The Business of Informing & Educating:
In 2007, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson wrote the following about the nature of the British Broadcasting Corporation, at a time of great controversy about its role among politicians, this time of the ‘New’ Labour variety. He called for what he called a return to ‘Reithianism’, a term coined from the name of its founder, which he defined as the business of informing and educating people as well as entertaining them. In the tradition of George Orwell, who worked at the BBC throughout the 1940s, Simpson thought it should be telling audiences what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear. Maybe, he mused, though audience figures would drop even further than they had already, but at least they would know that what they reported was correct, rather than turning themselves into another branch of entertainment:
If the BBC became a little more Reithian, and a little less inclined to chase audience numbers for their own sake, and made a virtue of what it was doing, it might weaken its position in the ratings but I think it would strengthen its moral position immensely.John Simpson (2007), Not Quite the World’s End, p. 24.
Simpson went on to claim that every single government in his forty years as a BBC reporter and news presenter had attacked it and threatened it, but the danger always faded or was seen off. At the height of her power in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher used some virulent language about the BBC and frequently encouraged the idea that it might have to be privatised. Still, she never thought seriously about carrying out her threat. By contrast, Tony Blair began a process which seemed likely to destroy the BBC as the world’s most powerful, independent broadcaster, and one of Britain’s principal world-class brands. Blair understood that the key to the Corporation’s strength was the licence fee that funds it, and he allowed a process to commence that put the BBC’s future licence-fee income in doubt.
In the eighties and early nineties, Labour had been savaged by much of the press, then still at the height of its power. Neil Kinnock had had a terrible time. When Blair became leader, the people immediately around Kinnock at the time, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, remembered it well. Campbell had worked for the Daily Mirror in the most cynical end of the newspaper market and came away thinking that most journalists were idle liars, as well as biased against Labour. He was ‘tribal’ and assumed that the rest of the world was too. Mandelson, with a background in television, was a master of image, ‘spin’ and later of the ‘killer briefing’. So it is hardly surprising that New Labour became the most media-obsessed political party in British history. Under their tutelage, Blair opened out to Labour’s traditional enemies in the press after becoming party leader and exploited the ‘sleaze’ around John Major’s government to eventually destroy the Conservative PM’s reputation. On the way to winning power, New Labour turned itself into what Andrew Marr has described as …
… a kind of perpetual media news desk, with a plan for what every day, and an endless ‘grid’ of announcements, images, soundbites and rebuttals, constantly pressing down on journalists, their editors and owners, fighting for every adjective and exclamation mark.Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain, p. 568.
The same way of thinking, Marr argues, was brought into power and eventually did terrible damage to the New Labour government’s reputation, and that of politics in general. Bizarrely, it was assumed that rival newspaper groups with different views about say, law and order, could be kept friendly by Blair telling them what they wanted to hear – even though they would later confer. The attempted bullying of journalists, which became scandalous in the run-up to the Iraq War, was met with increasing resistance. Number Ten’s news machine began to be widely disbelieved. The word ‘spin’ was attached to almost everything it said. At election time, statistics were twisted even beyond the normal elastic rules of political debate. There was a downward spiral. Journalists grew more aggressive in their assertions and began consigning the (disbelieved) official denials to the final paragraph of their stories. Some ministers drew the conclusion that the press was so hostile it was legitimate to use any trick or form of words to mislead them. Others claimed that their words were twisted and used against them every time they were direct. Before long a government which had arrived in office supported by almost all the national papers was being attacked daily by almost all of them. They were also selling fewer copies.
Britain’s political parties always supported the BBC when they were in opposition because they knew that it was their best chance of getting their views across to the voters. But when they got into power, they changed, regarding the BBC with suspicion, as the voice of opposition and hostility. Recently, it has become designated as a primary part of ‘the blob’, the means by which the government is frustrated by ‘the Beeb’s’ unaccountable failure, along with other ‘liberal’ media, including (more recently) bloggers and tweeters, to act as its mouthpiece. Few prime ministers had done as much damage to the BBC as Tony Blair and his head of communications, Alastair Campbell. It later became clear that the evidence that Tony Blair presented to parliament in 2002 about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was exaggerated and misleading.
Blair’s biographer, Anthony Seldon, has emphasised how worried Blair was about Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction long before Bush became President and decided to launch his war against terror after 9/11. This was not simply something that Blair worried about privately; he spoke about it repeatedly. He was particularly fearful of a nuclear-enhanced ‘dirty bomb’ being used, by Iraqi-supported terrorists. Saddam’s henchmen had been operative in the UK since the late seventies and these earlier experiences of Saddam, from the Iran-Iraq War onwards, together with those of other dictators like the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic, and to a lesser extent Mullah Omar of the Taliban, meant that for Blair foreign affairs were personal, as shown in his relationships with both George W. Bush and, at that early stage, with Vladimir Putin. By focusing so much on Saddam as a man of evil, and the moral case of dealing with him, he did not focus enough on the complexities of Iraq as a country.
In Bush’s State of the Union Address for 2002, he had listed Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’, sending shivers across diplomatic Europe. Attempts by US intelligence to prove a link between the secularist Saddam and the fundamentalist al Qaeda failed but this hardly halted the process of lining up Iraq as next for the Bush ‘project’. Blair’s promises to Arab leaders about proof had no purchase in Washington, where many of the neo-conservatives around the President believed that by toppling Saddam they would be bringing an age of democracy and prosperity to the Middle East, solving the Palestinian problem along the way. But the dominant group around Bush were not keen on grand visions. They believed first and second in toppling Saddam and did not believe in waiting for, or depending upon, other countries, even Britain. After 9/11 this was America’s war and they did not believe in UN inspectors or promises from Baghdad. Above all the hopes of a more intellectual approach from the Bush administration and the British Foreign Office for a detailed plan for the reconstruction of post-war Iraq were dashed by the hawks, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld. ‘Régime change’ remained the sole, key objective and it did not involve commitments to reconstruction by western democratic missionaries.
