The invasion of Iraq was Britain's worst foreign policy blunder since Suez

A fitting way to mark the anniversary would be to drive a stake through the doctrine of pre-emptive strike

Robin Cook

19 March 2004

Britain is a nation given to commemorating our military actions. Even 60 years on we are preparing to remember the D-Day invasion and honour the incomparable courage of the men who waded ashore that day.

It says much about the nervousness in Government over Iraq that they have no plans to mark tomorrow's anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. This is very sensible on their part. Any retrospective examination would inevitably draw attention to questions that they find increasingly difficult to answer - such as why they ever believed Saddam was a threat since he turns out to have had no nuclear programme, no chemical or biological agents, and no delivery system with which to fire them.

A fitting way to mark the anniversary would be to drive a stake through the doctrine of pre-emptive strike and bury it where it cannot be disinterred to justify another unilateral military adventure. The new Bush doctrine claimed the right to make war on any country that could be a potential threat some years down the road. Iraq has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that intelligence cannot provide evidence reliable enough to justify war on such a speculative basis.

A year later ministers do not justify our presence in Iraq by the hunt for those elusive weapons of mass destruction, but by the need, as the Prime Minister put it yesterday, to be "steadfast against terrorism". Yet the conversion of Iraq into an extended battlefield between the West and al- Qa'ida is a measure of the failure of our policy, not a justification for invasion.

The Islamic fundamentalists regarded Saddam with as much hostility as anyone else, and he reciprocated by keeping them out of Iraq. It was our occupation that gave al-Qa'ida the motivation to target Iraq and the incompetence of our plans after Saddam that offered them the open door through which they entered it.

Tony Blair is right when he insists that there can be no opt out from terrorism for any individual country. The lethal energy of al-Qa'ida makes no nice distinctions between those who opposed the invasion of Iraq and those who supported it. Given popular sentiment in Spain it is almost certain that nine out of ten of those murdered in Madrid had opposed the Iraq war. There is no certificate of immunity which can be obtained from al-Qa'ida. The rational approach is to ask whether our actions are making the world as a whole safer from their malign intentions.

The sober, depressing answer to that question must be that the invasion of Iraq has made the world more vulnerable to a heightened threat from al-Qa'ida, which is precisely what our intelligence agencies warned the Government on the eve of war. The bombs in Madrid resulted in the worst terrorist atrocity in Europe for 15 years and were the latest in a litany of murderous assaults from Turkey to Morocco.

Our own experience in Northern Ireland has demonstrated that the only way to diminish the threat from terrorism is to isolate the terrorists and to deny them any sympathy from their own public. The invasion of Iraq has handed the terrorists a whole new weapon to deploy on the Arab street. The great irony is that invading Iraq is precisely what al-Qa'ida wanted us to do, because it served their agenda of polarising the West and the Islamic world. As George Soros has observed, "We have fallen into a trap".

Part of the problem of the present Western approach on terrorism is the insistence of our leaders in Washington and London on describing it as a war. As a metaphor the language of war may be a forceful means of expressing the priority our security forces should put into defeating terrorism. Unfortunately too many in the Bush Administration appear to have been misled by their own language into believing that terrorism can be beaten by a real war, as if we can halt the terrorist bombs by dropping even bigger bombs of our own.

In truth we would have made more progress in rolling back support for terrorism if we had brought peace to Palestine rather than war to Iraq, but President Bush's promise that he would give priority to peace in the Middle East has become another of the commitments given before the invasion and broken in the year after it.

The Spanish people have been charged with appeasement for their impertinence in turning out a government that supported George Bush. To accuse them of being soft on terrorism is to add injustice to their injuries. Their refusal to remain conscripted in George Bush's coalition simply reflects that they more anyone else have cause to know that his strategy on terrorism is not working.

There is another message in the fate of the Aznar Government that Washington should ponder. His party was punished more than anything else for their ham-fisted attempt to wring political capital from the human cost of terrorism. This is an uncomfortable conclusion for a Republican Party that has based its strategy for re-election on the crude pitch that a vote for Bush is a vote against Bin Laden. They are vulnerable to their opponents pointing out that the suggestion that Iraq had any responsibility for 11 September would be just as big a deception as the claims that ETA planted the Madrid bombs.

Tony Blair can fairly claim that the British Government never knowingly uttered an untruth. But neither were they candid. Last month we learnt for the first time that the Joint Intelligence Committee warned No 10 on the eve of war that the information on Saddam's weapons was "sparse" and the intelligence on its timing was "inconsistent". This explodes the assertions of weapons ready for firing in 45 minutes, but was never disclosed to parliament or public before the vote for war. Partial truth can be as corrosive of trust as a flat lie.

It did not need the evidence from this week's poll of voter disaffection over Iraq to confirm that the war has been a disaster for the Labour Party. The tragedy is, as Gordon Brown's confident presentation confirmed on Wednesday, that this is a Government with a powerful record of achievement on hospitals, schools and jobs which has been obscured by the long shadow cast by a controversial and unnecessary war. It is a bit rich of the party hierarchy who initiated that war now to blame those of us who opposed it for the diversion it has caused from the domestic agenda.

Iraq has become the defining issue of this parliament and Tony Blair has honestly admitted it will be remembered as the most divisive decision of his second term. It has alienated our key allies in Europe. It has undermined the principle of collective security through the UN, which a previous Labour Government helped design to provide a multilateral world forum. And it has set back dialogue with the Muslim world and given a boost to the fundamentalists.

On this first anniversary it seems only too likely that the judgement of history may be that the invasion of Iraq has been the biggest blunder in British foreign and security policy in the half century since Suez.