Iraq 2003

Written 20 March 2008 in the week when BBC TV was full of the fifth anniversary of the entry into Iraq beginning the “war” there. Revised 12 January 2010 on the day Alistair Campbell gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry.

Was it a “war”?

The military action in question (by a coalition of countries led by the USA accompanied mainly by the UK) was not a “war” by comparison with other actual wars. Let me compare it to other wars. World Wars 1 and 2 were between two groups of nations. The Korean and Vietnam wars (with which the Iraq situation os often compared) were conflicts chiefly between two parts (in each case, north and south) of a country divided, in each case, between a northern communist faction and a southern anti-communist faction, each supported by a great power; therefore, they were origianlly civil wars, but in which each side had a powerful ally abroad which sent in armaments. In both cases, the ally of the south (the USA plus others) sent in great numbers of their military personnel as well.

In Iraq, over the years 2003 to 2008, there was no significant conflict with any neighbour of Iraq. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait before the previous Iraq war, which occupation had been quickly ended. There had not been a civil war in progress before the allied invasion began, and there were no territories permanently held by two sides as in Korea or Vietnam. Instead, there was a need to remove a cruel, tyrannical, murderous rogue regime, and then after the first few weeks there was a need to combat attacks from a variety of armed groups within the country — so really the fighting after that was against terrorists and organized criminals which the coalition armies fought because of the total absence of an Iraq national army after the disbandment of Saddam Hussein's army and the impossibility to recruit and train a new army of responsibly minded men to take over under the auspices of a new democratic Iraqi government. That followed in due course over the next seven years.

It thus follows, in my view, that the military activity is more correctly considered a police action, enforcing international law in the two matters in question and then trying to maintain order on the streets of Iraq's cities, filling the vacuum left by the disappearance of Saddam Hussein's armed forces.

Was it illegal?

No. Definitely not. In fact, this is the claim, the lie repeated by all and sundry who happen to have decided that they disapprove of the action. On 12th January 2010, interviewed by the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg during the interval before the final session of questions to Alistair Campbell, Sir Menzies Campbell among the crimes of which was a sustained refusal to allow inspectors to conmfirm that it was not developing and preparing to use WMD. That is the first point. ANd this point rests on the above considerations only; it does not change because of how things have gone on the ground in the last five years; on the point of principle, that is in fact an “implementation detail". It may be a very big one in practice, but it doesn't affect the principle.

Now, ever since the action began in March 2003 there have been many voices raised saying the action was “illegal", meaning against international law, the argument being that there was no new, sometimes called “second” although there had been dozens), Security Council resolution immediately before the action began and specifically giving the go-ahead for the allied armies to move in.

In Britain, if my memory serves correctly, PM Tony Blair gave this stick to his critics to beat him with on this point, by saying at some stage that he'd get that additional UNSC resolution if he could before action began; he then couldn't get the resolution and went ahead anyway. He and Bush had always been going to go ahead anyway. Blair's reason for what he said was to appease the left wing of the Labour Party, and it was some of them who voted against him in the Commons.

Subsequently there has been endless debate about the “legality” of the action, about what legal advice the government law officer had given the PM about this “legality", and evry single time Iraq is mentioned on QUestion Time, to this day, somebody repeats the accusation that it was illegal.

Well, here is my verdict. It was perfectly legal; it was not illegal at all. That Blair undertook to get a further resolution was Labour party politics, not about international law. He need not, and should not, have given any such undertaking, and the Labour left were just being their usual double-standard-insular*, pacifist, troublemaking selves in going on about it.

There are two reasons why I consider the accusations that the action was illegal to be nonsense:

  1. Previous UNSC resolutions had required Saddam Hussein to allow and facilitate UN weapons inspectors to confirm that no WMD were being developed or prepared and stockpiled. FOr years S.H. had refused to allow them in. Only when the USA and UK sent a standing army to sit on and offshore at Kuwait and in the Gulf had S.H. finally allowed inspectors in but he was playing games with them.

    It is extremely difficult to prove conclusively, or even to be just reasonably sure, that in a country the size of France, but with a language few of those involved speak (how many westerners not of Arabic descent speak Arabic?!) and with a regime with a massive army and secret police force, and a ruthless control of all its officialdom through fear of torture and death, which is detrmined at all costs to hinder all attempts to perform any kind of inspection, whether or not it actually has any development or other programme in respect of the class of WMD being sought.

    It was absolute hell for the western army personnel involved in the action in Iraq at that time. However, it was close to that kind of hell to be sitting on the coast, maintaining a threat to move in at any time if S.H. ceased to co-operate with the inspectors, but knowing (and with thw world knowing) that if at any point their resolve to sit it out waned and they turned round and went home, the moment they were gone S.H. would kick the weapons inspectors out again, and the world would have to go through the whole process of sending the troops back again to sit on the border.

    And this would have gone on forever, until not only S.H. but (had he remained in power but eventually retired or died) any successor of his ilk had left the scene and Iraq had returned to any kind of lawful, democratic governance on its own without extrnal interference. ANd that could have taken decades more, with UN inspectors continually visiting to ensure WMD were not begun on again, and with that great army sat on the border to ensure the inpectors were not kicked out. That is no way to run a planet.
  2. The only reason the UNSC did not pass a further resolution specifically giving the OK, in the hours before the armies crossed the border, was that of the fiver permanent members of the UNSC two — France and Russia — had corrupt self-interests that prevented them agreeing: Putin and Chirac had lent S.H. vast sums of money and knew they wouldn't get it back! Now, if in Britain a police superintendent went to a court for a search warrant and failed to get one because the judge had personally lent a huge sum of money to the crook whose house they wanted to search, the police would be entitled to circumvent this. If there was no procedural way to prove that the judge's refusal of a warrant was corrupt, and to get the warrant elsewhere, they would in my view be entitled in common law and natural justice to force entry as required, and search the premises for evidence not only of the original crime but of the judge's corrupt reason for refusing the search warrant, so as to get the judge disbarred for his improper conduct.

