The curious case of the Foreign Secretary who did not want to go to war

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw proposed not sending British troops to Iraq, according to a report of a personal minute he sent to the Prime Minister on the eve of war. He suggested the alternative of offering the Americans political and moral support, and troops for peacekeeping afterwards, implying that he did not want to risk the lives of British forces without an explicit UN resolution.

It is surprising that the Foreign Secretary put his reservations on paper at such a late stage, with the invasion just three days away. The minute does not make much sense in its own terms. If Mr Straw supported the war, it was right to argue that British troops should share the burden; if not, not. It is also surprising that his doubts have been made public now, a full 29 years and six months before publication might have been expected.

Both facts speak of the Prime Minister's weakness. Despite the united public front of all bar one of his Cabinet (Clare Short being allowed to rewrite the rules of collective responsibility during the conflict), Tony Blair was more isolated in his own Government than his confident certainty gave us to believe.

More ominous for Mr Blair is the fact that some of those keen to seize his crown, should it slip, have advertised their distance from his most unpopular decision. Gordon Brown's silence on the war, broken only by the most minimal declarations of support, has been loud enough for Labour Party members to hear. Now, whether or not Mr Straw himself put his doubts into the public domain, the Foreign Secretary is known as an unenthusiast for war.

It is not an edifying spectacle. Nor was Downing Street's attempt last week to spread responsibility for "overruling" the intelligence services, which had warned that invading Iraq would increase the risk of chemical and biological weapons falling into terrorist hands. Rather than dealing with the issue, Number 10 said various Cabinet ministers, including Ms Short, had seen the warning.

The danger is that the welfare of Iraqis, which should be centre stage, is being pushed aside by the blame game as politicians - not just in Britain - scramble to avoid contamination by a war that seems increasingly unwise.

While it is important to scrutinise that decision, it is of more immediate value to the Iraqi people to focus on clearing up the mess the war has left. For that reason, although it is perfectly understandable, the French position is selfish and irresponsible. It is a view unfortunately shared by much anti-war opinion in this country, namely that the Americans got themselves into this quagmire, so they will have to get themselves out of it. That kind of "told you so" puts no food on the table in Basra and powers no generators in Baghdad.

Of course, the French are right to say that the post-war reconstruction in Iraq should be overseen by the UN. But it is not, and nor is it likely to be in any meaningful sense, despite the US making some belated and desperate concessions to world opinion.

The question is what to do then, and the right answer is to do what can be done to help the Iraqis. There are practical constraints, set by the incompetence of the US forces, as graphically displayed by the shooting of eight Iraqi policemen last week. But there should be no constraint of principle.

Hold our politicians to account for the war by all means, but the campaign cannot be unfought. Those who opposed the war should not allow their desire to punish those responsible to distract them from the urgent need to rebuild Iraq.