‘Dodgy Dossiers’ & Washington ‘Hawks’:
As early as April 2002, Tony Blair knew that George W. Bush intended to attack Iraq, and he spent much of the rest of the year arguing that Bush should go through the United Nations. Without this, according to British interpretations of international law, an invasion would be illegal. The UN would also give a last chance for Saddam to disarm. Keeping the international community together would also make it easier to rebuild Iraq afterwards. He also wanted the US President to commit to the Middle East peace process. At Camp David on 7 September, Blair finally got Bush to promise to go via the UN in return for Blair’s promise that Britain would fight alongside the US if that route failed. When Bush publicly confirmed his willingness to try for a UN resolution, Blair was delighted, but he was also locked into going to war. Although he had won a battle with the Washington hawks over UN backing, he had not persuaded anyone to take the post-war situation seriously. This, for many of us who thought Saddam had to be removed, not least for the sake of minorities in the country, both ethnic and religious, presented a stumbling block. We could not be assured of one of the pillars of a ‘just war’, that the last state would be better than the first.
Soon after, the second pillar was removed. Most seriously, to Blair’s chagrin and amazement, the US and UK were eventually unable to get the extra, crucial UN resolution they both wanted and Blair needed. The UN route helped keep the number of Labour rebels in the House of Commons to fifty-six. In Whitehall and the Foreign Office and many ministers were growing worried about where Blair was leading them. Outside, the anti-war ‘coalition’ was mobilising. To try to win public opinion around, Blair turned to a technique he had used ahead of Operation Desert Fox, the publication of a dossier of evidence proving the case for military action. Then, in October 1998, Britain and the USA decided to smash Iraq’s military establishment with missiles and bombing raids, but the Iraqi leader decided to back down at the last minute and the raids were postponed. The US soon decided that this was another trick, however, and in December Allied planes attacked, hitting 250 targets over four days. But Desert Fox probably only delayed Saddam’s weapons programmes by a year or so although it was sold at the time as a huge success, which enabled the Allies to operate without a fresh UN mandate. Also, on this occasion, Blair faced little trouble in parliament or outside it.
Both the content and the context of the 2002-03 dossier, though, were quite different, since the US Administration’s case against Saddam was that he was a bad guy who represented a clear and present danger to the security of the USA, and who, in the context of the war on terror had to be removed from power. But the case at the UN was that he was failing to cooperate fully with weapons inspectors, still hiding stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), particularly chemical and biological weapons. To win around British opinion, the dossier would have to prove that they (still) existed and were directly threatening Britain. Thus Blair based laid the central case for war not on the moral cause of removing a regional tyrant, but on narrow and unproven assertions about the contents of the tyrant’s arsenal.
Blair’s team had already enjoyed some success in feeding journalists bloodcurdling lines about the damage Saddam might wreak. There was evidence that he had used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and there is no doubt that senior intelligence and defence people believed he had WMD but was cleverly hiding them, and that he was trying to get hold of nuclear weapons. The trouble was that Saddam’s régime of terror was so effective that there were very few sources of information from inside Iraq. MI6 found any such sources unreliable in any case, often dissidents who were determined to bring forward a war against the Ba’athist régime. Satellite technology, though used by Colin Powell at the UN, was unsatisfactorily unclear. Thus the dossier had to be drawn from a variety of sources and channelled through the Joint Intelligence Committee, which reported directly to the prime minister. Different texts were batted to and fro through Downing Street, as officials questioned parts of it and wondered whether it was sufficiently convincing. Suspicions were also raised following the publication of a second dossier in February 2003 which was later dubbed ‘the dodgy dossier’ and proved to have been lifted directly from a PhD thesis found on the Internet, without attribution.
Whatever the final truth about the shaping of the 2002-03 dossier(s), something strange had happened. Suspicions had been hardened, assertions sharpened, doubts trimmed out and belief converted into proof. Nobody knew for sure what Saddam had (that was the point of the UN inspection process), but when it was published the dossier gave the impression that he had multiple weapons of mass destruction which could be ready for use within forty-five minutes and threatened, among other nearby places, British bases in Cyprus. The forty-five-minute claim turned out to refer to short-range battlefield chemical weapons which could not reach countries other than Iraq’s immediate neighbours. When Iraq was finally invaded, and exhaustive searches conducted everywhere, the WMD were not found and subsequently never materialised.
The most infamous confrontation between New Labour and the media was not with any of the press, but with the BBC. One of the domestic consequences of the Iraq War was the worst falling out between the BBC and the government since the Suez Crisis. At issue was whether or not officials in Number Ten had ‘sexed up’ the dossier about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. The dossier blended two cultures, the cautious, secretive, nuanced culture of intelligence gathering for internal government purposes, and the spin doctors’ culture of opinion-forming, in this case, to win more of the public over to back a coming war. But the cultures did not mix but rather curdled. At seven minutes after six one morning at the end of May 2003, Radio Four’s Today programme broadcast an interview between John Humphrys and its defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan. He alleged that Downing Street had ‘sexed up’ the dossier beyond what intelligence sources thought was reasonable, particularly in saying that WMD could be ready within forty-five minutes. Campbell quickly and unequivocally denied the truth of Gilligan’s assertion and demanded an apology. Gilligan then went further, in an article for a newspaper in which he named Campbell.
The US-UK Coalition, Stop the War & ‘Shock & Awe’:
A tense struggle at the UN ensued, led by British diplomats, which produced Resolution 1441, declaring that Saddam was in material breach of his obligation to demonstrate that he had no banned weaponry, and giving him a last opportunity to comply or face serious consequences. The Iraqi leader fudged and dodged, letting inspectors back into his country without offering a full declaration of his weapons. For the Americans, this was the trigger for war. For other countries, most notably France, it merely meant that there should be another discussion at the UN Security Council about what collective action to take. In February 2003, as British and US forces were poised to attack Iraq from the south, there was a vast Stop the War march through London. It was the biggest demonstration in the capital since the Chartists’ gathering of 1848. Tony Blair and his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who had swallowed private doubts and resolved to support his boss, were fighting to get a second UN resolution that would give full legal cover for the attack. This was something Blair had been repeatedly told that he needed to be sure of holding his party together and thereby staying in power.
But President Chirac of France was angry at the behaviour of Washington’s hawks and worried about the impact of the war on the Islamic world. He said that France would not support a second resolution, and it collapsed. As the previous Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook had been deeply involved in Operation Desert Fox and Kosovo. Still, he now warned the cabinet that without a second resolution, he could not support this third war in six years. He duly resigned his seat. In the Commons, Cook (also a former leader of the House) then gave one of the most eloquent speeches heard in the chamber in modern times, in which he said:
“The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner – not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council. …
“Ironically, it is only because Iraq’s military forces are so weak that that we can even contemplate its invasion. We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat. …
” On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain.”Quoted by Andrew Marr (2007-09), A History of Modern Britain, p.566.
