Truth and hindsight amid fog of war

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: November 8 2005

Thirty months after the fall of Baghdad, the fog enveloping the approach to the Iraq war seems as thick as it has ever been. In Washington at the weekend, I heard Democrats saying that the recent indictment of a top White House official was unravelling at last George W. Bush’s deceit. Back in London, Tony Blair is again under fire, this time from a former senior diplomat, for his devotion to the US president.

Several things strike me about the constant drip of allegation. One is that the war continues to sap the authority of these two leaders in a manner from which they cannot now escape. The voters do not follow the detail. Most put Iraq well down their list of concerns; the economy, law and order, health and education are at the top. But the bloody chaos in Iraq has left an indelible mark on its authors. Any hopes for a kinder judgment will have to wait for history.

Another, paradoxically, is that their principal political opponents have yet to find a formula that reconciles support in principle for the removal of Saddam Hussein with the charge that the people were duped and lied to. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in the US election, tried and failed to make a case for and against the war. Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, looked opportunistic when he took the same tack in the British general election. While the war tarnishes Messrs Bush and Blair, their opponents will need to find a better reason to take their places.

The charges against Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Richard Cheney, vice-president, are narrowly drawn. Mr Libby is alleged to have lied about his role in discrediting an opponent of the war. But his trial, the Democrats hope, will expose a tissue of White House lies about the intelligence used to justify the war. And, as the US death toll climbs above 2,000, the calls for a withdrawal of US troops have become a steady drumbeat.

The latest fusillade against Mr Blair is not as dangerous. It has been fired by Sir Christopher Meyer, who as British ambassador to the US until the spring of 2003 had a ringside seat in the preparations for war. Among many criticisms of Mr Blair – careless of detail, bedazzled by the specialness of the special relationship – Sir Christopher’s memoir of his time in Washington lays a powerful charge.

Mr Blair’s support for Mr Bush in confronting the Baghdad regime, it says, gave him unprecedented leverage in the counsels of the US administration. As events unfolded during the approach to war, Britain became Washington’s indispensable ally. The prime minister, in Sir Christopher’s account, squandered the opportunities this presented.

Most particularly, Mr Blair could have pressed the president to delay the invasion until the autumn of 2003, buying more time to build an international consensus that included France and Germany. Equally, he could have used his political capital to insist that the White House ignore the hubris of the neo-conservatives and invest time and effort in planning for postwar Iraq.

These are strong, if contestable, points. We cannot say that Iraq would have been a stable democracy now if there had not been such a rush to war. But wider support for invasion across the international community and serious planning for its aftermath would at least have shifted the odds. Sir Christopher is right, too, when he says Mr Blair is an essentially intuitive politician. A grasp of detail can sometimes be almost everything.

Yet he debunks two of the most serious charges laid by opponents of the war in Britain. Mr Blair did not give an unconditional commitment to war when he met with Mr Bush at Camp David in the spring of 2002. This has become an article of faith among opponents of the war. Yet Sir Christopher says that, even by the autumn of that year, invasion may have looked likely but was not inevitable. As for Mr Blair’s decision to stand by Mr Bush’s side on Iraq, it was driven by moral conviction rather than political expediency.

We are left, though, with an argument that cannot be settled; at least unless and until Iraq begins to stabilise. Yet it seems to me that there is no single, simple truth to be uncovered. Meanwhile, the political energy directed towards rebuilding Iraq is dwarfed by recrimination. The president and prime minister seem to hope the story will simply go away; their opponents to be more interested in who said what to whom than the present predicament of Iraqis.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. In the spirit of openness displayed by Sir Christopher I have reviewed some of the confidential conversations I had with senior British officials in early 2003. Britain was pressing for more time to build the international coalition for war with Iraq, I was told then. But the effort was being rebuffed. Mr Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, were adamant that the timetable could not be extended beyond a few weeks. Mr Blair’s influence was important but limited. All that I heard from a senior British diplomat based in Washington.