The war in Iraq
Everyone knows it was misconceived from the start. Might everyone be wrong?
An 11-episode podcast by the BBC’s security correspondent, Gordon Corera, on the 2003 Iraq war has received rave reviews. In Shock and War, Corera brings to fruition what he says has been a 20-year obsession to discover the truth about why the US and UK led a war coalition to remove Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s dictator — and why the consequences were so catastrophic.
The aftermath did indeed go terribly wrong, with a sectarian civil war bogging down the “coalition of the willing” in a bloody quagmire. That Iraq war also ramped up isolationism and pacifism in the west, undermining its willingness to defend itself against aggression — and most ominously, turning it implacably against ever again mounting proactive military action in its own defence.
Corera says he managed finally to persuade several of those at the centre of the Iraq war to speak about it in public for the first time. That’s a significant achievement, and he has produced some fresh and interesting insights.
However, the podcast rehearses the line with which we are so familiar — that the decision to topple Saddam was a dreadful error. The war was sold to the public on the basis that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But in the event, no WMD were found in Iraq — thus proving, it was said, that by the time of the war they no longer existed, Saddam having disposed of them years earlier. So the whole ghastly war and its even more ghastly aftermath were said to have been criminally unnecessary; people died for nothing; and the British and American public were taken to war on a lie.
I never bought into this view. While the aftermath was conducted by the US with appalling incompetence outdone only by its arrogance, I believed that the case for getting rid of Saddam had been sound.
He had been presenting an unconscionable risk to the free world for years; he had pretensions to be the leader of the Arab world, which meant continued aggression against his neighbours; he had used WMD on his own people and would clearly use it, given the chance, against others; the US had tried to get rid of him in the first Iraq war but the administration of President HW Bush had bottled it at the last minute; and because the 9/11 attacks, while unconnected to Saddam, showed to an aghast west that the Islamist agenda was to kill as many of its civilians as possible, the risk to the west posed by Saddam — which had been politically parked after the first Iraq war — now had to be recalibrated as extreme.
As for the argument that the failure to find any WMD proved they hadn’t existed at the time, this seemed to me to be stupid beyond belief. The Americans had loudly advertised the sites where they thought the stuff was to be found and their intention to search them. It hardly took much imagination to realise that Saddam had been given ample time and opportunity to hide or export it before the Americans got there. Absence of evidence was not evidence of absence.
This very same argument was put to Corera in his podcast by Sir Richard Dearlove, who at the time had been head of the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. Yet Corera dismissed this as obviously absurd. Dearlove said repeatedly that he still believed Saddam had had WMD at the time war was declared, but said he would say no more about that. Corera pressed him, incredulous that he could possibly believe such a thing; and then unleashed the familiar accusation that the spies had served up dodgy and useless intelligence to Tony Blair because Dearlove had been “too close to the prime minister”. Which caused Dearlove to explode in exasperation.
I am one of what is probably a vanishingly small number of people who continue to believe that the US and UK were right to go to war against Saddam — despite the bloody mess that ensued after he was toppled. In 2007, I wrote a Spectator blog post about an American agent I had spoken to who had served in Iraq on missions to locate Saddam’s WMD. And in 2010, I wrote in my book The World Turned Upside Down: the Global Battle over God, Truth and Power about a no-less riveting and explosive conversation I had had in 2006 with a former Iraqi air vice-marshal who had served under Saddam and related his personal experience of dealing with some of the missing WMD.
Clearly a measure of scepticism is necessary in such encounters. For those interested to read what I learned — and then make up your own mind — the Spectator post and the book extract follow below.
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