04 May 2005
What a wondrously flexible concept is the "national interest". And haven't we heard a lot about it since the Iraq war landed belatedly in the middle of this campaign? Tony Blair hardly speaks of the war now, except in terms of the "national interest". Yesterday, with Mr Blair under attack from the widow of Britain's latest casualty, Gordon Brown rode to the rescue with - what else? - but a self-justifying reference to "the British national interest".
So let us be charitable for a moment and try to explain how Mr Blair might indeed have believed this at the time. He was confronted with intelligence which he believed - as I say, let us be charitable - proved that Iraq possessed lethal weapons and was in breach of a dozen UN Security Council resolutions. Some of this intelligence suggested that Saddam Hussein might be seeking a nuclear capability. Another equally discredited nugget suggested he might have missiles with a range that could reach Cyprus.
This was the closest that the intelligence came to indicating a direct security threat to Britain. Among the wider considerations that Mr Blair might have considered in the category "national interest", the first would be our military alliance and residual "special relationship" with the United States. A second might be Britain's diplomatic interest in bridging the US-Europe divide by trying to keep the United States within international rules. A third might be termed idealistic: the desire to help eliminate a regional threat, bring freedom to Iraq and perhaps further afield. And a fourth might have been the ambition to tap a new and secure source of oil.
These are all reasons which, with varying degrees of plausibility, Mr Blair might have used to justify the war. That he rarely cited the national interest at the time, or explained its components, suggests that this might not have been quite as paramount a consideration as he has made it with hindsight.
Even putting the best gloss on it, though, the "national interest" looks hazy as a contemporaneous justification for going to war. Two years on, however, it looks utterly indefensible. Only someone wilfully blind to the consequences could still describe the invasion of Iraq as being in the British interest. Yet this is what Mr Blair says he believes.
The intelligence has turned out to be, in the words of the latest US inquiry report, "dead wrong". We now know Iraq was not a threat.
If one consideration was to protect the "special relationship", it rebounded disastrously. Relations with the United States were severely damaged by the war and the incompetence of the planning for the aftermath. They have still not recovered. A generation of Britons is now predisposed to think of America and George Bush with hostility. The exchange of intelligence, regarded by the British as one benefit, if not the benefit, of the special relationship proved worse than useless. Each side talked up the - wrongly interpreted - intelligence of the other. We would have been better without it.
The effect of the failed pre-war diplomacy was that Britain was forced to choose between the US and Europe. As Mr Blair says, with regret, there was no "middle way". He chose the US, thus splitting Britain from its major European partners, setting back our European credentials at least a decade and poisoning the entente with France. The diplomatic concessions that Britain has since made in an effort to repair the damage outweigh any short-term favour Britain may have curried with Washington.
In Iraq itself, Britain has put its troops in danger, and continues to suffer casualties. The mission that was intended to bring peace and freedom created mayhem that was costly to both sides. The occupation not only placed Britain on the wrong side of international law, but will have stored up resentment among Iraqis for years to come. The same goes for Britain's reputation in much of the Arab world and in Britain, with our own Muslim community. The British and US governments are now united in many Muslim eyes as aggressors.
If Mr Blair believed the violent overthrow of the Iraqi leadership would cause democracy to spread across the region, he has misjudged things. The most promising countries for democracy are those where the transition has been nurtured from within. Iraq has a partial government that is not in control of the country and is riven along ethnic lines. It provides fertile ground for the very terrorist threat the war was supposed to thwart.
In sum, it is hard to identify a single consequence of the Iraq war that has been in our national interest. Yet in all the pre-election questioning, no one has challenged Mr Blair to explain himself. An appeal to patriotism, it seems, grants immunity. That is what makes the national interest such a damnably clever defence.