On Not Apologising for the Iraq War

In a leading column in today’s edition of the London Times, Prof. Nigel Biggar responds to a recent pledge by Jeremy Corbyn, front-runner in the race to head the British Labour Party, that as leader he would issue a public apology on behalf of the party for its ‘deception’ of the British people over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and for the subsequent suffering endured by Iraqis.

‘Jeremy Corbyn can apologise for the invasion of Iraq if he likes. But not in my name.

Saddam Hussein’s regime was monstrous. In the 15 years before the 2003 invasion it killed up to half a million of its own citizens. After the failed 1991 uprising in the south, its agents poured petrol down the throats of rebels and set them alight. Back in Baghdad the Special Treatment Department was busy dismembering living prisoners with chainsaws, squeezing their skulls in metal vices until brain-matter oozed out, and making parents watch their flailing children disappear under swarms of wasps in confined spaces. We know all this because it’s recorded on video. Such a regime deserved to be toppled; its vile nature was sufficient just cause for invasion.

Of course, we can’t afford to take on every nasty regime. So legitimate national interest must help us to discriminate. Fending off the threat that an atrocious regime like Saddam’s might acquire nuclear weapons as Pakistan had, North Korea has, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya almost did, and Iran has only just been dissuaded from doing, gave the UK such an interest.

Yes, it turned out that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and so the threat wasn’t immediate. But since no one doubts that Saddam was intent on getting them, a longer term threat persisted. As Dr David Kelly, the WMD expert sadly famous for his suicide, wrote on the eve of the invasion: “The long-term threat . . . remains Iraq’s development to military maturity of weapons of mass destruction — something only regime change will avert.”

But what about the lies for which Mr Corbyn is so keen to apologise? There weren’t any — at least, not on this side of the Atlantic. The claim that Iraq possessed WMD was a serious mistake, but an honest one. It wasn’t fabricated by Washington and London, but was shared by all other western intelligence services, as well as Russia’s. In 2000 German intelligence reckoned that Iraq would have nuclear weapons capable of hitting Europe by 2005.

As for the “dodgy dossier” of January 2003, its only sin was to have borrowed material from a PhD thesis without the courtesy of acknowledgement; the material itself was perfectly sound. It’s true that the previous September’s dossier on WMDs was unclear whether its claim that Iraq could launch WMD within 45 minutes referred to tactical or strategic weapons; and when the media failed to ask, the government failed to tell them. That omission deserves censure, but it doesn’t (quite) amount to a lie.

Maybe the Chilcot report will yet reveal the smoking gun so eagerly expected by devotees of the ugly cult of scapegoating Tony Blair. But I doubt it.

Besides, even if the government had lied, it still wouldn’t follow that the invasion was unjust. In 1941 President Roosevelt bolstered American support for Britain by “sexing up” a naval incident into a Nazi act of aggression, and by claiming to possess a secret map of Nazi designs on Latin America — a map far more dodgy than any Iraq dossier, since the British had forged it and Roosevelt knew. Few would infer from this, however, that the US was wrong to enter the war against Hitler.

What, then, about the invasion’s illegality? That remains a moot point, since there is no international court to decide the case. But even if the invasion was illegal, it could still have been moral. As the leading international lawyer, Martti Koskenniemi, observed of Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, “most lawyers have taken the position that it was both formally illegal and morally necessary”.

Without doubt the coalition’s planning for post-invasion occupation was woefully inadequate, and its consequent inability to secure order was a major failure. For that it deserves blame. But if an apology is fitting here, it’s not for too much intervention, but too little: the problem wasn’t too many boots on the ground, but too few.

What’s more, the vast majority of the 200,000 casualties of the ensuing anarchy were killed, not by American or British soldiers, but by Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists. And unless we subscribe to the racist view that non-westerners can’t be blamed because they aren’t full moral agents and only do bad things as the passive effects of western causes, then the primary responsibility for the carnage must rest with the perpetrators.

Most important, the coalition didn’t walk away from its mistakes. Rather, it strove to correct them by sustaining a costly military commitment for seven years, achieving a dramatic improvement in Iraq’s stability by the end of 2007.

Six years later, the Times’s Anthony Loyd, a journalist with more than twenty years’ experience of covering conflicts, was able to report that “contrary to the perception among western publics . . . the lot of the clear majority of Iraqis today is measurably improved. Many have a better quality of life, greater freedom of expression and more opportunity than during Saddam’s era.”

Since then, of course, things have taken a turn for the worse. For that the responsibility lies mainly with prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian government, but also with President Obama’s abandonment. Whether Iraq’s future can be retrieved from its current woes depends partly on how we respond to the new government’s pleas for help.

Five years ago I asked a group of young Iraqi professionals what they thought about the invasion. Their spokesman replied: “It’s good that it happened. It could have been done better. And it isn’t over.”

I cannot disagree. So Mr Corbyn will have to apologise without me.’

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