Yes, we have no WMDs

Manny Neira throws the words of Bush and Blair back at them

In the research for this article I owe an unusual debt of thanks: to the US department of defence. Whether for carefully laid Machiavellian reasons or through a kind of appalling verbal incontinence, both secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, have been unusually frank over the last week, and have prompted many revealing reactions from our own government. If anyone still suspected that the left’s description of the invasion of Iraq as a cynical imperialist exercise was down to ‘knee-jerk anti-Americanism’, they can now hear the story from the horse’s mouth.

“Everyone could agree”

Vanity Fair is a lightweight American features magazine which promises you “access to people, personalities and power like no other magazine”. The July issue delivers: US deputy defence secretary Wolfowitz talks about the aftermath of the atrocious attack on the World Trade Center of September 11 2001, and reveals that he pushed President Bush to consider an immediate attack on Iraq rather than Afghanistan.

His argument was that, in order to police Iraq, the US had to keep forces in Saudi Arabia: something tolerated by the government, but hated by the people. He explains that “their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It’s been a huge recruiting device for al Qa’eda.”

As history records, his arguments were not ignored, but their conclusions merely delayed. War on Iraq remained on the US agenda for reasons entirely unconnected to weapons of mass destruction. He goes on: “The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction, as the core reason.”

So a suitable legal pretext had been found. UN resolutions passed after Iraq had been forced to withdraw from Kuwait demanded disarmament. The enforcement of this demand could be used to justify invasion. Whether Iraq had WMDs or not, of course, they would find it almost impossible to prove themselves innocent.

Dossier “made sexier”

The British government responded to the new US policy with its own attempt to substantiate this pretext, producing its notorious dossier Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction - the assessment of the British government [pdf file] on September 24 2002.

In February 2003 it became clear that this document was not based, as the government claimed, on careful intelligence gathering. Rather it was largely plagiarised, indeed even ‘cut and pasted’ with typographical errors intact, from other documents months or years old. One of the articles copied was published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs and was the work of Ibrahim al-Marashi, a Californian student.

Last week, though, the reputation of this document, and the government which published it, achieved the impossible and fell even lower. On May 29, the BBC quoted a “senior British official” as saying that the dossier as originally compiled by the intelligence services was rewritten to make it “sexier”.

He said: “The classic example was the statement that weapons of mass destruction were ready for use within 45 minutes. That information was not in the original draft. It was included in the dossier against our wishes because it wasn’t reliable. Most things in the dossier were double-source but that was single-source and we believe that the source was wrong.” The official went on to say that “most people in intelligence” were unhappy about the changes because they “didn’t reflect the considered view they were putting forward”.

So the false pretext was now supported by a false document, which combined a mixture of outdated plagiarised material and politically doctored assertions running counter even to the views of the government’s own intelligence services. This collection of lies was then solemnly offered to the British people as evidence for war.

In an incredible attempt to muddy the waters, leader of the Commons John Reid retorted that journalists had been “fed false information” by “rogue elements” within the security services. Those who doubted the existence of WMDs should “put up or shut up” - like the Iraqi regime, they were told they must prove a negative.

‘Explosive’ evidence

No one who saw US secretary of state Colin Powell at the UN on February 5 2003 could have failed to be impressed by his confident, statesmanlike manner. He praised the British dossier described above, saying: “I would call my colleagues’ attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed yesterday which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.” Presumably either the British had not told the Americans or the Americans had not told their front man how it had been written.

But this week it transpired that Powell was a worried man even without this knowledge. It seems that a transcript has been circulating of a brief meeting he had with British foreign secretary Jack Straw in the New York Waldorf Hotel and that, having done the rounds of “Nato diplomatic circles”, it has fallen into the hands of The Guardian.

Apparently Powell was well aware of Wolfowitz’s hawkish views, and was therefore particularly wary of intelligence assessments presented by a team assembled at the Pentagon by the deputy secretary of defence himself.

