Thu, 24 Jul 2003

Tony Blair misled public in making case for war

Jonathan Power, Columnist, London

It is unlikely that the judicial enquiry now set up by British Prime Minister Tony Blair following the apparent suicide of David Kelly, the senior expert on weapons of mass destruction, will get to the bottom of why Dr Kelly chose to die. The assumption that he was angered on the one side by a BBC report that erroneously overstated what he had said to one of its reporters or, on the other, that he felt he was being made a fall guy by the government doesn't add up.

He clearly had doubts about the government's case for going to war, but even inside the ministry of defense he was no lone voice -- many of the generals advised against going to war. As for the BBC, at worst the reporter "sexed up" what Kelly told him, a hazard anyone who deals with the press even occasionally is acutely aware of.

And although the government and parliament did throw the spotlight on him they can hardly said to have overdone it. They didn't threaten to fire him or cut off his pension rights, and although his friends characterize him as a gentle and honest man he worked in a field that was full of mendacity. Presumably -- and it is unlikely we will ever know the full truth -- he was a man who had many other problems.

But once the air over this death has cleared what will remain is that the Blair duped the nation just as President George Bush duped America. They jointly made a case that the world stood in imminent danger of a being attacked by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and to leave it a day longer -- even three or so months as some members of the Security Council begged, as they sought to give the UN weapons inspectors more time to finish their job -- could not be countenanced. War had to begin almost at once, and it did.

Now that the war is over and so far no weapons of mass destruction have been uncovered. Blair and Bush have tried to re- pitch the argument. As Blair said, speaking before the U.S. Congress last week, at the least Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant and that was enough reason to depose him. At worst, he was what he and Bush had said about him -- a possessor of weapons of mass destruction and a man capable of forming an alliance with al-Qaeda. In either case there need be no regrets or apologies to be made.

It doesn't stand up with or without the death of Dr Kelly. It has long been clear that Iraq lost most of its capacity for offensive military action in the first Gulf War. It lost its navy and 90% of its air force and was never able to replace them. Its army was way under strength and under armed. The UN inspectors had destroyed more weapons than any of the bombing in the first Gulf War, as President Bill Clinton often reminded us.

The nuclear weapons program that Iraq had started on was uncovered in the early 1990s by the UN team and dismantled. The chemical and biological weapons programs, even if re-constituted, could only have been (by the standards of modern warfare and the defensive capabilities of western armies) quite primitive.

Ironically, the only real value of these incipient weapons was that, in Saddam's eyes, they gave him reason to think they frightened the West (thanks to the paranoia of the neo- conservatives) and thus they worked as a deterrent, giving him a negotiating card of value. There is evidence that suggests that the sentence that has sprung the hoo-ha over the British government's pre-war assertion that "the Iraqi military are capable of deploying chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes" was a carefully leaked plant from Baghdad.

By attempting to inhabit the moral high ground, arguing that he was helping save the world from an evil doer of grand proportions, Blair, the former advocate, got carried away with hubris and the simplicity of what he regarded as a beautiful case and failed to use his moral sensibility to look at the other side of the argument:

* War is the bluntest of tools. Used again against Iraq it would drive a country, already in perilous state after years of continuous war compounded by severe sanctions, over the edge. Moreover, the chances of turning the face of the Middle East towards democracy would, if anything, be made more difficult.

* War would unearth only small quantities of weapons of mass destruction. (In fact less than the most of the anti-war lobby thought.) The UN inspectors, given time, would have nailed these down as they successfully did after the first Gulf War. (The International Atomic Energy Agency has just told us that 22 pounds of uranium compounds have been looted from the country's main nuclear complex in the post war chaos. Uranium that once was under tight wraps in Saddam's day could indeed now be in terrorist hands.)

* War would be another cause for immense bitterness against the West right through the Islamic world. While it is true that there has been less outpouring of anger on the street than many of us supposed, the detailed poll by the Pew organization shows how anti American public opinion has become. This is the last thing the West needs when there are people on both sides determined to whip up public opinion into a "clash of civilizations".

* There was an alternative: Make a deal with Saddam -- that in return for open access by the arms inspectors and a loosening up of the internal repression of the regime, sanctions would be lifted and Washington would no longer demand, as it had for over a decade, his stepping down. That would be left to internal forces.

Blair and his conscience are for his maker to sort out. But for the rest of us one thing is clear: On the big issue of the war we were grossly and unnecessarily misled.