Short Cuts

John Sturrock

Given that it’s not so far been settled to everyone’s satisfaction exactly what the belligerents had in mind when they went to war in 1914, we shouldn’t perhaps get too impatient as the junta who ordered up the invasion of Iraq try to settle on a postwar reason for having done so that will make those of us who remain unretractably opposed to it seem to be sulking, or even Saddam-friendly. The happy obliteration of the dictator and his Baathists was, we’re asked to accept, a benevolent act and good reason on its own for having a war, trumping the merely provisional reason that is currently being re-aired more and more desperately: the existence of weapons made unduly lethal in the public mind by their invisibility.

Had the deliverance of the Iraqi population been, unequivocally, the declared motive for an invasion of their country before it was launched, support for it nationally here, let alone internationally, would have been very small indeed. The new ‘military humanism’ may have its rational advocates but they are hugely outnumbered by the sceptics, who refuse to believe that governments commit their armies unilaterally to a war for any such generous purpose. It’s not in any case as if we had to wait for American and British soldiers to occupy Iraq and uncover mass Shiite graves or torture cells, to be aware that the deposed regime was vile, and the scale and methods of its oppression sickening. They were no more sickening in 2003 than they had been twenty years before, at a time when Donald (‘I don’t do diplomacy’) Rumsfeld was shaking Saddam diplomatically by the hand in Baghdad. To pretend now that the evidence of institutional cruelty is some sort of revelation is outrageous, meant as it clearly is to expunge, as we shudder, memories of how the never less than murderous Saddam was once acceptable as an ally against the perceived danger from a newly ayatollahed Iran.

It’s unfortunate that the two parties to the present occupation, members of what must be the most lopsided ‘coalition’ in history, seem not altogether to agree on how likely they are (they, naturally, not Hans Blix and Co.) to unearth the weapons once assumed to be posing an imminent – and Blair’s minatory ‘45 minutes’ sets new standards in imminence – threat to countries such as our own which their owners had no means of reaching. What has tended to go unsaid is that if these weapons did exist, they posed, most obviously, a threat exclusively to the not so distant Israel, in whose interests it certainly was to see Iraq invaded. As Yitzak Laor has written in this paper, for Israeli hawks, the Iraq war came in very handy, since it neutered a serious enemy by proxy, without Israel having to endure any casualties. But a war launched explicitly on behalf of Israel would have stood even less chance than an overtly humanitarian one of being successfully marketed in this country.

You might say that Iraq’s mysteriously unused weapons are not going to go away, for as long as they fail to turn up. Our Prime Minister has continued to assure all and sundry that, give him time, and they will be found, even though his teammate Rumsfeld went earlier on record with the brazenly cynical suggestion that they might no longer be there because the Iraqis destroyed them just before the invasion began: a presumably unique historical instance of a country choosing to disarm itself on the eve of being set upon. And following this contemptuous intervention, the shadowy Paul Wolfowitz went further and described the choice of the weapons issue for an official casus belli as ‘bureaucratic’, an extraordinary word to use, meaning, one gathered, that it was the only justification – my incredulous fingers originally keyed that in as ‘justafiction’ – which our side could agree on. In plainer terms: it was the one justification to play fully to American paranoia.

It looks therefore as if Blair may soon be travelling solo up a cul-de-sac in continuing to promise that the anthrax, the nerve gas and all the rest will one day be brought to light. Except that he has recently spoken off the record and in worryingly different terms to a small group of broadsheet journalists. Discounting the weapons issue as pretty much a red herring, he said in this curious private briefing that the real purpose of the war was to serve as a lesson to other potentially dangerous or hostile countries in the Middle East, i.e. Iran and Syria. If this is so, it is disturbing to put it mildly that he has not come out with anything on these lines when addressing Parliament, or the nation, or the servicemen whose lives he put at risk in Iraq.

Assuming that it is so, what are we then to make of the current urge, both here and in the States, to try and pin the blame, should no weapons be found, on the Intelligence services, for having offered false assurances of their existence? I for one am loath to believe that Intelligence was so very fallible, remembering for how long and how extensively Iraq was overflown and listened-in on. Rather, its assurances, coupled with what was learnt from two generations of UN weapons inspectors, may well have gone in the opposite direction, to the effect that Iraq, heavily defeated 12 years before and further nullified by sanctions, was in a state of ill-armed unreadiness. This proved to be the case and, as a prospect beforehand, it would have had the virtue of making the choice of that country as an exemplary victim a simple one.