Almost uniquely, and against its hallowed conventions, Robin Cook was loudly applauded as he sat down. However, even as the clapping died down, Blair determined to press ahead. He was given legal cover from his attorney general for the war, though it was hardly clear-cut and undisputed. He had given his word to President Bush, who had even offered him the chance to pull out and send British troops in, after the invasion, as peacekeepers. Blair turned the offer down as he felt it would be dishonourable of him to withdraw, and bad for military morale. He had staked his reputation on the war and felt that if he could not carry his party, he was finished as its leader and as PM. In and around Westminster, a political and media struggle began to win around doubters, emphasising Saddam’s brutality and abuse of human rights.
This brutal campaign of terror and torture had been taking place since the mid-1970s, of course, and we had been well aware of this as student leaders in Wales due to the attacks on Iraqi dissident refugees who, as students in Cardiff and Swansea, were regularly beaten up on the streets by Ba’athist thugs, masquerading as fellow students. had supported our NUS Wales campaign in 1979-80, at a time when the university authorities refused to get involved in what they characterised as an ‘internecine’ conflict. The London courts were also unwilling to attribute blame when cases came before them, even though the police reports showed quite clearly who the perpetrators of the street violence were. Ann Clwyd MP, as a Guardian correspondent, had been among the first UK journalists to expose the tyranny of the Ba’athist Party in Iraq and the crimes of Saddam’s henchmen. Now, in the debate in the House of Commons in March 2003, she made a particularly influential speech about Saddam’s treatment of the Kurds which included the use of torture.
But this was not the primary purpose for going to war. Others spoke and voted in favour of military action because, on balance, they chose to trust their leader’s judgement about the likely existence of WMD in Saddam’s arsenal. My former Cardiff University research colleague, Wayne David MP, spoke in favour of the proposal on this basis. Eventually, after days of drama and one of his finest Commons performances, Blair won a majority among his own MPs, though 139 rebelled, almost half of them. The Conservatives added to his margin of victory, and with that vote, the final obstacle to war was removed.
The war began with a thunderous attack on Baghdad on 20 March, described with brutal clarity in Washington as “Shock and Awe”. An early attempt by Saddam’s information minister to assassinate the dictator failed. For the first few weeks, calm declarations of great victories being won in the desert by the Iraqi armed forces were broadcast almost nightly. In fact, it was only the sandstorms that delayed the Allied advance. In Baghdad, a coalition bomb killed fifty-seven people in a marketplace and in Britain anger about the war grew. Yet, while not quite the walk-over the Pentagon had hoped, the invasion was over very quickly.
By 7 April, British forces had taken Basra, having surrounded it long before, and two days later the Americans were in Baghdad, first seizing the international airport and then Saddam’s favourite palace, though they didn’t find him anywhere inside. Soon, his statues were being jubilantly torn down. Before the invasion, there had been speculation about Baghdad fighting to the last, surrounded by trenches of burning oil, tank regiments and possibly artillery with chemical shells – an Arab Götterdämmerung on the banks of the Tigris. By those standards, the war had been a great, one-sided military success. The war beyond the invasion and occupation would be something else entirely.
The war between Broadcasting House & Number Ten:
On 20 March, as Iraq burned, Number Ten and the BBC began a war of their own. In general, battles between journalists and politicians do not usually spill blood. There may be resignations and bitterness, but when the smoke clears, everyone gets up again and goes back to work. When Campbell widened his criticism of the BBC to attack it for having an anti-war agenda, he had no idea quite what he was setting off. Yet there was a certain recklessness in his mood. He confided in his diary that he wanted to ‘fuck Gilligan’ and wanted a ‘clear win’ against ‘the Corporation’. On the BBC side, it would turn out that Gilligan had been loose with his words, claiming rather more than he knew for sure; nor was he entirely frank with his colleagues. The BBC’s Director General, Greg Dyke, who had been hounded in the press as a Blair crony, was ferociously robust in defending the corporation against Campbell and was strongly supported by his Chairman, Gavyn Davies, whose wife was Gordon Brown’s senior aide. He too was determined to demonstrate the BBC’s independence.
Neither side gave way until eventually it was revealed that a government scientist with a high reputation as an arms inspector, Dr David Kelly, was probably the source of Gilligan’s information. Downing Street did not name him but allowed journalists to keep throwing names at them until they confirmed who he was. Because he was not directly involved in the joint intelligence committee or its work, ‘outing’ Kelly as the secret mole would, in the government’s eyes, discredit the BBC story. Suddenly thrown into the cauldron of a media row, Kelly himself was evasive when aggressively questioned by a committee of MPs. Visibly nervous, he denied that he could have been Gilligan’s informant. Yet he was. A fastidious, serious-minded man who had supported the toppling of Saddam and had served his country honourably as a weapons inspector, Kelly finally cracked under the strain. Andrew Marr has described, sympathetically, the subsequent events:
On a quiet July morning in 2003 he walked five miles to the edge of a wood near his Oxfordshire home where he took painkillers, opened a pen-knife, and killed himself. This media battle had drawn blood in the most awful way. Blair, arriving in Tokyo after triumphantly addressing both houses of Congress about the fall of Saddam, was asked: “Prime Minister, do you have blood on your hands?”Marr, op. cit., p. 571.
Back home from Tokyo, Tony Blair ordered an inquiry under a judge, Lord Hutton, which engaged the minute attention of the world of politics through to the end of the autumn of 2003. Much was revealed about Blair’s informal, sloppily recorded and cliquish style of governing, and the involvement of his political staff in the discussion which led to the final dossier. But with the head of the JIC and other officials insisting they had not been leant on, or obliged to say anything they did not believe, plus a very strong public performance by Blair, Lord Hutton concluded that Gilligan’s assertion that the government knew its forty-five-minute claim was wrong was unfounded.
The intelligence committee might have ‘subconsciously’ been persuaded to strengthen its language because they knew what the PM wished the effect of the dossier to be, but it was consistent with the intelligence at that time. Hutton decided that Kelly probably killed himself because of a loss of self-esteem and the threat to his reputation, but that nobody else was to blame (some journalists believed that he might have been murdered, but no hard evidence for this ever came to light). Hutton also attacked the BBC’s editorial controls, and his findings were leaked a day early to Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper, which robustly set the political mood: victory for Blair; humiliation for the BBC.
