – that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or what the head of the UN inspection team, Hans Blix, had or had not said. But Tony Blair’s decision to join George W Bush in going to war was so clearly fuelled by a desire to maintain and promote Britain’s status as chief ally of the US that these issues seem marginal by comparison.
Green MP Caroline Lucas, who initiated the debate, said the arguments for war “were deeply flawed” and that 10 years of war and chaos had made people in Britain less secure. Others drew a comparison between the pressure to go to war in Iraq a decade ago and similar pressure to become involved in wars in Syria and Iran today.
There was something chilling about the smug self-confidence of the Foreign Office minister Mark Simmonds as he asserted that the Government could say nothing about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war until the Chilcot Inquiry – in its fourth year – reported. His patronising manner implied that the Government regarded yesterday’s debate as a self-indulgent trip down memory lane, and of little relevance.
Mr Simmonds’ encouraging words about the political and economic progress being made by Iraq today added to the sense of unreality; the death toll from attacks in May rose over 1,000 for the first time since 2008. He even re-used the old propaganda line to the effect that “most of Iraq is at peace”, which was often employed by Tony Blair after 2004 to pretend that media accounts of the slaughter were exaggerated. As a journalist in Baghdad at the time I found it frustrating to hear this particular lie so often, because one could not discredit it by a visit to one of these supposedly peaceful provinces without being killed in the attempt.
It is a pity that so much of the debate about Iraq in Britain still revolves around the “dodgy dossier” and other bits of propaganda. The US determination to go to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein predated all this and made such manoeuvres largely irrelevant. The US was impelled by popular rage over 9/11 and a desire to repair America’s sense of might and invulnerability. The US had also found the war to overthrow the Taliban in 2001 much easier than expected, and was expecting another triumph in Iraq.
What is striking about the US attitude to the Iraq war and the British is that there is much greater American willingness to admit mistakes and learn from them. And it is not just that Britain may have made a mistake in going to war, but that it went on making them. For instance, it tried and failed to control southern Iraq around Basra with a handful of troops. Three years on, the British Army dispatched a force of inadequate size, in Helmand province, whose main impact was to exacerbate rebellion.
Watching the debate, supporters and critics of the war in Iraq both tend to amalgamate two different events: The invasion and the occupation. Many Iraqis accepted the invasion as a necessary evil to get rid of Saddam and bring an end to devastating UN economic sanctions. But very few inside Iraq accepted a long-term occupation and within a year both Sunni and Shia Arabs were in revolt. “It was the mother of all mistakes” as one Iraqi leader puts it. But opponents of the war such as Glenda Jackson yesterday spoke of the lack of a post-war plan as a failing, though such a plan would have required full-scale foreign control.
British government policy towards the impending war in Iraq in 2003 is repeated in its policy towards the conflict in Syria. In demonising Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair imagined that the Iraqi leader’s base of support was so limited that it could be disregarded. William Hague speaks of Bashar al-Assad as if he had no constituency and, with his departure, the war would end though it very obviously would not.
Caroline Lucas is right to make the point that it is an excuse and an evasion to say that MPs and others were misled by false information into supporting the war. Intelligence about Syrian chemical weapons appears to be of the same dubious quality.
The debate yesterday was significant not only because it is 10 years since the Iraq war but because it coincides exactly with the moment when the US and its European allies are deciding if they are going to get further involved in the war in Syria. The memory of past disasters does not seem to be having much impact.