Quentin Peel: Blame the leaders, not the spies

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: July 14 2004 20:16 | Last Updated: July 14 2004 20:16

So that is it then. How convenient. It was the spies who got it wrong. We went to war in Iraq - the US, the UK and our motley crew of allies - on the basis of half-baked, badly analysed and undoubtedly over-hyped intelligence, but we were right to do it anyway.

That seems to be the considered conclusion of both President George W. Bush and Tony Blair following the damning (but not devastating) reports of the US Senate Intelligence Committee and the inquiry by Lord Butler in London. The war was justified, even if the intelligence was partial and seriously flawed.

The Central Intelligence Agency and the British security services have been hammered for their collective failure to produce decent intelligence on the existence - or not - of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But our political leaders have been spared criticism for their far more serious responsibility for taking their countries into an ill-judged war that has divided the world and stoked the threat of global terrorism.

Of course, why we went to war was not the issue that the inquiries were asked to consider. They focused on why the intelligence agencies got the facts so wrong, and how they could have believed Saddam Hussein was bent on reviving his WMD programmes when he was not. It was an intelligence failure that calls into question the entire US security strategy of launching pre-emptive military action to counter terrorism and rogue dictators. But as far as the war in Iraq is concerned, it is a red herring.

Even if it were possible to believe the bald statements about Iraq's WMD used by Mr Blair in parliament and by Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, in the United Nations Security Council, they never added up to adequate justification for the war. Now we know their evidence was flimsy and the threat was neither serious nor imminent.

The only conclusion that one can sensibly draw is that we did not go to war because of the WMD. That was just a bit of public relations to try to persuade other countries at the UN, and ordinary voters, that it was justified. The real dishonesty of both Mr Blair and Mr Bush is that they have never come clean on the whole picture.

< p>As far as the British prime minister was concerned, an essential justification seems to have been to prove himself Mr Bush's most faithful ally. Back in 2001, not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11, one of Mr Blair's most senior diplomatic advisers said the purpose was to "stick to the US like glue, to retain our influence, and persuade them they did not need to invade Iraq". That was clearly overtaken by the political momentum in Washington. By the following spring, Mr Blair seems to have decided that war in Iraq was inevitable - even if, as Lord Butler says, there was no new intelligence from Baghdad to justify the change in thinking. It was only then that they really started to look for new evidence.

Both countries sought further to justify their action as essential to enforce the authority of the UN, because Mr Hussein was flouting a string of Security Council resolutions. Yet they were prepared to go to war having signally failed to persuade the Security Council to back them, thus u ndermining the very institution they claimed to be defending. If the invasion was a punishment, it was for flouting US authority, not that of the UN. It was "unfinished business" for Mr Bush and his team after the Gulf war of 1991.

Behind all this, however, lurks a far larger geopolitical imperative to which neither Mr Bush nor Mr Blair has ever confessed. The war in Iraq was an alternative to action in two strategically critical Middle Eastern countries where action was politically impossible: Saudi Arabia and Israel. "They were two questions that could not be asked," according to a top security adviser to Mr Bush's father. "So we went for Iraq instead."

The fear over Saudi Arabia is obvious. The royal House of Saud looks to be chronically unstable. The danger is that it will fall, and make way for a more fundamentalist regime controlling the world's most critical source of petroleum. The US simply cannot allow that to happen. But if it tries to keep troops there, it may precipitate the very revo lution it fears.

The war in Iraq was supposed to ensure that the second most important energy supplier would come back on to the world market, under a stable pro-American regime. That would at least buy time for a Saudi soft-landing - and, in an emergency, make sure there were substantial US forces in the region. That was the theory. In practice, the chaos in Iraq and the backlash against American intervention are in danger of producing mayhem in both lands.

As for Israel, the problem is just as intractable and the imagined solution more fanciful. The path to peace in Jerusalem, it has been argued on both sides of the political fence in Washington, lies through Baghdad A wave of democracy through the Middle East would somehow bring sweet reason to the Palestinian and Israeli combatants. There would be no need for Mr Bush to put pressure on his friend Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, which he would not want to do, anyway.

As things stand in Iraq today, the war will have done nothing to help in either Israel or Saudi Arabia. It has radicalised militant youth in the region and given a new focus to terrorism. Mr Hussein may have been removed, but the manner of his removal was utterly counter-productive. Mr Bush and Mr Blair are the people to blame. Yet they pass the buck to their intelligence agencies. They fail to show any remorse. It is high time they owned up to their responsibilities

quentin.peel@ft.com