How was the intelligentsia fooled so easily?

Now they are contorting themselves, Houdini-like, to extricate themselves from the tangle
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The Independent Online

We British nurture a widespread conceit that we have no Continental-style intelligentsia who sit around in cafés exploring the realm of ideas. In our own way, though, we do have an intellectual class, a relatively small number of highly - and often expensively - educated individuals who use the media, rather than cafés or books, as the forum for their views.

We British nurture a widespread conceit that we have no Continental-style intelligentsia who sit around in cafés exploring the realm of ideas. In our own way, though, we do have an intellectual class, a relatively small number of highly - and often expensively - educated individuals who use the media, rather than cafés or books, as the forum for their views.

And I cannot help feeling that in the controversy of the moment, perhaps of the decade, they have served the country exceptionally badly. With a few shining exceptions, they tied themselves in knots to justify the Prime Minister and the war in Iraq. And now it is all turning out badly, they are contorting themselves, Houdini-like, to extricate themselves from the tangle. They include the historian Andrew Roberts, the academic Michael Ignatieff, the writers William Shawcross and John Lloyd, and a whole clutch of columnists, including the editor and MP Boris Johnson.

Scarcely a day now passes without one or other apologist for the war averring that while this, that and the other unforeseen disaster has come about in a country some self-consciously call Mesopotamia, he or she was really right about the essentials. I salute the very few who have swallowed hard and simply said they were wrong.

The most interesting, and disturbing, question is how it came about that so many so articulate and privileged people were so mistaken. Why was something that seemed so obvious to the million-plus people who turned out for Britain's biggest peace-time protests - the colossal risks inherent in this dubious enterprise - not equally obvious to them?

One explanation, at least for those on the left, is undue loyalty and trust in the Prime Minister's judgement. They had associated themselves early with the New Labour project, embracing Tony Blair's third-way ambitions as their own. They basked in the reflected glory of his electoral success and fancied, with reason, that their opinions carried weight in Number 10. When Mr Blair presented as a large part of his argument for war intelligence data to which only he, the Americans and the intelligence services were privy, they gave him the benefit of the doubt. Not only did they suspend due scepticism, they failed to ask the next logical question, the one that preoccupied the man and woman in street: even if Iraq still had some of these lethal and banned weapons, was it a sufficient threat to justify war?

Across the political spectrum, a prime motivation was idealism left over from the end of the Cold War. Were not freedom and democracy indivisible and the right of people everywhere? Would not Iraqis, given half a chance, rejoice in the removal of Saddam Hussein, celebrate their liberation and proceed cheerfully and in good order to the ballot box? After all, we had all watched as the East European dominoes fell one after the other in (mostly) peaceful popular uprisings. Surely Iraqis would follow suit, and the rest of the Gulf region in their wake? It was condescending to think otherwise.

Both left and right allowed themselves to be seduced by ideals and blinded to the reality - of human nature as well as Iraq. However desirable the removal of Saddam Hussein, the reality is that he was removed not by "the people" but by armed intervention. Even the emblematic toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad, was initiated by the invaders. There is a world of difference between the home-grown revolutions of Eastern Europe and Russia, even the flight of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and regime-change as it came about in Iraq. It is not necessary to believe that democracy is culturally alien to Arabs to understand that a US invasion, followed by an incompetent occupation, may not be the best way to advertise its merits.

There is another reason, too, why so many of our intellectuals may have seen the use of Western military force as a benevolent option. For Mr Blair and his generation, memories of the US débâcle in Vietnam are fading and anyway belong to another country. More recent memories are of the successful, just wars launched to liberate the Falklands and Kuwait; the humanitarian intervention that rescued Kosovo's Albanians, and the internationally sanctioned operation to root out al-Qa'ida from Afghanistan. Also vivid in our memory is one great sin of omission: the West's failure to halt the genocide in Rwanda.

In this light, the use of armed force to destroy a threat and liberate a people, could be judged, intellectually, to be tenable. But it is instructive to note that on both sides of the Atlantic those with experience of war, including the top brass, were cautious about plunging into Iraq. The size of the country, its geography, its climate and the very fact of invading a country for a reason that was neither retaliation nor self-defence made the invasion a risk. Where our intellectuals saw the unchallenged military might of the US as offering a chance to pursue grand and noble ideals, those with longer and more varied experience generally took the more down-to-earth view that war should be waged not by choice, but as the absolute last resort. This is why so many people took to the streets in protest, and why a broad swathe of our intellectuals - and, yes, we do have an intelligentsia - were so wrong.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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