11 July 2003
In March Tony Blair dismissed the claim that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction as "palpably absurd". This week it was admitted that his Government now accepts that claim is true. It is the justification for war that begins to look "palpably absurd".
The gravity of this admission can only be grasped by recalling the context in which MPs voted for war. The alternative to war was to let the UN weapons inspectors finish the job, and Hans Blix had promised that it would take them only a few months to complete their key disarmament tasks. To persuade Parliament not to wait a few months but to opt for immediate invasion it was essential to stress the urgency of the threat. Hence the purple passage in the Prime Minister's speech that Saddam was "a real and present danger to Britain".
But an urgent threat demanded that there must be real weapons. So we were assured that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and he had some of them ready for use in the next 45 minutes. If we are told that those assurances are now, in the celebrated Nixon phrase, "inoperative", then the need for urgency crumbles and the case for war that was built upon it collapses. No weapons of mass destruction, no justification for war.
I predict that we will soon see determined efforts to shift the justification for war to regime change rather than disarmament. I also expect that sometime soon the Whitehall publishing industry will give birth to a big, heavy tome detailing the results of interviews with Iraqi scientists. But Parliament was not told that the case for war was that six months later the Government would be able to write a better dossier. MPs would not have voted to commit British troops to action for such an objective, but would have told the Prime Minister to leave the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq to write their own dossier without the need for a war.
The real surprise is not that Saddam turns out to have had no weapons of mass destruction, but that ministers are taken aback by the problem in finding any. Hans Blix had already reported that whenever he went to a site identified by Western intelligence he drew a blank. When Donald Rumsfeld confesses that there was no dramatic new evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, he is only confirming what careful readers of the September dossier could see for themselves.
But Mr Rumsfeld's commentaries on the origins of the war highlight the real falsity in the British position. This was a war made in Washington, pushed by a handful of neo-conservatives and pursued for reasons of US foreign strategy and domestic politics. What made this war inevitable was not an increased threat from Iraq, but a regime change in the US. And weapons of mass destruction were never the primary concern of the Bush administration in the way that they had to appear in Britain to persuade Parliament of the urgent need for war.
And the crux of Tony Blair's political difficulty is that the decision to go to war as proof that we were good allies of the US was his alone. Jack Straw loyally defends that decision, but no one close to the Foreign Office imagines he recommended it. And most of the rest of the Cabinet have gone ominously quiet about a war which they are sensible enough to know has damaged the standing of the Government among its own supporters.
Tony Blair owes those who supported him a frank admission that there was no "real and present danger", a commitment to a searching inquiry into what went wrong, and a firm resolve to keep a greater distance between himself and the neo-cons around the White House.