Strangely though, as John Simpson has commented, no one from the Blair government had to resign over the clear misuse of intelligence or the misleading of Parliament. The only resignations came from the BBC: its Chairman and Director-General both went. With Blair defiant and claiming complete vindication in the Commons, both Dyke and Davies resigned almost immediately. The careers of most of the people involved were affected in some way. Distraught employees walked out from their offices to cheer their leaders as they left. The corporation suffered its worst-ever time, yet the stakes were high on both sides. Had Hutton found against the Prime Minister, it would have been Blair being applauded by his tearful staff as he walked into early retirement. Feeling vindicated and as aggressive as ever about the quality of journalism, Alastair Campbell then left Downing Street. Blair had concluded that the ‘age of spin’ had done them all far more harm than good. It was time, despite his personal debt to Campbell, for a new broom. A widely trusted and traditionalist press officer, David Hill, who had worked for Roy Hattersley, the former Deputy Leader, was appointed. Slowly, painfully, both the BBC and Number Ten moved on.
Blair had finally realised that the frantic headline-chasing and rebuttal of the early years of New Labour had merely helped to stoke an atmosphere of cynicism in the press. After Iraq, one of the most common jibes made about him, especially on the Labour Left, but also in the media, was simply ‘Bliar’. The relationship between the Blair government and the BBC never fully recovered from the ‘Gilligan episode’, however. Tessa Jowell, the minister with responsibility for negotiating the BBC’s new charter and setting the level of the licence fee, accepted the BBC’s argument for an increase to take account of inflation and the extra demands for technical change which the government was making of the BBC. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown turned this down, as Jowell had known they would. She supported the BBC and approved of its plans, and was prepared to play her trump card. She planned to tell Blair and Brown:
“You can’t afford to refuse the BBC a full licence-fee rise, because if they don’t get it, Michael Grade will resign as Chairman, and you simply can’t afford to lose two BBC chairmen in a short space of time like this. It would do terrible damage to the BBC, and it would look bad for the government.”Quoted in Simpson, p. 26.
But as it happened, she wasn’t able to say this. With dreadful timing, Michael Grade, who had just taken over on the resignation of Gavyn Davies, announced at this crucial moment that he was returning to ITV so that the BBC lost another chairman in any case, and the conflict with the Blair government continued to simmer away.
As John Simpson concluded, the BBC is just about the only broadcasting organisation left in the world that still gets most of its income from the licence fee. Every other broadcaster that followed the same system, and that means those in just about every other major Commonwealth country, and some minor ones, has been forced to shift away from the mode. The result, he judges, has been very damaging to public service broadcasting in those countries. At some stage, he predicts, something like this will happen to the BBC when a government, Conservative or Labour, in a fit of pique such as that displayed by Alistair Campbell over the Gilligan report into the government’s actions prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, might decide that the licence fee would be better shared between broadcasters to ensure better programming or a ‘more balanced’ news service.
Then the government would face a choice, either to let the BBC decline through lack of funds or force it to make up the difference by taking advertising. Personally, I would now support a third option, replacing the licence fee with a subscription, open to a worldwide audience, with a free-to-air 24-hour news service on television and radio. Not taking advertising or sponsorship means that you won’t be in anyone’s pocket if you aren’t beholden to anyone for the money you spend. For more than a century now, this has worked out very well. But the fury of the Blair government over an accusation which turned out to be more than half true and that of the current Tory government over the criticism it recently received from a freelance BBC Sports presenter, will one day lead to the destruction of the Corporation in the form we have always known it. As Simpson puts it,
… Some people, mostly the idealogues among us, will be glad about that. The rest, who simply want decent reliable broadcasting to watch and listen to, will find it deeply depressing.John Simpson (2007), Not Quite World’s End. p.27.
For the Blair government, though, the key problem was that the intelligence which was so reliable, according to the prime minister when he spoke in the Commons, hadn’t been reliable at all. John Simpson had been told that the head of MI6 told the Butler Inquiry into the government’s use of intelligence in the run-up to the invasion that there had been no reliable information about many of Saddam’s WMD since 1988. Simpson also heard suggestions that members of Lord Butler’s inquiry into the use of intelligence had thought the government might fall as a result of the publication of their report in July 2004, but that the journalists who covered it had failed to spot how damaging the accusations were. They thereby let the government off the hook. Lord Butler, however, put the knife even deeper into the Blair government when he made a speech in the House of Lords in January 2007. He accused Tony Blair of being ‘disingenuous’ (‘deliberately misleading’).
All of this was very much what Andrew Gilligan had reported on the Today programme in 2004. The trouble was, although the basic facts of what Gilligan had said were true, his source wasn’t really strong enough or senior enough for Gilligan’s report to be waterproof. It was true that Tony Blair had been warned that the information about Saddam’s WMD wasn’t as strong as he maintained, but Dr David Kelly couldn’t have known it for a fact, and neither could Andrew Gilligan. Which all goes to show that if you are accusing the prime minister of ‘being disingenuous’, you must have pretty strong evidence to support it. But by 2007 the story was dead as a political issue. The dreadful damage done to the BBC was over and done with. Yet the question of whether the people of Britain had been seriously misled in the run-up to the Iraq invasion remained unanswered.
Winning Hearts & Minds – From Baghdad to Broadway:
Perhaps a more significant long-term issue that emerged from the Iraq War for journalists was that of the changing nature of war reporting in the twenty-first century.
In the autumn of 2003, Simpson was at home in London, recovering from being blown up in a friendly fire incident during the invasion and writing something against the clock when he answered a phone call from Tim Robbins, the Hollywood actor. Robbins wanted to quote something Simpson had written in a play he had written about the Iraq War for an ‘off-Broadway’ production. The quote was from a broadcast Simpson made when the American plane dropped a bomb on him, killing his translator and others, and striking him with shrapnel. In his new play, Embedded, there was a part for a woman journalist who, it seemed, stood for honesty and truth and honourable reporting, and Simpson’s words, together with those of other journalists who had seen the reality of what had happened in Iraq, formed part of a speech she made. It was clearly an anti-war play, and his contract with the BBC forbade him to venture into areas of controversy. On the other hand, the words he had spoken on camera immediately after the thousand-pound bomb landed in the middle of his group, killing eighteen of them, were already in the public domain. Maybe the BBC might want to make an issue of Robbins using it, but it didn’t matter to him.
