The Iraq fury still burns, fuelled by unanswered questions

5 March 2013

I was fascinated to read the reaction to Nick Cohen’s article expressing his view that after 10 years he still believed the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do. The heart of Nick’s argument is this:

‘I regret much: the disbanding of the Iraqi army; a de-Ba’athification programme that became a sectarian purge of Iraq’s Sunnis; the torture of Abu Ghraib; and a failure to impose security that allowed murderous sectarian gangs to kill tens of thousands.For all that, I say, I would not restore the Ba’ath if I had the power to rewind history. To do so would be to betray people who wanted something better after 35 years of tyranny.’

I posted the piece on my Facebook wall as something all opponents of the war should read, even if they disagreed with Nick’s viewpoint. The reaction was immediate and passionate. Pretty much everyone disagreed with me. One thought it was ‘bogus’; another said Nick had missed the point because the choice to go to war was not driven by a moral imperative, one former cheerleading interventionist suggested the piece was ‘ahistorical’ for refusing to engage with the suffering inflicted on the Iraq people by the war. A former Observer colleague said the piece failed to engage with the ‘blatant, grievous lie’ that took us to war in the first place. An old friend with whom I often spar on Israel, made the related point that ‘we were sold a lie, not Nick Cohen’s reasons for war’. A respected investigative journalist chipped in with this: ‘Looking back, It’s also a bit cheeky of Nick (to put it mildly) to say the good war was only spoiled by the bad disbanding the army & sectarian de-baathification, when Nick did so much at the time to promote Ahmed Chalabi and his CIA funded Iraqi National Congress.’

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The post that came closest to capturing my own position was this one: ‘I tire of the “it was for your own good” line from westerners, as much as I tire of the tendencies among antis that Nick describes well.’

Apart from my obvious pride in the quality of the contributions on my Facebook wall, I also feel a sense of unease as someone who was against intervention. It is too easy for us to say that we also wanted Saddam removed, but by other means. No other means were available at the time.

Ten years on, the Iraq war still has the power to to test friendships and unsettle the liberal consensus. And despite the multiple inquiries there are still some serious questions to be answered. One incident that would still reward investigation is the spying operation on the United Nations uncovered on the eve of war by GCHQ translator Katharine Gun. I wrote about this almost-forgotten episode in this weekend’s Observer.

Jack Straw, then the foreign secretary, has not been challenged on whether he authorised the operation to go ahead, although it is almost certain that he did. Whatever we think of the war, it seems that GCHQ staff were taking their orders directly from the National Security Agency in Maryland during this period, something surely worthy of further comment.

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Show comments
  • David Rose

    I think you slightly miss the point I was making before on your Facebook page. It’s no good Nick saying he would not have left the Baath regime alone if had the power to rewind history, because he doesn’t. And the things he regrets, unforced criminal errors made by us from the west, have to enter the calculus of any retrospective judgement. That’s why I as a “former cheerleading interventionist” have for years deeply regretted the positions I took 2001-3: because I believed – against some strong arguments being made at the time – that things would turn out unimaginably better than they have. So I have to admit now that I was wrong, as I have been doing, in public, for years. In the abstract: do I think getting rid of Saddam by force would have been a good thing if it could have been done in the way I once envisaged it could be? Yes. Do I think it was worth it, given what has happened? A far, far more difficult question, and one which I think I have disqualified myself from answering in the affirmative, simply because I was so wrong before. Nick doesn’t want to make any admissions of this type. That’s up to him and his conscience, but he needs to come up with a better way of saying so than an article which turns on what he would do had he the power to turn the clock back.

  • arnoldo87

    Could you ask your former Observer colleague to let us all in on the “blatant grievous lie that took us to war in the first place”. It has been devilishly difficult to find even one little lie that was actually told over Iraq by Blair, and everyone on the Spectator blogs who has claimed such a lie was told has been unable to substantiate the claim.

  • davey

    >It is too easy for us to say that we also wanted Saddam removed, but by other means. No other means were available at the time.

    But that’s the whole point. the ‘means’ were in the hands of people who had previously armed him and whose political carers demonstrated that they had absolutely no interest in democracy at all – Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al. And it is rewriting history, again, for Cohen et al to pretend that they were anything other than brainwashed in this – Cohen even met Wolfowitz, who had supported various dictators directly in the past, and declared him an ally in the struggle or freedom. George Galloway was rightly castigated for once shaking hands with Saddam – but Rumsfeld was not. In the hands of these people Iraq was ALWAYS going to be a horrific bloodbath which is why so many opposed it – not because they loved teh Saddam or were guilty or whatever bogus ’emotion’ Cohen decides we were motivated by, but precisely because with ‘friends of democracy’ like these, you don’t need enemies.

    That’s before we get to this idea that somehow everyone had to have a coherent policy on Saddam’s removal fully prepared, otherwise somehow they can’t be taken seriously.

    I’d very much welcome the downfall of the rulers of China and Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t mean that I am beholden to cheerlead for whatever lunatic scheme is put in front of me suggesting their removal.

  • Abandon Ship!

    To be honest I’m fed up with the liberal hand wringing from those against and those who used to be for the invasion of Iraq. Saddam and his sons were complete bastards and I’m glad they are gone, by whatever means.

  • Rod Blaine

    > ” who got it right when she pointed out that his reasons for invasion weren’t the same as Bush’s”

    Can we apply this same yardstick to the anti-Western side too? Eg, everyone who attends a rally to protest war or “Islamophobia” can have the motives of the Sharia-law-imposers or the Saddam-cheerleaders who hold the megaphone imputed to them by proxy, even if you attend because you’re a socialist feminist or a Quaker peace activist?

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