Alastair Campbell: There were no lies or deceit over Iraq

Alastair Campbell. Picture: Robert Perry

Alastair Campbell. Picture: Robert Perry

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We elect leaders to make the toughest calls. Amid all the talk of learning lessons I fear we have already learned some wrong ones.

Leaders in democracies have learned that if you do the really difficult, unpopular thing, it can be hung around your neck forever.

“Look at Tony Blair,” they say, “in so many ways a great Prime Minister yet with so many people refusing to see him as the author of anything but chaos in the Middle East”.

One; it is over-simplifying things to say he is the author of that chaos. Two; he made many changes to our country and to the wider world which cannot be erased from the national consciousness because of one hugely controversial issue.

I saw the care he took over the decisions. I have seen the agonies it has caused him many times since and will do till his dying day. The deaths of soldiers weigh heavily on him, as do the deaths of Iraqi civilians. He knows there are things he should apologise for. But one thing he will never apologise for is standing up to one of the worst, most fascist dictators the world has ever known. Nor should he. For all the faults in Iraq today, a world without Saddam and his sons in charge of Iraq is a better and safer world, and those who gave their lives to make it happen did not, in my view, die in vain.

He accepts Iraq and the region have not advanced as we had hoped, but I wish more could be heard from those – they exist – who will speak up for the democracy that has developed, the fight against terrorism the government is leading, and the progress, albeit too slow, that has been made; I also wish the Blair haters were able to see things from his perspective, as the man who had to make the decision, in a way that we can see things from theirs.

Some of the main criticisms appear to be related to the aftermath, and many of these seem to me to be justified. We assumed, wrongly, that the Americans would be as interested in the aftermath as they were in the military operation to topple Saddam. They were the main player and we, a junior partner in a huge international alliance, did not press them hard enough.

In some ways we were prepared for the wrong things. Take WMD. I can remember accompanying Tony Blair to a pre-war briefing at the Ministry of Defence, where he was being briefed on the equipment our troops would rely on in the event of Saddam using chemical and biological weapons against them. It was one of those moments when your heart leaps to your throat. It felt horribly real. It was a moment of real fear and Tony Blair pressed to make sure that troops who faced such a threat had the capacity to be able to deal with it. I cite that for two reasons – to emphasise that we sincerely believed the intelligence on WMD, and we believed Saddam might use them because he had done so when threatened in the past; and also to debunk the idea that Tony Blair made the decisions he did in a cavalier or uncaring way. To the conspiracy theorists who say he did it for Bush, he did it for oil, he did it because of some weird Messiah complex, I say do you really think any British Prime Minister would put troops in the horrific situations that were outlined to us unless he believed the threat was real, and one which, unless we showed we were serious about dealing with WMD, would one day pose a risk to all of us?

We prepared too for a long and bloody battle with Saddam’s Republican Guard, but in the event the military battle to topple him was won more easily than expected. The welcome from the people seemed real. That may have bred complacency. Haters of Saddam as they were, we thought the Iranians would welcome his fall. Instead, perhaps obviously but it didn’t seem so at the time, they exploited it. More widely, we seriously underestimated the potential reaction of different powers and forces within the region, and their capacity for the chaos which they unleashed. Sir John suggests the government should have seen this coming.

But here too the simplicity of the debate in the UK about the post-Saddam Middle East must be challenged. To say the Iraq invasion ‘created ISIS’, as many commentators do, is on a par with saying the war in Afghanistan ‘created Al Qaida’ when in fact that war came as a consequence of 9/11 not its cause.

A bit of history. Al Qaida in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS, was formed by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to fight Western forces in Iraq. But it rapidly moved on to trying to kill as many Shia as possible, and provoked them by destroying their holy sites. It was over that approach that its leader fell out with the leadership of Al Qaida in 2005. But when we left in 2010 Al Qaida in Iraq was largely defeated by the ‘surge’ of mainly US troops, by the Anbar awakening, and by our special forces.

ISIS emerged as a force out of premature departure from Iraq without taking the steps needed to try to reconcile Sunni and Shia. It was fuelled in Iraq by Sunni anger at the sectarian policies of the Maliki government and the threat from Shia militias fighting their way north; and in Syria by resentment at the vicious behaviour of the Allawite regime of President Assad.