According to The Guardian, the transcript reveals that “he told Mr Straw he had come away from the meetings [with Wolfowitz’s intelligence team] ‘apprehensive’ about what he called, at best, circumstantial evidence highly tilted in favour of assessments drawn from them, rather than any actual raw intelligence. Mr Powell told the foreign secretary he hoped the facts, when they came out, would not ‘explode in their faces’.”

By the time the spotlight turned on him at the UN security council meeting, though, it seems he had overcome his scruples. As he readied his slide show, he said: “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence ...”

Illegal engagement

The UN had by now already passed the famous resolution 1441 [pdf file], demanding Iraq disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction. The resolution was won by dubious means and was of dubious meaning. After Powell’s speech, the Syrian representative said flatly that he had only supported 1441 after assurances from the Americans that it could only lead to war if supported by a second resolution. The French and Russians had refused to allow the resolution to threaten military action explicitly: 1441 instead referred to “serious consequences” should Iraq fail to comply with its terms. It was, in short, a fudge - won by a mixture of sleight of hand and political bullying.

As opposition to the war mounted around the world, and in the wake of the historic demonstration in London on February 15, the prospect of the US and UK pulling the same trick again seemed to be receding fast. The US government clearly did not care. The UK government was somewhat embarrassed: even within Blairite New Labour, a considerable number of MPs and the mass of the population could not easily be ignored. Indeed the sheer size of the mass movement produced a domino effect. MPs rebelled because their constituents wanted nothing to do with the war, ministers wobbled and the prime minister desperately manipulated the truth to the point of lying.

There was speculation that the US might have to fight alone. With a lack of regard for Blair’s political problems which seems to have become habitual, Rumsfeld famously said that it did not matter: the US could quite comfortably fight and win the war without the UK.

When Blair sent British troops into battle alongside US forces, therefore, he had at least to be able to claim he was acting within international law. The responsibility for determining this fell to the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith. On the eve of the war, Goldsmith delivered the goods, advising that the invasion was legal. Blair, in his relief, published his advice: an unprecedented step.

Blair was less happy a week later when Goldsmith delivered a second memorandum of legal advice, addressed directly to the prime minister, which was not to his taste. This he did not publish.

Last month, though, the memorandum was leaked to the New Statesman, and it makes fascinating reading. It bases its opinions on the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907. It concludes that:

1. The US and UK forces could not legally change the laws or system of government of Iraq, or establish a new government: it could merely carry out basic policing.

2. Any military action is legal only in as far as it is necessary to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

This first opinion was disastrous for Blair. Essentially it means that all the activity which has taken place since the defeat of the Ba’athists has been, in the opinion of the British government’s own first law officer, illegal.

The second opinion might, at first sight, appear to be less of a problem. After all, if the war was fought to disarm Iraq, it would seem to indicate that this, at least, was legal. However, since the end of the war, no evidence of weapons of mass destruction has been found, and it is difficult to claim you fought to remove weapons which did not exist. Blair has desperately repeated the mantra that Iraq is a large country and evidence may turn up at any time, but this formula is sounding increasingly thin. It seems ever more likely, therefore, that the war itself was, on the government’s own advice, illegal.

With friends like him …

It seems that there is no problem Blair faces so serious, though, that Rumsfeld cannot make it worse.

On May 28, under increasing pressure to explain the lack of evidence of WMDs, Rumsfeld said: “We don’t know what happened. It is also possible that [Saddam’s government] decided they would destroy them prior to a conflict.”

One can only imagine the tone of the transatlantic phone calls which must have taken place between Blair and Bush after this astounding admission. The US department of defence was quick to release a statement attempting to play down this view, arguing that its secretary had said nothing new, and so the comment was not really newsworthy, but it is doubtful that this helped much.

Ignoring the advice that, once in a hole, one should stop digging, Rumsfeld then decided to try to undo the damage he had done by offering a counter-argument, rather bizarrely by personally calling a radio phone-in programme. He claimed that he remained confident evidence of weapons of mass destruction would be found, and that the war had not been waged under any false pretext, but had been guided by ‘good intelligence’.

