Tony Blair on the use of force

The prime minister’s carefully crafted and thoughtful speech on 5 March in Sedgefield, justifying military action in Iraq and warning of the continued threat of global terrorism, is remarkable for a number of things, including the optimistic declaration that "the real issue… is not a matter of trust but of judgement".  I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s an issue of trust also.  In both January and February 2003, just weeks before we went to war, Tony Blair promised the British people that we would take part in military action against Iraq only if one of two conditions were satisfied:  either a second resolution of the Security Council explicitly authorising the use of force, or a majority in the Council supporting such a resolution, but the resolution not adopted because of "an unreasonable veto".  Neither condition came anywhere near being satisfied, but Mr Blair took us to war anyway.  Not an issue of trust?  It doesn’t stop there.  The prime minister says that even when the September dossier was published he hadn’t known that the "45 minutes" claim didn’t apply to long-range weapons that could threaten British troops in Cyprus or indeed anywhere else.  Yet his Defence Secretary knew this, presumably Alistair Campbell, working so closely with the Chairman of the JIC, knew it, so others in No. 10 must have known it: are we asked to believe that no-one bothered to tell the prime minister, even when the misleading assertion generated banner headlines about the 45-minute threat to Britain — headlines that no-one in authority thought it necessary to correct?  Another issue of trust.  Does the refusal to disclose the legal advice that the government was receiving on the legality, or lack of it, of a war without explicit UN authority, right up to a few days before the war began, mask real doubts even in high legal quarters within government about that legality?  Was pressure put on the Attorney-General to change his advice to something more palatable to Mr Blair and, even more important, to Mr Bush?  Was the decision to go to war taken first and the search for a legal fig-leaf initiated only afterwards?  Publication of all that earlier advice could dispel, or confirm, that grave suspicion, yet publication is refused.  An issue of trust.  And perhaps the most troublesome of such issues:  which of the many reasons for going to war was the real one that drove Mr Blair into this act of monumental folly?  Was it, as he has sometimes said, his fear of destroying the ‘special relationship’ with the US government by leaving them in the lurch, accentuated by fear of what the Americans would do if left to act on their own without the restraining influence that Blair believed (perhaps still believes, against all the evidence) he could exert on Bush and his neo-cons?    Was it because of a genuine, even if mistaken, belief that Saddam actually had WMD which the UN inspectors would never find and which would never be destroyed short of an armed invasion?  Or was it because of his genuine fear that if left in power, even if he didn’t have them in March 2003, Saddam would eventually develop WMD which he could use to threaten his neighbours and ultimately ourselves, and which would sooner or later fall into the hands of terrorists — one of the arguments for war developed in the Sedgefield speech?  Or was it a high-minded determination to enforce the resolutions of the Security Council of which Saddam was, or at any rate seemed to be at the time, in breach, whether the Security Council wanted its resolutions enforced by war or not that war aim specifically identified at Sedgefield as "our primary purpose"?  The Americans never made any secret of the fact that one of their objectives was "régime change", getting rid of an anti-western, repressive, oil-rich dictator:  joining with the Americans in a war which included such an aim, could Mr Blair really deny (as he did at Sedgefield) that this was one of our purposes, too?  Too many justifications, too many switches as each was shown up as flawed:  an issue of trust. 

There could hardly be a more serious charge against a political leader than that he took his country to war without stating clearly and with total honesty the real purpose of the war and its moral, political and legal justification.  At Sedgefield Tony Blair stressed that “régime change alone could not be and was not our justification for war. Our primary purpose was to enforce UN resolutions over Iraq and WMD”;  and: "The truth is, as was abundantly plain in the motion before the House of Commons on 18 March, we went to war to enforce compliance with UN Resolutions."  Yet later he is saying that “we do not accept in a community that others have a right to oppress and brutalise their people”, “we surely have a responsibility to act when a nation’s people are subjected to a regime such as Saddam’s.”   Surely something is missing here:  who are these “we” who have a responsibility to intervene to remove other countries’ régimes when they cross some undefined boundary of repressiveness?  Are “we” the US and UK governments acting on our own passionate beliefs, disregarding the views of much of the rest of the world?  Or are “we” the countries, peoples and governments of the world acting within the framework laid down by the United Nations Charter under the leadership of a broadly representative Security Council?  There’s a world of difference.

If our "primary purpose" really was to "enforce UN resolutions over Iraq and WMD", the purpose which the Attorney-General’s final opinion deployed to argue for the war’s legitimacy, how can that be squared with the resolute refusal of the majority of the Security Council to agree that the moment had come to enforce its own resolutions by going to war with Iraq — and its specific refusal, despite feverish efforts on Britain’s part (and rather less feverish efforts by Washington), to invite the US, UK, Australian and a few other countries to do the enforcing on the UN’s behalf?  Tony Blair says:  "The UN inspectors were in Iraq but progress was slow and the vital cooperation of Iraqi scientists withheld. In March we went back to the UN to make a final ultimatum. We strove hard for agreement. We very nearly achieved it [a breathtaking claim, incidentally]…  But the Security Council didn’t agree."  Is it possible that in uttering these fatal words, the prime minister didn’t realise that he was irreparably demolishing his own case?  He says that "the real issue…  is not a matter of trust but of judgement".  Once again he evades the issue by representing it as essentially a matter of opinion:  he was entitled to his judgement that Saddam’s supposed possession of WMD demanded a full-scale war, then and there, to get rid of them, just as (he concedes) the rest of us are entitled to our view that it did not.  But who has given Messrs Bush and Blair the right to make their own judgements on behalf of the United Nations and to act on them whether or not the United Nations agrees with them?  Only the Security Council could lawfully confer that right on Washington and London:  and even when pushed hard to do so, "the Security Council didn’t agree."  Much of the Sedgefield speech is devoted to re-stating the arguments for acting now rather than later to nip in the bud what could well have been a growing threat from Iraq’s development of WMD to the point where Saddam could have threatened to use them against his own neighbours and perhaps eventually against the US and the UK, coupled with the risk that international terrorists could have acquired them in Iraq once they had been developed there, and used them against the west as Osama bin Laden has already threatened to do.  These arguments have considerable cogency.  If Blix and his team had been allowed to finish their inspection and had reported to the Security Council that there were no WMD in Iraq after all, there would have been no war, Saddam would have remained in power, and nothing would have been done to address the risks for the future defined by Mr Blair.  All that is true.  But it does not follow from that analysis that Washington and London had the right, still less the responsibility or the duty, to act in the way they thought right when the only body that could have authorised the use of force refused adamantly to do so.  The Security Council didn’t agree.     