Here is where I find some of the criticisms of Tony Blair from the left most difficult to accept. He is called a war criminal for acting to remove a real war criminal like Saddam who had killed more Muslims than anyone on the planet and with a human rights record to match some of the most brutal dictators of all time. Yet those same people were and remain prepared to stand by and do nothing to deal with Assad, despite the Syria death toll now being far greater than that in Iraq. ‘Standing up, not standing by,’ is the current Labour Party slogan. Well, we have not stood up for the Syrian people. We have stood by and allowed a catastrophe to unfold, millions fleeing terror, Assad using barrel bombs and crossing the so-called ‘red line’ of chemical weapon use with seeming impunity. One of the reasons ISIS has grown so strong, and become such a threat in Europe, is because we in Europe have not been prepared to intervene to prevent the emergence of a failed state in Syria and northern Iraq, just as Afghanistan became the failed state from where Al Qaida could plan the attack on the twin towers.

Syria is where ISIS has truly thrived, thanks in large part to non-intervention. Libya – where there was partial intervention but even less follow through than in Iraq – is now a country in chaos and becoming an important base for ISIS. Of these countries only Iraq has a legitimate Government fighting terrorism.

And those who say the UK action in Iraq put us in the front of the queue for attack should note that ISIS has been and remains indiscriminate. France was our most vocal critic over the war in Iraq, yet has been a greater victim of ISIS than we and others who backed the US-led action. Belgium played no part in the war, but it too has been struck by ISIS.

Other areas of criticism from Chilcot centre on the process surrounding the Attorney General’s advice, and the role of the UN. A brief word on both.

People often talk of the UN as though it were a court of law, able to adjudicate on difficult and complex issues. It is not. It is a collection of all the countries of the world with all their competing visions and interests. But particularly today, with Putin’s Russia one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, it is rarely a body on which full international agreement can be found on anything. The inquiry believes we had not exhausted all diplomatic efforts. Of course, we could have gone on talking. But the reality is that there came a point where France and Russia were never going to follow through on the logic of Resolution 1441, agreed unanimously including by them, which was yet another ‘final opportunity’ for Saddam to comply with the weapons inspectors, deliver on the many UNSCRs he was still defying, or face the consequences.

When negotiating that Resolution, everyone – including France and Russia – understood what it meant. Indeed opponents of the US-UK strategy had sought to insert the obligation to return to the UN for a specific mandate for military action and this was rejected. I remember Derry Irvine, Lord Chancellor, saying to a meeting of the Cabinet that we had tried so hard to get the second resolution that people assumed there could be no action without it. ‘But that is not the case.’

As for the messy process, I fear that was inevitable given the white hot political context, the fluid circumstances of the build up to war in so many countries, and the worries about leaks – which were real. People may be surprised that Cabinet ministers did not grill the Attorney General directly on his advice when they had the chance. But I think they were sensitive to the possible accusation of seeking to influence someone who is meant to be able to offer advice independently. And whatever the process I think he would have reached the decision he did. There are suggestions the advice should have been debated and even voted upon in Parliament. But the military need absolute clarity on the legal base for war. I can remember the Chief of Defence Staff, and the head of the Civil Service, asking for it in very blunt terms. People really need to think carefully before going down that route.

So [there were] no lies or deceit, contrary to what Jeremy Corbyn has just said. No secret deal with Bush. A messy process surrounding the legal advice and the role of the UN. Mistakes in intelligence but no improper interference with it. Bad planning for the aftermath. Many mistakes and shortcomings made alongside successes.

I am going to leave the final word in this piece to the constitutional expert, Professor Vernon Bogdanor. Last month he gave a long and thoughtful lecture on the Iraq war. I was particularly struck by his final paragraph.

“Of course, with hindsight, all things might have been done differently, but as President Bush said, and on this I agree with him, ‘Hindsight is not a strategy. Everyone’s hindsight is better than the most acute foresight’. My conclusion,” said Bogdanor, “is that there are no easy answers, that Bush and Blair were faced with an almost impossible dilemma, and that all of us should be very grateful that we were not in their shoes and did not have to make their difficult decisions.”

• Mr Campbell’s comments are an edited version of his blog, which can be viewed at alastaircampbell.org

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