They still don't get it: Bush and Blair. It's not about WMD or the abuse of intelligence or even whether the two leaders misled their public into going to war. The problem was, and is, simply that, in countries in which there was profound concern about the whole business of war and invading Third World countries, the two governments never came clean on the reasons they were doing it. And, nearly a year after the event, we're still no nearer finding out.
Was it to balance Saudi Arabia as a new source of secure oil supplies for the US, as Dick Cheney hoped, or to remake the politics of the Middle East, as Paul Wolfowitz and the Washington neo-cons sought? Was it for domestic political reasons on the part of a US President who wanted to appear to be doing something in the wake of 11 September, or was it for the higher purpose of unseating a tyrant for the good of his people, as Tony Blair and Jack Straw now argue.
Whatever the motivations, neither government actually came to their public, or their legislatures, and said plainly what was on their mind. The most serious decision any leader can make was made in a confusion of overcharged and finally futile UN debate and a mass of rhetoric about threats and breaches of resolutions which virtually no one believed were the actual causes for war.
As long as this profound gap between public perception and government self-justification exists, public anger will persist and grow. All the inquiries in the world into intelligence or the use made of it will not answer the sense of being abused over the invasion of Iraq. Lord Hutton ended so discredited because he trod - naively or deliberately - straight into the minefield of government intentions with the dossier and, by seeing it through the narrow prism of Andrew Gilligan's specific allegation, pronounced a broader political judgement which he was neither competent nor remitted to do. The new Butler inquiry is widely regarded as a joke because it doesn't even begin to address the questions the public wants answered.
Nothing, in my view, will address that concern until Bush and Blair come clean with the public and say what their intention was in invading Iraq, what they hoped they would achieve by it, and where they think they are headed now. It may be that the British public would have accepted a straight statement by the Prime Minister that he was doing it to support the US a friend and ally. It could be that the majority would have even applauded the proposition that, on humanitarian grounds, we should get rid of a tyrant.
But the point was that the public were never approached in this manner. They were given post hoc justifications, not true intentions. And the added truth, which may be rather less acceptable to politicians, is that neither the British Parliament nor the US Congress made much of a job finding out the motivations, never mind challenging them. The invasion of Iraq has shown up devastating weaknesses in the parliamentary checks on government in its most crucial decisions. And if the opposition parties in the UK have seemed caught out by the public dismissal of Hutton, it is because they still don't understand the strength of feeling out there or how to give voice to it.
This is not just a question of rooting through matters it is now too late to alter: one's judgement of past motivation affects one's appreciation of present problems and possibilities. Should President Bush gain a second term, can we expect to see the neo-con agenda pursued towards Syria and Iran, and would Blair see it as his duty to support the US administration?
For the moment, Washington appears to have retreated from direct confrontation with North Korea and Syria. It has more than enough on its plate with Iraq. And it's an election year. But would this apply once Bush had won a continuation in office? Even in the short term you can see the problems. If the Cheney view of the importance of oil in the equation holds, then that affects whether the US holds to a handover to an unelected Iraqi government which it can control or whether it will allow elections which could see the Shia in control of the southern oilfields and the Kurds the northern ones.
If, at the same time, it is the neo-con ambition to change regimes throughout the Middle East, then that would suggest an early confrontation with Syria and an escalating conflict with Iran.
Britain may have quite different views on these questions. Indeed it ought to have. But we will not have a debate on them. We will have no open discussion of elections in Iraq or the constitution in Afghanistan. We will discuss corruption in Syria and even Saudi Arabia, but not in Israel. And we can't do so, because they all bear on US policy, and Tony Blair can't debate that because it reflects on the relationship behind the war.
In the end, both Blair and Bush gambled on a quick win and a grateful population in Iraq. They got the win, but everything else has been more complicated and more difficult. International relations, the position of the UN, the war against terrorism and the standing of the US and Britain in large parts of the world - all have been profoundly effected by the war.
And yet we still don't know why we're here. And Tony Blair and George Bush will be the last people to tell us - that is, if they even fully understand themselves.Reuse content