The other quarrel people pick with the reasons for embarking on the action in the first place is their complaint “There were no WMD". What about that?

Well, you now have to separate the actual UNSC resolution logic from the statements made by PM Tony Blair to the UK House of Commons. The latter was based on, and made reference to, a famous “dossier" originally prepared by the security services, and allegedly edited (ths was absurdly called “sexed up") by Tony Blair's press aide. Blair referred to this in the Commons, and the row with the BBC over reporting of its precise origins and No 10 interference in what it said when published led to a famous inquiry which was really about the circumstances of the death of a weapons inspector; but the dossier was about whether in fact S.H./Iraq actually possessed WMD and had them ready for use to attack Britain.

However, alongside removing S.H. from power, the other justification for action, that based on the relevant UNSC resolutions, has nothing to do with the accuracy or not of the claims in this dossier or elsewhere about whether Iraq actually had WMD; it was that Iraq had failed, repeatedly, to do everything in its power to facilitate inspections that would prove that Iraq did not have and WMD. That is, as far as we knew, S.H. might have WMD, or he simply have been deliberately creating the impression for years that had WMD. Whichever was the case, and in fact precisely in order to establish which was the case, the UNSC had ordered Iraq to facilitate inspections; and Iraq had refused to allow those inspections or else had allowed inspectors' into the country but had continually frustrated their attempts to do their job properly.

That frustration of the inspectors attempt to work was the true basis for the military action. The fact that, after S.H. was overthrown, no WMD were found did not in the slightest take away the jsutication for the action; the only problem with the fact that no WMD were found was Tony Blair's that he had claimed there were in fact WMD and that they could be deployed at very short notice (the famous 45 minutes). Again, his making of this claim was to pacify his own party left wing, because he had failed to get the (unnecessary, as above) additional UNSC resolution and was casting about him desperately for some alternative reason in addition to regime change to justify the action. But in fact the whole issue always was and remains a total red herring.

Here is an analogy. If a man walks into a police station with what looks like a firearm, the police are going to insist on establishing whether it is in fact a firearm, and (if, in fact, it is) to disarm him; but the non-lethal action they take to disarm him is not deemed unjustified if they find that he is not in fact carrying a firearm. That would only be a consideration if they went to the extreme of shooting him dead (which has happened; a man was killed who was only walking down the street with a chair leg in a bag). Otherwise, if a person goes about in public while appearing to be armed with a loaded gun when not an authorized person (whether a gamekeeper, or a member of an armed police unit) they must expect any police they encounter to take an interest in them, and they must expect those police to want to disarm them if they appear to pose any kind of threat. If they resist police actions, such as struggling or resisting attempts to identify what they are in fact carrying, they must expect the police to react robustly to that. If armed police are on the scene, and after suitable warnings they persist in resisting, the police cannot be accused of improper action if the suspected armed person ends up dead even if they have no gun. If the police can't check the apparent gun, they can't be sure it is not a gun; and in that case the if suspect fails to cooperate the police must assume the worst and shoot to protect themselves and the public against the case where the item was in fact a gun. The allies' action against Iraq in 2003 was justified by exactly the same reasoning. So long as it was not proven that S.H. had no WMD, the west had no option but to assume the worst until they had proved that no WMD were in fact there.

What of the aftermath? Last night (20080319) on BBC2 TV Newsnight, supposed experts on Iraq disagreed about how bad was the incursion of Al Qaeda into Iraq in 2003 and now; but all seem to be agreed that the planning for running the country after removal of S.H. was woefully inadequate; and many are agreed that the British army's shortages of equipment which in some cases cost lives was a terrible error. I agree that a lot has gone badly wrong with the implementation of the task of rebuilding a country after the removal of a man who had so run Iraq since he took power that at his fall the entire armed services, civil service, and national administration imploded, so that the foreigners could not rely on them to do anything. British workers were getting on RAF transports to and from Baghdad to fetch back suitcases full of dollar bills to pay officials in Basra to do their jobs, because all manned infrastructure in the country collapsed at once, something nobody outside had realized would happen.

And the Al Qaeda inspired Muslim extremists, whom S.H. had (at least) kept out or at bay by force (again) or torture and death, returned or re-emerged from the woodwork and began to give the allies and the Iraqi populace terrible grief, as they continue to 5 years on; but the fact that S.H. had suppressed them was not a good enough reason to leave him in power. Again, the fact that S.H. had run the country such that without him and his immediate (and equally cruel ruthless) cohorts there was no Iraqi machine to keep law and order in the streets and to prevent the looting, triabl and factional strife, and other death and destruction in the country cannot be blamed on the allies. They cannot even really be expected to have known quite how bad the situation would be because compared to many Arab countries Iraq was thought to be relatively advanced, with a sophisticated, well-educated population familiar with modern western ways.

The events in the country, the deaths and injury, the damage and grief, are all terrible, and terribly sad. But what S.H. meant in the way of life under his rule means that it is stillbetter that he has gone.

* They talk about ethics in international affairs, but when somebody is committing genocide and threatening international security they don't want to do anything about it