In fact, Robbins had already used it as the play had already opened the previous week, so he offered the journalist tickets to see the show in New York, inviting him to dinner beforehand. He also asked if he could ask Simpson some questions about the war on stage afterwards. In Iraq, even at this early stage, it was evident that the joint British-American ‘enterprise’ was not going as well as President Bush, Donald Wolfowitz and their friends in the US press and broadcasting had assured everyone it would. At that stage, Simpson was visiting Baghdad every six weeks or so, and each time the situation was markedly worse than before; though the absurd figures whom Paul Bremer, Bush’s proconsul, had gathered around himself in the Green Zone, mainly young men fresh out of American universities in dark blazers and chinos, maintained loyally that the only problem was the negative way in which news organisations like the BBC reported ‘the achievements.’ Simpson admitted that he had a tendency to dislike all wars and invasions on principle:
I knew enough about Iraq to be certain that there would ultimately be a major insurrection against the presence of British and American troops there, much as there had been against the British in 1920. But I had assumed President Bush’s allies would turn out to be right in the early stages when they said the coalition forces would in the main be welcomed as liberators. Yet that wasn’t true by any means, and as the invasion wore on I wrote an ‘apologia’ in one of the British newspapers about it. I’m still proud of that. Not many other journalists or politicians seemed willing to admit they got it wrong.Simpson, loc.cit., p. 122.
When Robbins said that he didn’t understand and asked him whether he was for the war or against it, Simpson answered:
‘It’s not my job to preach about these things. I have my own views, but I keep them to myself. When I’m there I just try to give as clear a view as I can about what’s going on, and then let the viewers make up their own minds.’Idem.
Simpson felt strongly that journalists had to try to present a balanced, unbiased account of what was happening. But Robbins felt that some subjects were so important that only campaigning journalism was ‘acceptable’. For Simpson, the opposite was true: the really important things need calm, unbiased, honest judgement even more than the less important issues. But this was all too ‘British’ for Tim Robbins, who saw Iraq entirely in black-and-white terms, ‘good against evil’. As the play came to an end, and Simpson prepared to go on stage, he felt that it had great strength to it and that some of its points of view were entirely correct. But questioner after questioner tried to get him to say that the war was wrong or ‘evil’. He explained again and again that these were not the kind of terms with which he dealt.
As to whether the US military was using the wrong tactics, he answered that patrolling the streets in armoured vehicles didn’t work and neither did shooting at the traffic that came too close to their patrols. Kicking down doors unnecessarily and treating every Iraqi as an enemy certainly didn’t work. The Iraq War was not supposed to be a war of attrition, but a ‘police operation’ in support of an elected government. Moreover, the US troops themselves must obey the law: beating, half-drowning freezing prisoners or threatening them with dogs was as foolish and counter-productive as it was ‘wicked’. He went on:
‘Hearts and minds aren’t just things you decide that morning to win. It’s got to be a long, long process, starting now and going on to the day the soldiers leave. … You just have to put up with all the stones and rockets and bullets they fire at you, and you still have to go the rounds asking people what their problems are, trying to fix things. It worked in Northern Ireland. It won’t work in Iraq because it hasn’t been systematically tried’.Simpson, loc.cit., p. 124.
Returning to Baghdad – Dangerous Escapades:
Simpson wrote that, aside from the initial invasion and conquest of Iraq, in the years that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there was still a relatively small group of Western journalists and cameramen who went regularly to Baghdad to report. He returned regularly during the years of insurgency, for the 2005 elections and for the trial of Saddam Hussein which began later the same year. He recalled how on 1st September 2006, he woke up to the sound of a distant explosion. Somewhere in the city, a car bomb had just gone off. He reported:
I could imagine the dreadful scene, the blood, the screaming, the stink of explosive, the noise of sirens and alarms and car horns. It was an inauspicious but not totally unfitting way to start the fortieth anniversary of my joining the British Broadcasting Corporation. …
I have come to loathe and despise the kind of violence that this latest explosion represented. Yet I didn’t want to stop reporting on events in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter.Simpson, loc.cit., p. 28.
Over the four decades of reporting from war zones, and in his series of books, Simpson has tended to stay quiet about the dangers of reporting from these zones, including from Baghdad. This was, he wrote in 2007 because it sounded like a convoluted form of self-praise: Baghdad is dangerous, I go to Baghdad, ergo I must be amazingly brave. But better than anyone, he knew how nervous he got when he was there, and how he constantly imagined the worst was about to happen to him. Although he didn’t have a military escort when he ventured out, he did have some of the best security people in the business to look after him. He wrote:
The brave ones… are not the tourists who turn up from time to time, like me, but the full-time correspondents who have stayed in Baghdad over the years since Saddam Hussein’s fall.Simpson, p. 154.
The BBC’s first correspondent in Baghdad was Caroline Hawley, who was in the role for three years. She was expelled from Iraq in 2002 but returned to the country after Saddam Hussein was removed from power the following year. Hawley and her partner were dining in the Grand Hyatt in Amman when it was bombed in November 2005 by al-Qaeda; they were physically unhurt themselves, but traumatised by the incident in which many others died or were seriously injured in front of them. Simpson commented:
It takes a particular form of determined, long-term courage to live in such places, to see so much death and destruction and at first hand, and to continue reporting it, day after frightening day. In my case, I would stay for only a couple of weeks and then head home; for Caroline, the nerve-racking conditions of Baghdad were her home.Ibid.
For Simpson, the insurgency against the American and British forces in Iraq was the thirty-sixth war he had reported on in his career to that point. It had been by far the most dangerous of all of them: much worse than even the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. No other war he had reported on, including the Gulf War of 1990 and the wars in former Yugoslavia, had come anywhere near to the daily perils in Baghdad. By contrast, reporting from the southern city of Basra, which was held by the British from 2003 to 2007, was a good deal safer. The Sunni resistance, carrying out its daily suicide bombings, didn’t operate in Basra, and although it wasn’t exactly safe, it was a great deal easier to be there than in the capital. But no journalists were based in the so-called ‘Green Zone’, the vast suburban area of southern central Baghdad on the west bank of the Tigris controlled by the Americans and the Iraqi Army, as claimed by some who had never been there. All of the crews, even the American ones, were based in the centre of the capital and were given no protection at all by either the US or the Iraqi armies. They lived either in rented houses or hotels.
The BBC, Reuter and the New York Times, for instance, were all based in a side-street area of the city which was still more-or-less mixed, cooperating with each other over security. The street was patrolled by armed men, day and night, and there were chicanes of concrete blocks twelve feet high. The houses used by the journalists were protected by steel doors. An attack on the BBC or the kidnapping of one of its employees would not have been impossible and would gain big headlines around the world. The BBC employed its own highly-trained security consultants, usually ex-SAS or other former military men, who accompanied them when filming in the city. Several of them had done close protection work previously. They had a rule that they would never stop in the same place for more than fifteen minutes, that being the time which, they worked out, it would take an insurgent to spot them and get fully armed support and attack them.
