The tedious political sideshow that is the Chilcot Inquiry, aka The Mandarins’ Revenge On New Labour, continued today, with the evidence of Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, daughter of Viscount Dilhorne and former Director General of MI5. I didn’t support the invasion of Iraq at the time, and I admit that some of Manningham-Buller’s reflections on the war are, with the benefit of hindsight, worth noting. However, her evidence is being touted across the media as if it provides conclusive proof that ousting Saddam Hussein was a thoroughly bad idea, the assumption apparently being that if someone of her status was against the war then, then surely it must have been wrong.
But it ain’t necessarily so, as a detailed fisking of what the Baroness actually said will show. Perhaps the biggest ‘take away’ from her evidence, if you believe the news reports, is her claim that the invasion of Iraq ‘substantially' increased the terrorist threat to the UK. Manningham-Buller, who was head of the domestic intelligence service from 2002 to 2007, admitted that the threat to the UK from al-Qaeda and similar groups 'pre-dated' the invasion. But she claimed that British participation in the invasion 'undoubtedly increased' the terrorist threat, and that in its aftermath MI5 was 'swamped' by leads about possible terrorist attacks in Britain:
Our involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalised a whole generation of young people, some of them British citizens who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.
In her oral evidence, not reproduced accurately on the BBC News website, Manningham-Buller corrected herself immediately after this sentence, speaking instead about a 'minority' of young Muslims who had been radicalised. But even this reduced claim hardly holds water. There's evidence that the relatively small numbers of British Muslims who actively support jihad were radicalised long before the Iraq war by a variety of other causes - beginning with the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and including Chechnya, Kashmir and Bosnia, none of which had anything to do with British foreign policy (except the latter, which saw the UK actually come to the aid of beleaguered Muslims oppressed by 'Christian' Serbs).
Then again, even if some British Muslims had been 'radicalised' by events in Iraq, this would not necessarily have constituted a reason not to go to war. I know people grow tired of Nazi analogies, but imagine if in 1939 the British government had been told by their intelligence sources (as perhaps they were) that declaring war on Germany would provoke bombing raids on this country that could kill thousands of civilians. Certainly this would have given politicians pause for thought, and increased the gravity of their deliberations, but would it have rendered their decision to go ahead and stand up to Nazi aggression unwise or 'wrong'? (A more exact analogy might be with a terrorist threat from the British Union of Fascists in the event of war with Germany. Mohammed Siddique Khan and his co-conspirators bear the same relation to Osama bin Laden as did Mosley and co. to Hitler - and their authoritarian-chauvinist politics weren't all that dissimilar either.)
In other words, arguments about what response a military action might 'provoke' from its enemies cannot be the overriding factor in a nation's decision about whether to wage war. Nor do those threats, if they materialise, prove anything either way about the wisdom or morality of that action. Arguments of this kind tend to be advanced by those who have already made up their mind that a given action is wrong.
Moreover, terrorists and would-be terrorists can't have a veto over a country's foreign or domestic policy. Otherwise, assuming that I'm right about the catalytic importance of the Rushdie affair in the rise of British Islamism, it could be argued that the UK government should have banned The Satanic Verses.
As for Manningham-Buller's claim that some Muslims saw military intervention in Iraq as an attack on Islam: well, they were wrong, weren't they? Indeed, it was Shia Muslims who were most grievously oppressed by the secular tyrant Saddam, and most pleased to see the back of him. The misguided notion that the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were some kind of new 'crusade' was the product of twisted Islamist ideology fomented by hate preachers and extremist websites.
Turning to the reasons for going to war, the Baroness said she believed that the intelligence on Iraq's threat to Britain was not 'substantial enough' to justify the invasion:
Baroness Manningham-Buller said she had advised officials a year before the war that the threat posed by Iraq to the UK was 'very limited', and she believed that assessment had 'turned out to be the right judgement'.
Describing the intelligence on Iraq's weapons threat as 'fragmentary', she said 'If you are going to go to war, you need to have a pretty high threshold to decide on that.
As I understand it, the case for war was based not on a direct threat to Britain, but an assessment of the danger that Saddam posed to regional, and therefore global peace and stability. And unless I'm mistaken, the Baroness does not have any great experience or expertise in foreign policy. What's more, it's not for a civil servant to pass judgement on the rationale needed for taking military action. That's the job of elected politicians. And whatever we may think of their decision with the benefit of hindsight, 412 of those elected representatives voted in favour of war in Iraq, compared to 149 against: something only a few of them are sufficiently brave and consistent to admit now.
John Rentoul's rebuttal service swings into action, making some of the same points as I do in this post:
I can’t believe that the rebuttal service has to go round the same old loop of “Iraq caused 7/7″ all over again.
Yes, MI5 were worried that Britain’s taking part in the invasion of Iraq might increase support for jihadist terrorism. Yet there is no evidence that it did. Mohammed Siddique Khan was “radicalised” and under surveillance before 9/11 and long before 7/7.
Al-Qa’ida has a problem with Britain, not because of its foreign policy (which includes the liberation of Muslims in Kosovo) but because it is decadent and anti-Islamic in its view. Its adherents have targeted Germany and Canada despite their non-involvement in Iraq.
But even if British decisions about Afghanistan or Iraq did lead to a greater risk of al-Qa’ida-inspired terrorism in the short or medium term, would that be a good reason for shying away from doing the right thing in the national interest for the long term?
Recommended: this post by Julie, who has taken the trouble to listen to the Baroness' actual evidence, rather than just the selective quotes used in media reports. A very different picture emerges. For example, Manningham-Buller told the Chilcot panel that 'even if terrorism increases, that shouldn't stop you doing what you believe, as the government believed, to be right'.
Norm takes on the Guardianista discourse of 'radicalization', arguing that 'if radicalizing those susceptible to being radicalized is the end of the argumentative story, something one simply must not do and nothing more needs to be added, then that is equivalent to saying that should British foreign policy have the effect that some of our fellow citizens will take to murdering other of our fellow citizens or aiding and abetting in this enterprise or giving their approval to it, then such a foreign policy must be eschewed.' He adds:And this in turn is equivalent to saying that the threat of murder should be allowed a decisive voice in foreign policy. This is what the discourse of 'radicalization' as a self-sufficient argument legitimizes by the back door.