As a Foreign Office Minister, I voted for the invasion of Iraq. I am still trying to understand my failure

Labour came to power with 1997 with a burning desire to use British foreign policy and military power to reverse years of appeasement. So why did nobody in the state apparatus say ‘No, Prime Minister’?

Denis Macshane
Wednesday 06 July 2016 09:23
Tony Blair meeting troops in Basra in January 2004
Tony Blair meeting troops in Basra in January 2004

The whole world agrees that Iraq, in Talleyrand’s words, was worse than a crime – it was a mistake. The oddest consequence was that, having seen the failure of Iraq, the British state went and made exactly the same blunder in Libya. Nicolas Sarkozy is not George W Bush (more a Napoleon III than the original), but twice in less than a decade a British prime minister tucked in behind a dubious ally and joined in the destruction of a Middle East state with disastrous consequences.

Both Iraq and Libya were led by ugly evil dictators, but when you destroy a state the gates to hell are opened. No economy, no law, no army, no police, no judges, no frontiers, no local administration, a war of all against all as every citizen either grabs the first Kalashnikov for self-defence or simply seeks to get out in the tsunami of refugees from or through the destroyed states.

In the run-up to Iraq, I was a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I voted for the invasion. Again and again I have tried to work out the reasons for my own failure. I was not a principal but I travelled around Europe and indeed the world in the run-up to the war and worked closely with diplomats and MI6 officials and, to a lesser extent, generals on a daily basis.

The Chilcot Inquiry - A timeline of the Iraq War

I read minutes of senior intelligence staff and talked about the looming conflict on an almost daily basis with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, fellow ministers in the FCO and other departments, as well as spending a lot of time in the tea room following a bitter and difficult divorce I was going through at the time.

I kept a daily diary and I can report that, other than the usual suspects like Jeremy Corbyn or Charlie Kennedy, and various anti-Blair journalists, I met no-one in the state apparatus who so much as raised a hair or an eyebrow about the need to tackle Saddam Hussein.

Anti-Bush but pro-Kurd MPs were keen to see Saddam punished for the genocidal use of mustard gas bombs to kill thousands at Halabja. William Hague, in a September 2002 Commons debate, said there was no doubt that Saddam had hundreds of secret facilities producing weapons of mass destruction.

At lunch in Stockholm with Swedish ministers, the head of Sweden’s intelligence agency told me: “Minister, everyone knows Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. The question is what are you going to do about it?” I remember thinking that if the neutral Swedes, whose export-mad businessmen burrow into every corner of the world, think Saddam has WMD then maybe he does.

But why did not a single Foreign Office insider – other than a junior lawyer who, to her eternal honour, resigned in protest – raise any questions?

Unlike Suez, when senior hands wore black ties in protest at Anthony Eden’s folly, there was no sense, even in the months after the invasion, that it was a disaster.

Every political generation wants not to repeat the errors of the team they succeed in office. In the 1990s, the main foreign policy charge against the Major government was that it was weak and failed to stand up to the human rights abuses associated Milosevic in Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Kosovo. British diplomats at the UN were accused by many of failing to stop genocide in Rwanda or the mass murders in Somalia and Sudan.

The concept of the “Right to Intervene” or the “Responsibility to Protect”, or the need for an International Criminal Court to deal with the Milosevics and Saddams of the world, were developed by intellectuals such as Michael Ignatieff or Bernard-Henri Levy and promoted by human rights political activists and human rights lawyers.

Labour came to power with 1997 with a burning desire to use British foreign policy and military power to reverse what was seen as the years of appeasement of the previous Tory administrations who had failed to intervene in the Balkan wars or in Africa or under Mrs Thatcher had turned a blind eye to Pinochet’s crimes in Chile or apartheid denials of human rights in white supremacist South Africa.

Blair moved quickly to send ships and troops to Sierra Leone and then Indonesia after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. I was with Robin Cook in his office in the Foreign Office when the decision was taken to offer the East Timor leader Xanana Gusmão shelter in the British embassy in Jakarta and send a Royal Navy frigate to make clear to the Indonesian army that they should stay in their barracks.

Robin Cook led the global effort to create the International Criminal Court. Blair went to Chicago to outline his new foreign policy theory of the right to intervene.

When Milosevic turned his full fury on the Kosovans including the massacre at Racak early in 1999 which led to 850,000 Kosovans fleeing their nation to avoid the genocidal attacks of Serbs, Blair twisted Clinton’s arm to agree a full air attack on the Serbs backed by a land force preparing for an invasion if Milosevic did not give way.

There was no UN authorisation but the military pressure worked and Milosevic withdrew from Kosovo and the people there no longer faced the fear of a new Srebrenica. Soon after Blair’s triumphant re-election in May 2001 came 9/11 and the desire from Washington to hit out and punish someone, anyone for the biggest attack on US territory with more Americans killed than at Pearl Harbour.

The British government and state machine was now trapped in both the desire not to return to appeasing murderous dictators, its traditional Thatcherite fealty to Washington, and above all a sense that Saddam was just an Arab Milosevic – a bully who could be easily dislodged with firmness and in the end military force.

We all know that assessment and what followed was disastrously wrong. But all I can report from being in the heart of government at the time was that no official or adviser or “expert” challenged the right of Britain to intervene and protect Kurds and others in Iraq who faced oppression and worse from Saddam.

The fault in the end was Blair’s, as the fault to destroy Libya or send 500 British soldiers to unnecessary deaths in Afghanistan 2010-2015 is Cameron’s. Prime Ministers have the ultimate Yes or No decision and must live with the consequences.

But the bigger question is why did no one in the state apparatus say “No, Prime Minister” on both Iraq and Libya? I doubt if Chilcot, himself a Panjandrum of the state Panjandrumerate, will today provide us with an answer.

Denis MacShane is a former Labour MP, was a PPS and Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth office between 1997 and 2005 and a UK Council of Europe delegate from 2005 to 2010

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