Simpson was very ‘attached’ to his flak jacket because it saved his life in northern Iraq in 2003, and, four years later, still had the hole in the material where a large chunk of shrapnel buried itself in the rear plastic panel protecting his back. The hole was directly over his spine, but it didn’t protect his hip from another large piece that hit him there, though doing him no real harm. Since it was not endangering any vital organs, the surgeons preferred to leave it where it was, since removing it would do damage to the nerves around it. He complained about it a bit when the weather was cold or he had to sit or stand for a long time, but he had actually grown quite fond of it, giving it the nickname ‘George W. Bush’, because it was a pain in the arse (or, in Texan, ‘ass’!) When this was quoted in a newspaper, he was rebuked for this by one of his various bosses at the BBC. Apparently, it was against BBC guidelines to make such jokes about world leaders.
On his visits to Baghdad after the invasion, Simpson usually flew to Kuwait and then drove the whole way to Baghdad. This took between seven and ten hours, and as the situation in Iraq deteriorated in 2004, it became increasingly dangerous. They were subject to being stopped at highly questionable roadblocks by men who looked like policemen but were just as likely to be gangsters or insurgents. Also, trouble might flare up suddenly in the towns and villages they passed through, and they could easily be identified as foreigners and attacked.
This kind of travel, he remarked, was always a strain on both mind and body, so his crew was relieved when they were able to fly to Baghdad in an hour with the RAF, even though it required wearing full body armour in the heat of summer. Apparently, early on in the Iraq insurgency, one unfortunate passenger had been killed by a stray round from an AK-47 as the Hercules was close to the ground. After that, wearing body armour became mandatory. Direct attacks on RAF aircraft were also a regular risk. After one transport to Baghdad, the film crew paused while the aircrew posed for a photograph with them all together. The next day they heard that a Hercules had been shot down on a flight out of Baghdad to the north. Everyone on board, including a number of SAS men, had been killed. When he checked the names, he discovered that they also included the crew they had flown in with, chatting with them in the cockpit. He imagined the atmosphere in that cockpit as the plane went into its final dive.
John Simpson was a great admirer of Islam, appreciating its qualities as a religion and the Islamic culture, architecture, customs, laws and traditions it had created. It enraged him to hear American officials warning Iraqis that the patience of the United States could wear thin unless they did something to help themselves. Suggestions that the US had sacrificed a great deal to help Iraq, and that everything would be fine if only Iraqis would stop their incomprehensible violence were commonplace and made the journalist ‘boil with anger’. Of course, he had no sympathy for the suicide bombers and vicious criminals in the name of Islam, but, he wrote, …
… if you invade a complex, finely balanced society and destroy all the constraints which stop people going for each other’s throats in the name of politics and religion, the primary blame is scarcely theirs.Simpson, p. 163.
The Attack on Fallujah & its Aftermath, 2004-05:
In April 2004, US Marines attacked the small town of Fallujah, on the western outskirts of Baghdad. The intention was, apparently, to avenge the savage murders of four US security men who were dragged through the streets by a lynch mob and hanged from a bridge like slaughtered animals. It was appalling and seems that President Bush himself gave orders that the people of Fallujah should be taught a lesson. Until that moment, the insurgency against the coalition forces had been relatively mild. There were a few attacks every day, but it was still possible for Westerners to walk around alone, and drive from Baghdad to other parts of the country. I went to places as different as Tikrit, aggressively Sunni and strongly supportive of Saddam Hussein, whose pictures were still displayed on the main street, and the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, where the influence of the fierce young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was strong. The Americans also decided to take him on, thereby deciding to fight the war on two fronts.
The attack on Fallujah was thoroughly questionable. The Americans warned everyone to leave the small town beforehand and announced they would regard everyone who remained there as an enemy combatant. But of course, large numbers of the poorest, the weakest and the oldest were unable or unwilling to leave, and there is no clear evidence as to how many of them were killed by ground fire or aerial bombardment. The Geneva Convention forbids attacks on towns and cities from which the civilian population has not been properly evacuated. But the Bush administration decided that the Convention did not apply to what they considered was essentially a war of retribution and self-defence after the attacks on 9/11, for which they held both Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein responsible. Much later, President Bush had to admit that Saddam’s Iraq had not aided and abetted those attackers. This was a distinction which went unnoticed by large numbers in the United States. In 2003, one in five Americans polled thought Saddam and Bin Laden were one and the same person; the proportion was even higher among US servicemen, especially those fighting in Iraq. Given this level of ignorance, it is hardly surprising that so many Iraqi civilians were killed. The confusion was convenient for the Washington hawks.
The insurgency that followed the attack on Fallujah showed everyone that Iraq would never be a loyal American ally nor a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. It was also a strategic turning point in the war on terror, since after 2004, no one except for the ‘innocents’ in the Coalition Provisional Authority could seriously have believed that the invasion of Iraq was going to end up as a success in terms of its objectives of restoring order and establishing democracy. The CIA and the State Department both tried hard to explain the unwelcome realities of Iraqi life to the true believers in the White House and the Department of Defense. The latter put together a nine-hundred-page document about how Iraq should be run after the overthrow of Saddam. Part of it dealt with the difficult business of maintaining a balance between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, whose arrogance typified the whole Iraq operation, threw it in the waste bin, apparently uttering the words, “well, we won’t be needing that!”
At first, both the American and British governments, though not their respective diplomats (who knew more/ better), played down the sectarian divisions in Iraq. There was a tendency to talk stereotypically about ‘the Iraqis’ or the Iraqi people as though the population was pretty much ethnically and culturally homogenous, in the same way as they might talk about the neighbouring Iranians or even Syrians. Soldiers serving in Iraq, and especially those who had recently returned home, complained about the usually pessimistic reporting they saw, heard or read in the mainstream press and media. They often commented that all ‘the Iraqis’ where they were stationed were delighted to have the Coalition forces in their country. It became clear, however, that they were either talking about the Kurdish areas, where people were overwhelmingly in favour of the ‘occupation’, or the Shi’ite ones, where the pleasure of seeing Saddam overthrown, hadn’t yet worn off. But since the main hatred and violence towards coalition forces came from the Sunni areas, only roughly twenty per cent of the population of Iraq, and the previously ‘privileged’ pro-Ba’athist element in the population was to be found among them, these informal generalisations were meaningless self-delusion.