The questions raised by the Sedgefield speech which are of the greatest importance for the future revolve around Mr Blair’s repeated assertion that international law in its present state makes no provision for the international community (or perhaps just the US and UK governments) to act effectively and in time to deal with the new threats posed by international terrorism, rogue states, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,  and impending or actual humanitarian catastrophes.    The final section of the Sedgefield speech repeats the arguments deployed by Tony Blair at his speech in Chicago in 1999, "where I called for a doctrine of international community, where in certain clear circumstances, we do intervene, even though we are not directly threatened."  At both Sedgefield and Chicago Blair takes it as read that in its present state, international law as defined in the Charter makes no provision for the use of force to deal with indirect future threats such as those posed by international terrorism, proliferation of WMD or the gross repression by a government of its own people.  "It may well be that under international law as presently constituted, a regime can systematically brutalise and oppress its people and there is nothing anyone can do, when dialogue, diplomacy and even sanctions fail, unless it comes within the definition of a humanitarian catastrophe …. This may be the law, but should it be?"  Leaving aside for the moment the dubious claim that international law does already authorise the use of force to pre-empt or terminate "a humanitarian catastrophe" outside the framework of the Charter, the assertion of the impossibility under current international law of acting by force to deal with indirect future threats, of whatever kind, is simply wrong.  There is ample provision in the Charter for the Security Council to take or authorise whatever action it thinks necessary to deal with any conceivable threat to international peace and security, whether imminent or distant, direct or potential.  What is lacking in the Charter, and what Mr Blair and the neo-cons clearly yearn for, is carte blanche for powerful states to use force to deal with what they choose to believe is a distant and indirect threat without the tiresome necessity of first obtaining the authority of the Security Council.  "We surely have a duty and a right to prevent the threat materialising; and we surely have a responsibility to act when a nation’s people are subjected to a regime such as Saddam’s. Otherwise, we are powerless to fight the aggression and injustice which over time puts at risk our security and way of life…. our worry is that if the UN – because of a political disagreement in its Councils – is paralysed, then a threat we believe is real will go unchallenged…"  (That "we" again!)  This is like saying that if the police apply to a magistrate for a search warrant, but the system is paralysed because of a disagreement on the part of the magistrate that a search warrant is necessary, the law needs to be changed to allow the police to go ahead with the search whether or not the magistrate agrees.  Indeed, it’s even worse than that: our prime minister is saying, "I believed passionately that we were right to want to search the house, but despite all my efforts of persuasion the magistrate didn’t agree and wouldn’t grant me a warrant.  I couldn’t accept the risk of not searching the house, so I went ahead and conducted the search anyway.  As it happened, I didn’t find anything, but I had passionately believed that there was something there to find, so I had a right and responsibility to go in and search.  Now I am demanding that the law be changed so that an honest (albeit self-appointed) policeman like me shall not in future be forced to delay necessary action by the irresponsible refusal of the magistrate to agree to it."  From the burglar’s point of view, it makes perfect sense to say that if the law tries to stop him burgling, the law should be changed.  The householder who is burgled may be forgiven for taking a different view. The Security Council didn’t agree.     

If Britain believes, however "passionately", that it is vital to use force, now, at once, to deal with a perceived threat, whether of armed attack or of terrorism or of WMD proliferation, but an obstinate Security Council takes the opposite view, then it is the task of British diplomacy to redouble its efforts to persuade a majority in the Council of the rightness of its view, and if necessary to go on arguing that case until the Council agrees.  Blair says:  "Do we want to take the risk? That is the judgement. And my judgement then and now is that the risk of this new global terrorism and its interaction with states or organisations or individuals proliferating WMD, is one I simply am not prepared to run."  This, though, is to claim a right of decision and judgement that simply does not belong to any one individual or any one government, however powerful, unless we are prepared to stand by and watch the destruction of the carefully balanced framework of rules governing the use of force in international relations so carefully constructed after the second world war, and one that has proved more reliable, flexible and effective for the past sixty years than anyone could have any right to expect. 

" I feel so passionately that we are in mortal danger of mistaking the nature of the new world in which we live."  We should beware of political leaders who feel ‘passionately’ that they are right and that anyone who disagrees with them is an obstacle to doing what needs to be done.  This was a characteristically honest and impressive speech, in many ways Blair at his best.  Yet it betrays a frightening degree of misunderstanding of the role of  rules of behaviour in international life, of Britain’s obligations under the Charter, of the dangerous precedent and example set by trampling on the Charter and going to war in defiance of the supreme body of the United Nations, and of the scope within the existing law for almost any remedial or preventive action to deal with old and new threats, provided that governments accept the need for a broad international consensus before one country takes it upon itself to bomb, invade and occupy another.