General confusion

Any hope either the US or UK governments had that this issue might be quietly news-managed away was rather rudely squashed by one lieutenant-general James Conway. The general, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said he had been convinced that before and during the war chemical weapons had been distributed to the Republican Guard units around Baghdad.

He went on: “It was a surprise to me then - it remains a surprise to me now - that we have not uncovered weapons, as you say, in some of the forward dispersal sites. Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying: we’ve been to virtually every ammunition supply point between the Kuwaiti border and Baghdad, but they’re simply not there.”

He added: “We were simply wrong. Whether or not we’re wrong at the national level, I think still very much remains to be seen.”

Executioner in waiting

Blair is now not so much on the ropes as hanging from just one. At the front of the queue to kick the chair away is Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary. With the two top cabinet jobs securely filled, leaving Cook at the most senior position he was likely to achieve under the current administration, and with few friends in the party unless he could find a quick way of gaining a constituency of support amongst other disgruntled career MPs, Cook took a principled stand: the killing of innocent Iraqi people would only be morally acceptable to him if the UN security council could be bullied and bribed into voting for it a second time. He resigned from the cabinet when this was not done.

He must be delighted that the political benefits he never stopped to calculate have fallen to him so quickly. Claiming leadership of a group of Labour rebels, he insisted that Rumsfeld’s statement “blows an enormous, gaping hole in the case for war made on both sides of the Atlantic.” Blair faces moves by his own backbenchers to call an emergency session of parliament to call him to account.

Short: sulking

Clare Short, the former international development secretary, failed to attain even Robin Cook’s standard of integrity. She threatened to resign if Britain joined the invasion of Iraq, and then was persuaded not to do so in order to work with the UN to repair the destruction the invasion she opposed would create. She then resigned when - as everyone expected except her, it seems - the US took over control of Iraq entirely alone after the war.

Short now attacks the prime minister bitterly. She claims that the decision to go to war was agreed between Bush and Blair long before it was seriously discussed by the cabinet or by parliament, and that she and fellow ministers were “duped and deceived”. She sounds surprised. It seems she has made a fine political judgement: she would rather be remembered as a fool than as a coward.

Blair’s secret proof

Blair himself is not blinking. In response to the various attacks made on him, he said that he personally knew of evidence of weapons of mass destruction arising from the interview of Iraqis captured during the war, but could not yet reveal it.

Slightly paradoxically, in a later interview he replied to accusations that he had misled the nation with the demand that “if people have evidence, they produce it”.

Will they find WMDs?

Quite possibly. But will those ‘Made in the USA’ labels be on them because the US sold them to Hussein in the first place, or because they were transported to Iraq rather more recently?

Regime change

Every quote and every criticism in this article has come from the top brass of British and American imperialism. The grubby calculations of power and influence, the deliberate lies, the contempt of the people: these have all been reported in the bourgeois press and attributed to our politicians and military leaders.

It is clear that no system of international law, nor the wishes or injunctions of international courts or conferences, can constrain imperialism: the pursuit of the interests of rich and powerful capitalist states abroad. All those speakers who called on the international courts or the United Nations from the platform of the Stop the War Coalition should reflect on the reality of world politics, particularly now that only a single superpower remains, and is intent on remaining the only superpower.

Those few Labour MPs who opposed the war drive deserve our support, inasmuch as they continue to speak up against the occupation of Iraq, and every means should be pursued to call Blair to account for the lies he has told and the crimes he has committed. Ultimately, though, while we should not scorn the democratic rights working people have secured for themselves through ages of struggle, we should have no illusions in parliament.

The fact that the war was fought against the clear wishes of the people, and the glimpse of the reality of British government which the aftermath of the war is now affording, is making the democratic deficit clear. The overriding need now is for a new workers’ party, to bring together all those who fought with the anti-war movement, those who oppose capitalism, and those trade unionists betrayed by the Labour Party, into a single movement for consistent democracy, so that the garbage of international realpolitik described in this sorry tale can be consigned to the dustbin of history by our own, working class, regime change.