Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ron Smith: Politics and Political Theatre: Invading Iraq

There were a number of good reasons for invading Iraq in 2003 and only one of them was a potential threat from weapons of mass destruction. To begin with, Iraq was one of the most atrocious regimes of the Twentieth Century, which over the course of more than twenty years had killed millions of its own people, together with substantial numbers of Iranians and Kuwaitis. To have ended the tyranny of Saddam Hussein was an enormous boon to the Iraqi people, who are now in control of their affairs in a way that they have not been in modern times. Of course, Iraqi society is still riven by tribal and religious differences and a continuing propensity to use violence where there are now democratic processes available. Whatever the ostensible or imputed purpose of the invasion, the people of Iraq now have a chance to establish institutions and social practices that meet their needs and aspirations. This is surely a good thing and not just for Iraqis.


The Iraq of Saddam Hussein was also a major supporter of international terrorism, paying a substantial reward to the families of suicide bombers in Israel, as well as generally supplying terrorist organisations in the region. This reflected the extent to which international terrorism (and especially Islamic terrorism) was being facilitated by states. Taliban support for al qaeda in Afghanistan was only the most egregious example of what was (and still is) a major problem of international security.

And then there is the matter of weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that for most of its history the regime of Saddam Hussein had active programmes in all three domains. Chemical weapons in particular were used in the Iran-Iraq war and, as the recent execution of ‘Chemical Ali’ has reminded us, they were also used by the regime against the Iraqi people themselves. To continue with the specific exemplars, IAEA inspectors were astonished to find that in 1991 (after the Gulf War) Iraq was ‘within six months’ of having a nuclear bomb.

The end of the Gulf War, and the confirmation of the extent of Iraq’s WMD activities, were followed by nearly 12 years of sparring between Saddam Hussein and United Nations weapons inspectors culminating in an uneasy hiatus, during which the inspectors remained unsatisfied. The most quoted of these was Hans Blix, who reported (in January 2003) that, ‘Iraq has failed to account for a wide range of chemical and biological weapons’, and that there was ‘strong evidence of anthrax stocks’. The chief UN weapons inspector, Richard Butler, was also in no doubt that Iraq was again working on nuclear weapons and this was also the opinion of various national intelligence agencies, such as those of Germany, UK , United States and even New Zealand (although there were dissenting opinions, even amongst the official inspectorate).

Of course, we now know that such activity and weapon stockpiles as Iraq had retained by March 2003 were vestigial only and, indeed, mainly conceptual, and there was considerable speculation about why that might have been. But the fact is that the intelligence ‘consensus’ at the material time was that there was a continuing threat and, in the light of this, it seems inappropriate to say of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that they ‘lied’ about these matters. As far as the then-current WMD status of Iraq was concerned, they were wrong and, with hindsight, it is clear that Saddam Hussein made a serious mistake in allowing this misperception to persist.

But as indicated earlier, the perception of Iraq as a threat was broader than the specifics of weapon systems. After 9/11 there was also a new emphasis on international terrorism and on the states that were supporting it, and a new determination to act against them. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq may not have had weapons of mass destruction in March 2003 but it had certainly had them at various times before that date and it was not implausible to imagine (the inspection regime having been abandoned) that they would have them again. It is also reasonable to assume that they would have continued to support terrorism in the region. The invasion of Iraq ended doubt on both these matters.

But was it ‘legal’? Of course, it depends what you mean by ‘legal’. The domestic paradigm of legality entails acceptance by the individual citizen of a limitation on his right to defend his interests, on the understanding that established agencies (the police and courts) will defend them for him. In the international arena these ‘agencies’ (the Security Council and such ad hoc military forces as it may be able to command) are not well developed and have a somewhat spotty record, so it is a moot point as to whether it is reasonable for a state to waive a presumed right to defend its interests itself (or, indeed, waive its right to defend the interests of others). It is certainly the case that an invasion is a prima-facie violation of state sovereignty and that in the Iraq case the Security Council refused to sanction military action. On the other hand the Security Council also declined to support military intervention to prevent genocide in Kosovo (1999). Was the invasion of Kosovo ‘legal’? From what the Security Council did, the answer is surely that it was not, but for many, the NATO action was nonetheless well justified. Here, as in the Iraq invasion case, we do not do ‘justice’ to the underlying complexity of the situation by attempting to resolve the issue through simplistic claims about ‘truth’ and ‘legality’ and the deliverance of a particular group of state representatives on a particular day.

1 comment:

Brian Arrandale said...

Dr Smith places a reasonable argument for the intervention in Iraq in 2003. If we were to equate this action with the declaration of war by Britain and France in 1939 on Germany. (In response to the invasion of Poland). One might question this action on the grounds that neither Britain or France had any right to declare such a war as neither were threatened, plus the fact that although Poland had been “assured” by Britain of her independence, both countries knew that any physical support was impossible.

Hussein’s support of terrorist organizations that were openly committed to the destruction of Israel was a good enough reason in itself for any invasion. Certainly history has showed very clearly that concerted direct action by the United Nations since its inception, in dealing with such dictatorships has been ineffectual; and still is, judging by the many African/Asian/etc regimes.

The public view of the invasion of Iraq has been fueled by a media well versed in condemnation of the West, and “hindsight” is a wonderful agent to promote agendas and create good copy. At the time most clear thinking people understood from reports that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; although no means whereby they could deliver them into the heart of Israel, AT THAT TIME.

It was in Hussein’s interest in retaining power to foster this allusion, albeit in the end, it caused his demise.

Now we have Iran almost in a similar situation, except that they have the wherewithal to deliver, but as yet, not the ultimate tactical atomic weapon. Yet again the U.N is unable to act, or perhaps more truthfully, politically reluctant to do so.

The question Dr Smith poses is an interesting one “Was it legal”, there is also the question which then arises “How can one fight a legal war”?, or the more practical one “Does it matter so long as we win”?

At the end of World War 1 Woodrow Wilson with the “help” of Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando divided up Europe thus sowing the seeds for World War 2, (“Hindsight Again”.)!

It was summed up at the time rather well by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

“The winner is always right”

Brian Arrandale.