Whenever the BBC comes under financial pressure, the Director-General reaches for the hoary old threat of back-to-back repeats. In so doing, however, he does the Corporation a disservice. There are programmes that warrant an almost instant re-showing and regular outings thereafter. One such is John Ware's two-part documentary about the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, No Plan, No Peace, which went out this Sunday and Monday.
Invariably, the very programmes that deserve to be repeated seem to be the ones allowed to languish in the bowels of Television Centre until such time as they are pronounced "classics". To judge by the BBC's response when I tried to find more about Ware's documentary yesterday, this is the fate in store for No Plan, No Peace.
A bare 12 hours after it had been transmitted, you had to forage in the depths of the BBC's Middle East coverage on its news website to find any reference to it. It did not feature on the television index; the search engine did not recognise the title; and the BBC press office seemed embarrassed to talk about it. Nor did there appear to be any immediate response on the website to Ware's invitation to viewers to comment.
Frankly, I find it hard to believe there was no public reaction. And if there wasn't, there should have been. Ware's two-parter constituted probably the most devastating indictment of the Blair government and its invasion of Iraq that has yet been broadcast in this country. It closed with a modest quotation about the duty of governments going to war to prepare for the aftermath. In the light of what had gone before, this was an understatement.
Ware's central charge is familiar: that neither the US nor the British government made adequate preparation for the "morning after" the invasion. What he showed – in graphic, gory and infinitely shaming detail – was quite how little preparation there was, how completely at sea the "coalition" was in the early days, and how quickly and comprehensively the great US-British project went wrong.
Before the invasion, the theory in London and Washington had been that the "coalition" would simply take over a decapitated, but essentially functioning, government. Instead, when hostilities ceased and the orders came from Washington to restore water, electricity and food distribution, the tiny US civilian administration had to send people into the street to ask Iraqis at random whether they, or anyone they knew, had worked in those sectors and could be contacted. The phone lines were down, the ministry buildings were looted or destroyed.
The US in Baghdad, and the British in Basra, were responsible for a country of 39 million; they had few resources and even fewer ideas about what to do. The senior US civilian official in Baghdad, Barbara Bodine, said her team had resorted to consulting a Lonely Planet guidebook from the Nineties ("a great guidebook, but it shouldn't be the basis for an occupation"). And we heard from a bemused British academic, who had been called up from Downing Street one evening and asked to produce a complete guide to the Iraqi judicial system by the next day.
When the looting broke out, it was not just Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, who cheerily mistook anarchy for freedom, with his immortal quip, "stuff happens". A choice video-clip from our House of Commons showed a sharp-suited Geoff Hoon trying to defend the looting in terms that made him sound like a halting apologist for the Paris Commune. We also learnt – though not from Mr Hoon – that in the previous 24 hours, looters had seized Basra's entire regional food reserve, while the few British troops looked on.
In Ware's documentary, the anarchy on the ground in Iraq was replicated in the corridors of power in London and Washington. Senior officials – now ennobled or promoted or both – shamelessly bit backs and passed bucks on camera. Pre-emptive revisionism, as in "I kept warning about the lack of US advance planning" was the order of the day. A few transparently decent individuals seemed bewildered by the catastrophe they had unintentionally played a part in.
As for what are now regarded as the two "great mistakes" – the dissolution of the Iraqi army and the Ba'ath party – did the British go along or not? As the British had it, they made furious representations to the Americans; as the Americans had it, they made none at all; on the contrary, they were enthusiastic. Meanwhile unhappy Iraqis were shown venting their lost faith in a superpower that was unable to restore even as much clean water and electricity as Saddam had supplied in his day.
The one redeeming feature of the British officials who spoke to Ware was that, however defensive and self-serving their observations, they had clearly tumbled, rather sooner than their American counterparts, to the scale of the disaster before them. By then, though, it was far too late. When George Bush made his Thanksgiving Day trip to Baghdad in November 2003, the British knew that they were outside a loop they had only ever been in to provide the US with diplomatic cover.
Iraq has been a salutary experience for British diplomacy. It is a heavy, black presence that hangs over anywhere that British ministers and diplomats gather. It is not yet officially designated a foreign-policy error on the order of Suez – a few more retirements and perhaps a change of government will have to happen first. But it has precipitated a sharp about-turn in the principles that guided foreign policy through the Blair years. In his 1999 Chicago speech, Tony Blair set out a moral doctrine of international interventionism. Gordon Brown and his foreign-policy team have progressively peeled away the layers until there is now nothing of that doctrine left.
Last week, members of the London think-tank, Chatham House, heard a senior government official call for "a new narrative about the world and Britain's place in it". There was, he said, a new Prime Minister and a new Foreign Secretary "who was thinking really hard about foreign policy". He said that the Government was "looking at other instruments for having an effect before conflict breaks out". The "responsibility to protect" was "not just about deploying military force, but about getting in early" – and the European Union was "very well placed to do this job". If all this is not a repudiation of the last 10 years, it is hard to know what would be.
To prevent any backsliding, perhaps the BBC could schedule some prime-time repeats of John Ware's No Plan, No Peace, the first to be aired on Remembrance Sunday? A clip of Geoff Hoon explaining away the looting in Basra could periodically replace those red-clad gymnasts before the nightly news: lest anyone – least of all those who run the country – forget.Reuse content