The Observer’s ‘revelations’ on Iraq, Blair and the FCO: how not to spin an uninteresting story

Today’s Observer (28 August 2005) leads with a front page story under the banner headlines:

Leak shows Blair told of Iraq war terror link

Top official warned in 2004 of British Muslim anger

Secret document said UK seen as ‘crusader state’

The story quotes extracts from a letter sent in May 2004 by Sir Michael Jay, the senior official at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, about the effects of the Iraq war on British Muslim opinion, representing the letter as a sensational revelation of FCO disapproval of British government policies in Iraq and by implication as a solemn warning that these policies will tend to encourage terrorist attacks in Britain.

I don’t think this story is in fact very interesting or exciting.  The Observer’s printed edition publishes only highly selected and unrepresentative extracts from Jay’s letter, but it has put the full text of it on its website. Contrary to my initial expectation, based on the television press reviews and the implication of the Observer’s headlines, the Jay letter and another related document also acquired by the Observer don’t deploy or even imply the disgraceful and untenable argument, much bandied about in the media and the blogs, that UK policy on Iraq should be changed in order to reduce the risk of terrorist attack in Britain, or (even more shamefully) in order to avoid upsetting and annoying British Muslims.  It is abundantly clear from the full text of the Jay letter that its only purpose was to contribute to the necessary and perfectly proper debate in Whitehall on the problem of alienation and disaffection among British Muslims, its causes, and a raft of proposed measures designed to address it.  There is nowhere in the letter any suggestion, explicit or implied, that Muslim indignation or the possible aggravation of the risk of a terrorist attack in Britain would justify changing the government’s Iraq policies.  (Of course many of us will agree that there are plenty of other reasons, compelling and legitimate,  for changing our Iraq policies, but it is manifestly wrong to argue that they should be changed in order to appease terrorists or to buy off terrorist blackmail:  and despite what the Observer’s story might lead you to believe, Sir Michael Jay’s letter makes no such suggestion.)

It is not clear whether the Observer obtained the letter (and the other document that accompanies it) under the Freedom of Information Act, as implied by the ‘foi’ in the website address of the full text of the letter on the Observer website, or whether they have been leaked, as the Observer headline explicitly claims.  If the latter, whoever leaked the documents to the Observer presumably did so in the confident expectation that they would be misrepresented in the media and over the Islington dining-tables as evidence that Blair, Straw and co. had been ‘warned’ by this senior official that UK participation in the Iraq war was upsetting the Muslims, which would lead to yet more anger, which would lead to terrorist attacks in Britain — with the further and even more indefensible implication that Blair’s ‘failure’ to heed this and other warnings made him partially responsible for the London bombings and their victims’ deaths.  And the media have duly obliged.  For example, the Observer story says:

Despite repeated denials by Number 10 that the war made Britain a target for terrorists, a letter from Michael Jay, the Foreign Office permanent under-secretary, to the cabinet secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull – obtained by this newspaper – makes the connection clear.

Contrary to this Observer spin and the current received wisdom, Blair has not denied  that the Iraq war was among the issues prompting anger and indignation among many British (and other) Muslims.  For example, he said in his monthly press conference on 26 July 2005

I read occasionally that I am supposed to have said it is nothing to do with Iraq, in inverted commas. Actually I haven’t said that, if you go back and look at the comments I have made over the past couple of weeks. What I do say is this, and I said this I think to you last Tuesday or Wednesday…  of course people are going to use Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed if you look at what a lot of these terrorist statements say they use both Iraq and Afghanistan … They will use Iraq to try and recruit and motivate people. They will use Afghanistan. Before Iraq and Afghanistan, and 11 September, which happened before those two things, they used other things. But I think most people understand that the roots of this go far deeper….  Whatever excuse or justification these people use I do not believe we should give one inch to them, not in this country and the way we live our lives here, not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in our support for two States, Israel and Palestine, not in our support for the alliances we choose, including with America, not one inch should we give to these people.

There is plainly no inconsistency between that position and the one implied by Sir Michael Jay’s letter. Acknowledgement of the fact that extremists exploit anger over the Iraq issue to foment terrorism is a far cry from saying that UK participation in the Iraq war caused the London bombings or that those responsible for the Iraq war are therefore also responsible for the bombings.  Nor does it warrant the inference that UK Iraq policy should be changed to reduce the risk of terrorism – or even that changing policy would necessarily succeed in reducing it.  In fact, the letter is not a ‘warning’ at all, whatever the Observer story might say.

Accordingly, I see no reason in the Observer’s ‘revelations’ to modify the views I expressed in Ephems last month on the question of the relationship between Iraq and the bombings, and the disreputable imputation of blame to Tony Blair for having failed to heed the ‘warnings’ (warnings that we already knew had been given by the intelligence services) about the likely effects of attacking Iraq on Muslim sentiment in Britain, and the concomitant risk that this might be exploited to encourage a terrorist attack.  Mr Blair deserves the most severe censure for his numerous blundering misjudgements and misrepresentations over the Iraq war:  perhaps most of all for his abject failure to insist to President George W Bush that without the explicit authority of the UN Security Council in a second resolution, Britain would not take any part in the use of armed force against Iraq.  Had the prime minister adopted such a position with Bush, and stuck to it, the Americans might quite possibly have drawn back from the brink of war, fearing the effect on US public opinion of having to go it alone.  With such an indictment hanging over our prime minister’s head, it can only serve as an unnecessary diversion to lay against him charges, such as those implied in the Observer’s misrepresentation of the Jay letter, which simply can’t be sustained.  Perhaps this is the Observer trying to make belated amends for having initially and bizarrely supported the war.  If that’s the case, it should find other and more reputable ways of doing so.