Not knowing for sure
I knew what politics was before Iraq: it was why you had to buy the Big Issue but couldn’t have Kit Kats. But it was only 10 years ago this week – when I skipped out my afternoon classes to attend the protest in Trafalgar Square – that I understood what it really meant to be political. To be glued to Question Time. To have to read all the papers. To be fiercely, exhaustingly angry about something All. The. Time.
Ten years on from that first march, and the verdict is clear: the anti-war protestors are vindicated, the invaders disgraced. Those of us who stood there and chanted slogans and skipped school or took time off work or staged sit-ins: we were right.
The problem is: I’m not sure we were. The anti-war script is that Iraq is a bloodbath, a running disaster from which there is no escape. But even if you accept that script as true – and is there anything more distasteful than the paroxysms of delight that some commentators take in shrieking the names of the dead? – it ignores the small matter that that wasn’t why the United Kingdom intervened in Iraq. It was about the risk that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.
It turns out, of course, that he wasn’t: that there were no WMD to find. But that wasn’t what the overwhelming majority of the intelligence-gathering community was saying. That was where all the evidence pointed. On the other hand, you had the anti-war movement, suggesting that he probably didn’t, or that, if he did, the west had sold them to him in any case. What if we had been wrong? It seems to be that you have two universes: one in which you potentially have a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, which, at best, presents you with the Syrian scenario: where the outside world watches a bloody massacre, or, at worst, presents you with an actively belligerent state that everyone is frightened of.
Then there is the Iraqi government’s alarming tendency towards authoritarianism: but, I can’t, in all conscience, support a line of argument that would suggest that the emergence of Hastings Banda or the setting up of a one-party state in Zambia invalidated the anti-colonial movement.
But all that only matters if you accept the script, and, the problem is, the Iraqi people don’t. Even when things were at their worst, in 2006, almost two-thirds of Iraqis surveyed said they thought the invasion had been worthwhile. During the American withdrawal in 2011, 55 per cent of people were optimistic about the direction the country was heading in. Which, when you compare it with the results of any Eurobarometer survey, isn’t too bad.
Increasingly I feel that, even if I was right all those years ago, I was right only by coincidence: I was right for the wrong reasons. So many of the arguments that we made and marched on simply dissolve upon contact with any serious criticism.
‘But America has nukes’. Yes, and also elections. Even during an administration as criminally incompetent – and incompetently criminal – as the second Bush administration, if you don’t realise that there is an obvious moral difference between the United States and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, then you weren’t paying attention.
‘The war was based on a lie’. No, it wasn’t. Any Iraq war conspiracy theory fails the cui bono test: that an American president, still riding the crest of a post-Afghanistan wave, on the verge of building a ‘permanent Republican majority’, and the most successful social democratic leader Britain has known, decided to risk it all on a foreign invasion, in search of a commodity that Saddam Hussein wanted to sell them anyway. This is the sort of plan that only makes sense in a low-budget Saturday morning children’s cartoon.
There is one argument that – if I was plunged into some kind of Freudian debate with my younger self – I wouldn’t be able to refute: that the Arab spring shows that it would have happened anyway. That we need not have sacrificed however many lives and broken the back of the Labour government. That there was an internal solution. But then: would Colonel Gaddafi have given up his weapons if Saddam had remained in place? Would he not have been free to go ‘house-to-house’ in Benghazi?
Perhaps I was right, after all, even if it was for the wrong reasons. Maybe the answer is the sentence I found hardest of all aged 13: I just don’t know for sure.
gaddafi, Iraq, Labour, saddam hussein