Iraq: a plan is not a decision, Mr Murdoch
In its report of the secret letter of 25 March 2002 (a year before the US-UK attack on Iraq) from Jack Straw, then Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, to Tony Blair, warning the prime minister of the likely pitfalls involved in any future military action against Iraq, the Sunday Times of 17 January 2010 includes a pregnant sentence:
The document clearly implies that Blair was already planning for military action even though he continued to insist to the British public for almost another year that no decision had been made.
The implication of this is obvious, and reflects an extraordinarily widespread misconception on the part of commentators on the Iraq affair and current evidence about it to the Chilcot Inquiry: it seeks to persuade us that if a government undertakes contingency planning for a possible future course of action, it must have taken a firm decision to adopt that course of action, and if it denies that any such decision has been taken, those denials are lies. The fallacy in this proposition should be obvious. According to the Guardian, John Witherow is now in his 13th year of editing the Sunday Times, the longest-serving editor in the history of Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper empire. Did Mr Witherow not read his newspaper’s front page story before it was published, and if so didn’t this particular sentence strike him as not entirely kosher? Would the Sunday Times have allowed such a shoddy comment to appear on its front page when Harry Evans was its editor?
Tony Blair and Jack Straw are open to devastating criticism of numerous aspects of their records on Iraq; the assertion that they, and some of their colleagues, may even be guilty of war crimes, is by no means far-fetched. In such a situation, it’s surely a sad waste of precious ammunition to challenge Blair’s denials (until the last moment) that any decision had been taken to commit UK forces to the attack on Iraq on the absurd grounds that planning for possible participation in military action had begun a year earlier. Nor are those denials in any way inconsistent with Blair’s conditional promise to George W Bush that Britain would take part in military action alongside the Americans if peaceful means of resolving the Iraq problem had been tried and had failed, leaving the use of force as the only remaining option.
The real and central charge against Blair, Straw and all those who connived at the UK decision to take part in the attack on Iraq is that peaceful diplomatic means of resolving the problem had not been exhausted when that fateful decision was taken in March 2003: the UN weapons inspectors could and should have been given more time to determine whether Iraq actually possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. The use of force, in other words, was not the last resort. It was hopelessly premature. Because it was premature and not a last resort, a clear majority of members of the Security Council, including three of the five permanent members, were not willing to authorise it. Without that UN authority, it was illegal under the UN Charter and thus contrary to international law: in the damning words of the Foreign Office’s deputy legal adviser, it amounted to “the crime of aggression”.
Banging on about the theory that Blair had taken a firm decision to use force a year before the invasion, or that his promise to Bush that Britain would do so was unconditional, is illogical, contrary to the evidence, and an unwelcome distraction from the real issues — which are grave enough, in all conscience.