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Secrets, lies and war

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

openDemocracy’s interview with weapons inspector Ron Manley has a profound lesson for Britain’s hyper-centralised political culture.

Why did the coalition of the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland and Australia go to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

The answer to this question will influence Tony Blair’s ability to continue as prime minister of Britain.

There were good reasons to declare war on Iraq. It was a criminal regime and there was a desperate need for its swift humanitarian overthrow.

Its leader had built weapons of mass destruction (WMD) before he invaded Kuwait in 1990. He retained the people to build them again. Should sanctions have been lifted and his coffers once more filled with oil money, he would have reinforced his armoury of WMD. He was too dangerous a figure to be allowed to stay in office.

Of course, there are other ways of dealing with such a regime, apart from invading the country and trying to take it over.

So we come to the fact that Saddam was disliked by the head of the most powerful state in the world.

In its full-length investigation of the origins of this year’s war, Time magazine discovered George W. Bush had taken his decision by March 2002, a whole year before the coalition attack.

The President’s National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, was briefing two US Senators on Iraq when Bush put his head round the door and told them, ‘Fuck Saddam, I’m taking him out’.

So there you have it from the horse’s mouth.

No one talked about a military threat from Iraq.

As Donald Rumsfeld has just confirmed in Senate hearings, what altered was their perception of Iraq after 9/11. One way of reading this is that the reality of what terrorism might achieve led the US administration to reassess all possible threats from any source. Another is that it gave them the opportunity to justify what some of them already wanted to do.

But no one in Washington thought there was a new or present danger of a military kind posed by Iraq.

In this edition of openDemocracy we talk, and listen, to another kind of horse’s mouth.

Between 1991 and 1994, Ron Manley dismantled Saddam’s chemical weapons and his ability to make them.

In my opinion what our interview shows is that:

  • Iraq’s manufacturing capability to make and fill chemical weapons had been carefully and systematically dismantled after 1991
  • reconstructing it could not have taken place without this being observed
  • it was anyway quite crude and nothing made prior to 1991 could have lasted
  • there was therefore no serious, imminent military threat from chemical weapons of mass destruction from Iraq in 2002
  • anyone who wanted to establish the above could have done so – not least by talking to Ron Manley and his colleagues.

How, then, are we to explain the UK government’s dossiers of September 2002 and February 2003? How could the British intelligence services allow their authority to be associated with claims which are clearly exaggerated and politically motivated?

Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s head of communications, has fiercely denied that he ‘sexed up’ the first dossier. But the whole document stinks of political spin.

For example, its Executive Summary states that “as a result of the intelligence” the British government has received, “we judge that Iraq has:

  • continued to produce chemical and biological agents;
  • military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, including against its own Shia population. Some of these weapons are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them.”

The first point claims Saddam was still making the material for WMD. It is clear from the Manley interview how incredible this was (certainly with respect to chemical weapons).

The second point is ungrammatical and its exact meaning is unclear.

By such sentences were British servicemen, as well as many more Iraqis, sent to their deaths.

Not because of the threat from Saddam but because of a policy to back Bush.

So how could the supposedly careful, professional men and women of Britain’s intelligence services be a part of this? Could those who are used to the shadows be blinded when exposed to the public projection of ruthless mediacrats?

The glamour of secrecy is unable to withstand the deformities of a hyper-centralised political culture.


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