Asking the right questions on Iraq

Even with, and partly because of, a decade of hindsight, clear-headed discussion about the run-up to the Iraq war is befuddled by our inability to ask the right questions

Did you back him or bash him?
Robin Shepherd, Owner / Publisher
On 19 February 2013 12:10

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the start of the most controversial Western military venture since the Vietnam War it is hardly surprising that the media is increasingly awash with commentary about it. What is striking, though, is the persistence of the seemingly ubiquitous conflation of issues that has characterised the debate over the last 10 years.

From supporters to opponents of the war, and the many shades of opinion in between, the risk is that a decade on we will fail to learn the right lessons, simply because we are not asking the right questions.

Consider the most basic question of all: "Did you support the US-led invasion of Iraq?"

On the face of it, that seems pretty unambiguous. The trouble is, for many people, that question ultimately divides into two: "If you had been President of the United States in March 2003, would you have launched the Iraq War?" Or: "Once the decision was taken to invade Iraq, did you then support it?"

It should be immediately clear that two very different sorts of people could jointly answer yes to the basic question, “Did you support the US-led invasion of Iraq?” while parting company when we break that question into two.

In fact, there has long been a school of thought that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s real, underlying motivation for backing the US invasion was a genuinely held fear that the entire trans-Atlantic relationship was at risk should America feel that it was being abandoned by its European allies.

It is a plausible piece of speculation. The furious row between the United States and France (and, to a less emotionally-charged extent, Germany) was unprecedented not merely since the end of the Cold War but since the end of World War II.

Blair and those who backed his stance on Iraq – not least the formerly communist countries of central and eastern Europe – felt the dilemma acutely.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, and for the greater good of the most successful alliance of democratic nations in history, was it not wise to give the Americans the benefit of the doubt? To those who ultimately backed the invasion, it seemed a compelling argument, especially given the justifications on offer.

Which brings us to the second question that continues to confound us:

"Was there a legitimate case for war anyway?"

In Britain and Europe, the material issue in this regard was and remains the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction (though the United States offered parallel justifications in terms of democracy promotion and regime change).

Since WMD were not found in Iraq, the answer to the question is a resounding “no” across most of the continent. Indeed, for many, the absence of WMD is evidence of mendacity: we were “lied to”, the charge goes, and for that there can be no forgiveness.

The obvious logical flaws in the argument once again illustrate the necessity of asking the right question. For there is no evidence whatsoever that Bush and Blair were anything other than astounded that they found no WMD in Iraq. That raises serious issues about the reliability of our intelligence services. But since no-one on either side of the debate could be certain about WMD in Iraq the salient questions about the justification for war seem to emerge as follows:

For supporters of the war: "Would you have still supported the invasion of Iraq had you known for sure that there were no WMD at all?"

For opponents of the war: "Would you have still opposed the invasion of Iraq if you had known for sure that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was packed full of WMD?"

Thus posed, these questions are helpful, but they still do not get to the heart of the matter since they are self-consciously anachronistic. Logic dictates that decisions are not made on the basis of information that will only subsequently become available.

Hindsight is wonderful, and we must use it when we have it. But prior to the invasion of Iraq, we could only go on the views of the intelligence services -- which the world over were convinced Saddam had WMD -- the weapons inspectors -- who were subject to a game of cat and mouse in Iraq -- and the Iraqi regime itself. The truly pertinent question then, is this:

“In terms of the primary justification for war, were you prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein?” 

In the end, the fact is that the opponents of the war were by and large prepared to back Saddam’s version. Taking that issue in isolation, they were right. But they had no way of knowing that at the time they made their call, meaning that it was their relatively friendly stance towards Saddam (and/or unfriendly stance towards Bush) that ruled their thinking rather than their expertise on the presence or absence of WMD in Iraq.

This then leads to another set of questions concerning motives about the war. The meta questions is as follows: “What was your primary motivation for the position you took on the US-led invasion of Iraq?”

As has been established, opponents of the war cannot answer that question by citing an absence of WMD because they were in no position to know one way or the other before the invasion was launched. Neither can they cite international law, which in any case remains ambiguous on the matter, because had WMD been located the invasion would have found easy legal justification due to Saddam’s non-compliance with multiple UN resolutions.

Opponents of the war must therefore answer a question about their motivations along the following lines: “Given that you could not invoke international law as a justification for your stance, and given that you could not have known about WMD, what was your core motivation for opposing the invasion?”

If anyone can come up with anything plausible in answer to that question that does not boil down to gratuitous and visceral hostility to the Bush administration conjoined with the standard anti-Western/anti-American agenda led by the British and European Left, I’d like to hear it. The fact is that most opponents of the war didn’t care a hoot about whether Saddam had WMD. They were also unconcerned about who such weapons might be used against.

The anti-war movement in Britain and Europe was led by the usual suspects who oppose any war the West gets involved in. They were able to magnify their popularity many times precisely because they were able to latch on to the widespread dislike (and demonization) of the Bush administration. Led by France and Germany, many west European governments used this as cover to avoid getting involved in a foreign venture they had no intention of joining whatever the danger from Iraq.

Looking at the key issues prior to the invasion of Iraq without utilising the knowledge that we now have about what happened is the only reasonable way to evaluate who had the best motives at the time the invasion was actually launched.

And, to put it mildly, when we ask the right questions in the right way, it is still far from clear that the noblest of motives were those that belonged to the war’s opponents.

Robin Shepherd is the owner/publisher of The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @RobinShepherd1

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