As shadow defence secretary from the day after 9/11 and through the invasion of Iraq, I supported the decision to go to war. This will always remain a controversial decision, but history will judge that it was the right thing to do. Given what we know now, the decision to take military action was the right one, though it is clear the post-invasion planning was lamentable and many things afterwards could and should have been done differently. Of course the casualties and sectarian carnage since the invasion has been terrible. We certainly should have anticipated that, but none of us understood how 20 years of Saddam had utterly destroyed every vestige of civil society.
But the broad left and the media, including Tony Blair and the Labour Party, were obsessed about legality and UN resolutions, rather than what might happen if the invasion went ahead. Read Sir Christopher Meyer’s account of this period when he was the UK’s Ambassador in Washington. It explains how every time the PM was briefed to discuss post-invasion planning, the conversation always returned to UN mandates and how to get French, or Russian, or Chinese to support in the UN Security Council - as though Russia or China have a legitimate veto over US and UK security interests! We tried to raise these matters with the Government, but I was assured that the invasion would “decapitate” the regime, without unduly disrupting the government and institutions of Iraq! Those who questioned this approach got little air time. The opponents of the war would have much more credibility if they had devoted their efforts to these issues instead of phony concerns about international law.
Firstly, the war was not illegal. I first took legal advice about the possibility of military action against Saddam Hussein from the shadow attorney general a few days after 9/11. Bill Cash handed me his opinion shortly before I wound up one of the first post-9/11 debates in the House of Commons. Eighteen months later, that opinion eventually became the same as the opinion adopted by the Government’s Attorney General, who advised the Cabinet, the Defence chiefs and the House of Commons that military action was lawful. This view was overwhelmingly endorsed by the House. Even Sir Menzies Campbell had reminded us that the allies were already legitimately involved with military action against Iraq, in response to breaches of US resolutions, by enforcing the no-fly zones, though he seemed to change his mind later. There had been 17 UN Security Council resolutions against Iraq, with the last one making clear that Iraq would “face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations”. Saddam chose not to cooperate with the UN weapons inspectors. Even Hans Blix described Iraq's cooperation as "somewhat reluctant" and pointed out that “the Iraqi side has tried on occasion to attach conditions”. He said that Iraq's actions "cannot be said to constitute ‘immediate’ cooperation. Nor do they necessarily cover all areas of relevance".
Second, to back down from action against Iraq in such circumstances would have invited unquantifiable risks. 9/11 had proved that the post-Cold War world could be much more dangerous than we thought. The conventional rules of threat assessment were discredited. Of course, intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was faulty and we did not find the evidence of WMD we had been led to expect. But we found plenty of evidence of his intentions. The Iraq Survey Group report in 2004 concluded: "Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability - which was essentially destroyed in 1991 - after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilised." If we had not acted, this would have been the likely result as, "Saddam had managed to mitigate many of the effects of sanctions and undermine their international support. Iraq was within striking distance of a de facto end to the sanctions regime." The Iraq Survey Group also found plans for long-range ballistic and cruise missiles. The Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) maintained covert laboratories to research and test chemicals and poisons. He had the money, the means and the intention to create WMD, and was prepared to defy the international community. He was a threat. How could we credibly deal with Iran and North Korea’s illegal weapons programmes if we had given in to Saddam? Again, it is odd how the unilateralist Left seems to believe that the cause of peace is best advanced by giving in to dictators who are busy acquiring the most terrifying weapons of war.
Third, there was his track record. He was the only national leader who had used chemical and biological weapons and who had invaded a sovereign state (Kuwait in 1989). In addition he had killed 100,000s of his own people, some of them personally. His 10-year war with Iran perhaps cost one million lives. Had he stayed in power, it is perfectly possible that he would have been responsible for far more deaths, not to mention the continuing torture and political oppression. Some are mad enough to try and argue that the sanctions regime was the cause of the suffering of the Iraqi people. In fact, Saddam was refusing to use the UN “oil for food” programme to bring in the food and medical supplies which his people needed. It had been corrupted, and was being used as a means of personal enrichment for some and to finance the weapons and arms programmes Saddam wanted. His regime would still pose a threat. What would the wider Middle East and the ‘Arab Spring’ look like today if Saddam was still in power? Instead, Iraq is an emerging democracy with an elected government. The Iraqi people have a degree of freedom and the chance of a better future. They have a free press and free trade unions. You only need to meet the people to see today they have hope, when before they had no hope. That is why the Iraq War was justified.
We did not invade Syria, but look what is happening there today. We are getting the blame for not intervening. Perhaps Iraq would have been even worse without the US-led occupation? In the end, the Patraeus-led stabilisation plan established clear political goals. Iraq has a democratically elected government and will find stability again. At least children are being vaccinated and back at school. The economy is growing rapidly. It is likely that whenever his regime collapsed, the same sectarianism would have occurred, whether Iraq had been invaded or not. It is more germane to ask whether we succeed as much in Afghanistan, which in many ways is the war we should have complained much more about, because of the lack of coherent political aims. And we are still at the beginning of a process in Syria, and it could prove so much more bloody.
Now chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin was shadow defence secretary from 2001 to 2003.