Jeremy Corbyn was right in his response to the Chilcot report on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, published on 6 July.
The invasion was “an act of military aggression launched on a false pretext... [which] led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions of refugees. It devastated Iraq’s infrastructure and society. The occupation fostered a lethal sectarianism... that turned into a civil war...
“While the governing class got it so horrifically wrong — many of our people actually got it right.
“It wasn’t that we those of us who opposed the war underestimated the brutality or crimes of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Indeed, many of us campaigned against the Iraqi regime...
“We now know the House was misled in the run-up to the war...”
What he missed out was the way that Tony Blair’s suppression of democracy in the Labour Party freed Blair’s hands to back the invasion. There was no proper debate in the Labour Party about it.
Labour’s National Executive had a series of votes, effectively to give Blair a free hand. Representatives from unions opposed to the war went along with it because opaque procedures made them pretty much free from scrutiny by their unions’ members. The rail union RMT tried to get an emergency motion onto the agenda at the 2003 Labour Party conference. It was fobbed off, with the acquiescence of the big unions, and a vote was taken only on a bland and unamendable “policy document”, after a very rigged debate.
There was nothing vivid about the democracy of the Labour Party at the time of the Vietnam war, in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was enough to rule out any serious move for British troops to join the USA in Vietnam. By 2003 the democratic channels had ceased to be able to control a leader like Tony Blair who would write privately to George W Bush: “I will be with you, whatever”.
The labour movement should never again allow its organisations to be reduced to the condition where such things can be done. And that means, in the first place, that we must resist the Labour would-be coup-makers. Their aim — even if they eventually find someone young to front their operation who didn’t back the Iraq invasion — is exactly to reduce the movement in that way.
Iraq: why Bush invaded, and why he messed up
By Martin Thomas (2010)
Want to know the reasons for the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Better read the testimony by Paul Wolfowitz — US deputy Defense Secretary at the time of the invasion — to a US Congress committee on 25 February 1998 than Tony Blair’s words to the UK Iraq Inquiry on 29 January 2010. Blair gave, as the Financial Times reported, a “typically smooth” and “lawyerly” story. Wolfowitz was arguing a case, not trying to gloss things over after the event.
Wolfowitz’s argument was mostly about the Gulf region, not just Iraq. After the US war against Saddam in 1991, he said: “We are in a position, essentially, of having gone to the local neighbourhood and gotten a whole bunch of businessmen or shopkeepers to say they’ll witness against the head of the mafia in the area because we’ve promised to send him up for life, and they’ll never see him again and they’ll be safe. And eight years later, the guy is on parole...”
So the USA should invade, or else see “the gradual collapse of US policy” aimed at containing and undermining Saddam’s regime. Wolfowitz told the incredulous Congressmen that toppling Saddam would be easy. “It would take a major invasion with US ground forces”? No. That “seriously overestimates Saddam Hussein”. The USA should just create “a liberated zone in Southern Iraq”, and set up a “provisional government of free Iraq” there, which would control the largest oil field in Iraq, and all Iraq’s ports. From that initial beachhead, Wolfowitz assured the sceptical Congressmen, US-supported Iraqi forces could easily launch war to take the rest of Iraq. “This would be a formidable undertaking, and certainly not one which will work if we insist on maintaining the unity of the UN Security Council... [but] it is eminently possible for a country that possesses the overwhelming power that the United States has in the Gulf”.
Between 1998 and 2003 two things changed. Wolfowitz and others like him came from academia into the inner circles of the new US administration of George W Bush. The Al Qaeda attack on New York of 11 September 2001 made the US public willing for war.
The US administration knew that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but they were happy to surf on the popular confusion. A US opinion poll in September 2003 found that 47% of Americans thought Saddam had been directly involved in organising 9/11, 16% were not sure, and only 37% knew he wasn’t.
There had been three large wars in a row which the USA had fought with minimal casualties and quick victories: Kuwait 1991, Kosova 1999, and (or so it then seemed) Afghanistan 2002. George W Bush’s inner circle thought they had a “window of opportunity” to reshape the world through US military might. They thought they could do it in the same way that the USA had reshaped large parts of the world after 1945, and that hard US diplomatic pressure, plus US aid to the Afghan mujahedeen, had toppled Stalinism and reshaped Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989-91.
Condoleezza Rice said: “In 1947... we were talking about the rebuilding of Europe. We were talking about the rebuilding of Asia. Now we’re talking about the extension of the paradigm of progress... to a whole range of people”. She was anxious to “fulfill this historic moment in which we get to extend to the rest of the world what we and Europe have enjoyed for this last 50 years”.
US ideologues said that a short, sharp US military blow, shattering Saddam’s regime, would open the way to a world-market-friendly Iraqi regime which would be a lever to help the USA reshape the whole Middle East along the lines of world-market-friendly economics, and workable bourgeois-democratic (or semi-democratic, or quarter-democratic) regimes. And the chance given by the US public’s temporary will for war must not be missed. Otherwise Saddam’s regime would gradually re-establish its influence in the region after the setback of 1991. (Blair’s version of this: if the USA and its allies had not invaded in 2003, then they would have “lost their nerve” to act.)
The other regimes in the region, other than Israel’s, were all worrying: dynastic-militarist regimes, old, gradually-decaying, likely to be replaced by Islamic clerical-fascist governments when the dynasties finally collapsed unless the US could give a boost to a preferable alternative. That was the calculation. That is why in the first emergency meeting of the National Security Council after 9/11, Wolfowitz’s Defense Department boss Donald Rumsfeld notoriously asked: “Why shouldn’t we go against Iraq, not just al-Qaeda?”
Everything in Blair’s evidence besides the admission that he had told Bush in mid-2002 that he would support him come what may was largely beside the point. Blair tried to use 9/11 as an “excuse” for invading Iraq, but the 2003 invasion unleashed a series of smaller 9/11s on the people of Iraq. The civilian toll, at the very lowest count, is 95,158 since 2003. Even now, there were 22 bombings in the 20 days from 28 December to 16 January. The bourgeois-democratic (or semi-democratic, or quarter-democratic) transformation of the Middle East looks no nearer. Islamic clerical-fascism is stronger rather than weaker.
“What people are not grasping here”, said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org back in 2003, “is that after Iraq they [the Wolfowitzes] have got a long list of countries to blow up. Iraq is not the final chapter, it’s the opening chapter”.
Have we at least proved Pike wrong? Has the terrible, chaotic cost of the Iraq invasion at least ruled out repetitions soon? Wolfowitz left office in spring 2005, and Rumsfeld in November 2006. 57% of people in the USA now say invading Iraq was wrong, and there have generally been over 50% saying that ever since the battle of Fallujah in April 2004. The USA’s standing in the world is reduced, because of the financial crisis of September-October 2008 as well as Iraq, and President Obama is deliberately and openly adapting policy to the fact. There is a relative majority in the USA still for sending more troops to Afghanistan, though many in that majority will be people who hope that a troop boost will secure half-workable conditions for quickly withdrawing, rather than people sharing the mindset of Wolfowitz or Rumsfeld. Possibly Pike is being proved wrong.
But it is not yet certain. The Iraq Inquiry will not help much. What will help is a clear drive in the labour movement to oust the Blair and Brown cliques, and restore a Labour Party susceptible to trade-union opposition to war.
• From Solidarity 166, 4 February 2010.