Simpson has admitted that the media itself did not help to clarify but rather added to the confusion. In April 2004, just as the assault on Fallujah was underway, the BBC and various other international news organisations commissioned an opinion poll across Iraq. It may sound strange to think that pollsters could travel the country, knocking on people’s doors and asking about their states of mind, when there was violence reached an unprecedented level, it was still possible to hold an effective nationwide opinion poll. The results, as we received them first, were very interesting. People were asked whether the invasion of 2003 had been a liberation or an occupation. Only a single percentage point separated the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ votes, 49 for ‘liberation’ and 48 for ‘occupation’; as one BBC headline put it:
‘Iraqis are finely divided between enthusiasm for the invasion and criticism of it.’Simpson, p. 168.
It was only on the following day, when they were able to see more of the data from the opinion poll, that it became how misleading this headline and others had been. Virtually every Sunni who had replied to the question had said the invasion had resulted in an ‘occupation’; a surprising number of Shi’ites, and even a small number of Kurds agreed with them. Those who said it had resulted in a ‘liberation’ contained scarcely any Sunnis at all; they were overwhelmingly Kurdish and Shi’ite. Because the BBC and the other news organisations who participated still regarded Iraqis as a single national community, they misunderstood the nature of the answers they had received.
The Run-up to the 2005 Election & its Results:
As the election of January 2005 came closer, there was immense pressure from both governments on Western journalists in Baghdad to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of it. In this case, this meant glossing over the differences between the various elements within the population. The British government, aware of the scepticism in the press and media at home, put a good deal of effort into persuading the British public that the election was a success and that the great majority of Iraqis were happy with the new system. The British embassy in Baghdad was headed by people who knew perfectly well that this was not the case, and they were honest about it. But Downing Street put its own people into the embassy to make sure that the ‘right’ message was put out. So they organised for their press machine to organise a trip to Iraq so that the large number of journalists who had come to Baghdad to report on the election could see the Iraqi people voting. However, what they saw was not a cross-section of the Iraqi electorate, but those voting in a strongly Shi’ite region in the south.
There was never any doubt that there would be a very large turnout. Throughout the Saddam Hussein era and even before, the Shi’ites had been barred from any kind of political power or influence, even though they formed the clear majority of the population. They understood that the American and British invasion had smashed Sunni minority power in the country and that this election was their first chance to take control of it themselves. So, of course, they turned out in their millions; it was a moving and impressive sight to watch them. For the British and American governments, the television images of large numbers of Iraqis voting would by themselves provide a vindication of their invasion. Saddam Hussein had been a tyrant; now the people of Iraq were free to express their real political views. But to call them simply ‘Iraqis’ was completely misleading. It gave the impression that the nation had come forward as a whole to take advantage of its newfound freedom. In the Sunni areas, by contrast, a majority of people were planning to stay at home on election day as they felt was a distinct threat to any Sunnis who wanted to vote. This wasn’t the image and the message that the White House and Downing Street wanted to broadcast.
Most of the British TV and newspaper journalists who had come to Baghdad to report on the election accepted the offer of free transport to the Shi’ite south without even thinking about it. The pictures they obtained told the story, but it wasn’t the full story, and it wasn’t even half the true story. For Simpson and his colleagues, the important thing was what happened in the Sunni areas. If people there had turned out in huge numbers, then that really would be a ringing endorsement of the British and American invasion. But of course, they didn’t; some Sunnis voted, but in their areas, partly because many felt threatened anyway, there was something of a boycott. For some time, Simpson’s ‘regular crew’ had to contend with suggestions from within the BBC that they had deliberately downplayed the success of the election. Memories were recalled of the time in 1999 when based in Belgrade during the NATO bombing, he had reported that the bombs were hardening people’s resistance rather than weakening it. He was seen in Downing Street as being…
… a contrarian, a naysayer, an ingrained critic… an enemy (with) the basest political motives.Simpson, loc. cit., p. 170.
Slowly, though, the reality in Iraq became more evident. People began to understand that this election and the two later votes in 2005 simply made the sectarian and ethnic divides even fiercer and more obvious. Iraqis were being forced to decide, often for the first time, whether they were basically Shi’ite or Sunni, and whether they would express their religious identity by voting for their sect. In that sense, there was no objective distinction between religion and the new state. The elections were the main achievement of the invasion, but although it was a great thing to see people voting freely for the first time, the act of voting in actual fact made the violence and the divisions in Iraq all the worse.
This, however, Simpson concludes, was not an inevitable result of the invasion. Certainly, a number of senior British diplomats felt it would have been possible to devise elections which kept Iraqis together rather than emphasise the differences between them. But the ‘Washington hawks’ were impatient with these convoluted, decadent, mandarin means. The Coalition ‘chief’ in Baghdad, Paul Bremer III and his patrons in Washington, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, believed the way forward could be quicker and easier. If Iraqis were just allowed to vote, that would sort everything out. But it didn’t. In 2003 and early 2004, however, it had still possible to find real optimism among the people of Baghdad. Simpson explained the collapse of confidence in the following terms:
It never occured to them, I think, that the most powerful nation in history could fail when it set its mind to something. Slowly, though, this changed. The awkwardness and widespread lack of elementary social skills among the American soldiers began to enrage ordinary Iraqis. The majority treated all Iraqis as enemies, just as their predecessors had once treated all Vietnamese, then were surprised to find that most Iraqis did indeed come to hate them. …
… This should have been a war for the hearts and minds of Iraqis. But it was fought by soldiers who were trained for aggression, and who were usually exonerated if they maintained they had opened fire because they thought their lives were in danger. You don’t win hearts and minds by firing at civilians. On the contrary, you have to be prepared to be fired at forty-eight times out of fifty without firing back.Simpson (2007), loc. cit., pp. 175-76.
Over the remainder of 2005, the situation grew worse, until the Americans announced that when their convoys or those of the Iraqi Army were patrolling, every vehicle on the road had to stop, or else stay a hundred yards back. The rear gunner possessed the power of life or death, and he or she was hated for it. If they decided that there was something suspicious about the car following them from the proscribed distance, there would be no problem with them opening fire.
But over the years, Simpson also met a number of senior military men, from the generals who ran things in Baghdad to General David Petraeus (pictured above), who was eventually promoted to command the entire American operation in Iraq. The more of these people he met and interviewed, the more impressive I found them to be. They were not mindless gung-ho characters careless of civilian losses or the actions of their own men. They knew perfectly well that the enterprise was likely to fail, and did their best to tell the Washington politicians what was happening. Many of them also had a deep dislike of Donald Rumsfeld, who had got them into this war with insufficient resources and who treated them vindictively if they made their own views public. David Petraeus had a highly successful war and was the leading advocate in the US forces of the policy of winning hearts and minds.
On the other side, the deputy leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaking of the latest group of suicide bombers who had just murdered dozens of innocents, said “they have the honour, by God’s grace, of being in paradise.” But John Simpson had seen the broken bodies and lives that the daily bombings in Iraq had brought. To him, they all used the same weapons and the same argument: that it’s unfortunate that ordinary people’s lives have to be sacrificed, but there is a greater good that we must bear in mind. He wrote that there are few arguments more despicable than this business of treating the innocent as a target in order to strike at the people who govern them. The lesson that he took away from his experience of the Iraq war was…
… that life itself is immensely valuable; not just the lives of people who think and look and worship like us… people who are the right type of Christian or Muslim, but all lives.Ibid., p. 184.
Reporting for Posterity – The Trial of Saddam Hussein:
Saddam Hussein’s trial began on 5 November 2005. By then, his reputation was very low, even among his former supporters. The assembled journalists, including John Simpson, had not come to watch a caged lion, but a vanquished prisoner. Saddam challenged the authority of the court to try him, given that it was set up as a result of an invasion which did not have the full sanction of the United Nations. But he then went on to enter a plea of ‘Not Guilty’. He often seemed plodding and uncertain in defending himself. Sometimes he challenged the evidence of witnesses to remarkable effect, but then days would pass during which he failed to make any points at all. Gradually, however, his confidence grew, and he began to bring the Koran into court as soon as his American captors would approve it, waving it at the judges and ostentatiously looking up references in it. People in Iraq began to watch the proceedings on television for the extraordinary novelty of seeing their former dictator paraded in front of their eyes, a broken man who would soon be executed. They found themselves sympathising with him, and in the teahouses of Baghdad, they would bang the tables when he made what they thought was a good point.
The fear of him had long faded. At first, even in 2005, most people in Iraq still assumed that the Americans would get their own way because they were the world’s only superpower. The extraordinary truth, that the USA was not as powerful as everyone had assumed, had not yet begun to sink in. As the trial progressed, Saddam began once again to have great rallying power among Sunnis. Putting him on trial certainly didn’t create the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. That had begun almost as soon as he was deposed. But it did provide it with a martyr, a former authority figure who was mocked and humiliated in front of everyone’s eyes. By contrast, Shi’ite anger grew commensurately, and defence lawyers began to be murdered. The charges against him were strangely chosen. This was a man who had ordered the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men and women as a matter of policy. Some of these massacres were well-known outside the country; at Halabja for instance, where poison gas was dropped onto the rebellious townspeople or the systematic killings of Kurds and Shi’ites after the abortive uprisings of 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf War.
Yet the Régime Crimes Liaison Office advised Saddam’s prosecutors to select an incident which was easier to prove. It was one about which most international journalists, even Simpson, knew very little: the killing of 143 men and boys after an attempt to assassinate the dictator in the Shi’ite town of Dujayl in 1983. Saddam himself made the point that in any country an attempt on the life of the Head of State would bring some kind of retribution, and there was still some confusion as to who precisely had been responsible for which deaths in Dujayl. The trial rumbled on for a year, during which he was also charged along with his relative, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as ‘Chemical Ali’ after Halabja, for the killings of tens of thousands of Kurds and the destruction of their towns and villages. But Saddam was already dead by the time the trial on the second charge was concluded. The Iraqi constitution specified that any punishment had to be carried out within thirty days of the final appeal being rejected. Saddam was found guilty of the Dujayl killings on 5 November 2006, and his appeal was turned down on 26 December. He was executed four days later. The insurgency continued, however.
Legacy of the War:
Appendix One –
Richard Toye on…
The effect of the Iraq War on British foreign policy:
The 2003 war in Iraq was a watershed moment in British domestic politics. Whether it also led to a fundamental shift in UK foreign policy is a difficult question to answer. Clearly, the popular reaction against the war — once it became clear that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction — led to some degree of change. It is now a convention that Parliament has the chance to debate military deployments, except in case of emergency. This does not have any legal force, but in 2013 the Commons did hinder military action against Syria when the government lost a vote to approve it. More generally, Tony Blair’s fall from public grace may have dampened leaders’ enthusiasm for foreign military ventures.
At the same time, the fundamentals of the Anglo-US relationship, including Britain’s effective subordination to American strategy, have not changed. It is also difficult to imagine that Downing Street’s reaction to, say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, would have been radically different had the Iraq invasion not occurred. However, by sowing distrust in political elites, the events of twenty years ago may have fed the growth of British populism — and thus helped trigger the geopolitical earthquake that was Brexit.
Richard Toye is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter.
Appendix Two –
Louise Fawcett on…
The Iraq War’s impact on regional politics in the Middle East:
The Iraq War and subsequent occupation, aside from its devastating consequences for Iraq itself, had profound (and unintended) consequences for regional and international order which resonate today. By producing a ‘weak’ Iraqi state, the war transformed the regional balance of power into one characterized by an unstable Saudi–Iran rivalry and a volatile system of alliances. The Middle East’s already weak regional institutions were also further damaged by the conflict’s repercussions, with many actors seeking new institutional relationships elsewhere.
Furthermore, the invasion had a detrimental impact on western states’ legitimacy and reputation, while reducing their appetite for costly international interventions. The willingness of policy-makers to use traditional hard-power resources to achieve their foreign-policy objectives declined alongside a reduced commitment to the region. This diminution of western, and particularly US, power and influence has helped to create new opportunities for states like China and Russia to enhance their own strategic positions, with the former making the region a central part of its Belt and Road Initiative and the latter establishing a strategic foothold through its support for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. As these dramatic shifts demonstrate, the after-effects of the invasion remain with us in ways that make it all the more vital to gain a fresh understanding of the conflict and its regional and geopolitical fall-out.
Louise Fawcett is a Professor of International Relations and Wilfrid Knapp Fellow and Tutor in Politics at St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford.
John Simpson (2007), Not Quite World’s End: A Traveller’s Tales. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.
Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.