The real lesson of the Iraq invasion? Beware spies and allies who would drag you to war

<span>Photograph: Bruce Adams/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bruce Adams/AFP/Getty Images

I have spent the last week in the land of the second resolution, Hans Blix and 45 minutes. For much of the past seven days, I’ve been right back there, immersed in the realm of regime change, weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, and the dodgy dossier – along with the rest of the vocabulary that, in the lead- up to the invasion of Iraq, whose 20th anniversary falls on Monday, became the dominant lexicon of British and global politics.

I have gone back to the inquiries – Hutton, Butler and Chilcot – and dug out long forgotten newspaper columns and Commons speeches. I’ve listened to an outstanding new radio documentary series, and spoken to figures in the fatefully intertwined worlds of politics and intelligence, trading memories of the episode that remains the most lethal UK foreign policy disaster since Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938.

For me, it’s a matter of memory: I was writing on these pages back then, arguing that the case George W Bush and Tony Blair were making for war did not add up. But it is also now a matter of history, and one that, two decades later, offers some essential lessons for our own time.

The first is a geopolitical version of the maxim often, if not wholly accurately, thought to constitute the doctor’s oath: first, do no harm. The arguments Blair and Bush made for war on Iraq were multiple, but a central tenet of the case for military intervention was that this was for the good of the Iraqi people themselves, who would be freed from the grip of a brutal tyrant. Saddam Hussein was indeed toppled, but at a terrible cost: some 300,000 lives, according to one estimate, most of them Iraqi civilians. The invasion created a vacuum that was filled with terror and bloodshed. For too many Iraqis, the cure prescribed by Bush and Blair was worse than the disease.

As one former senior intelligence officer put it to me this week: “However ghastly a regime might be, chaos and disorder is worse.” At least you can hold a vile regime to account and take measures against it, the ex-spook explained, offering today’s Russia as an example. But chaos is just chaos.

A second lesson: when it comes to secret intelligence, be sceptical. When making the case for war, Blair placed huge emphasis on the intelligence he had seen, which, he said, left it “beyond doubt” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. That, famously, turned out to be entirely wrong: there were no WMD. The Chilcot inquiry found that the then prime minister had deliberately exaggerated the threat, claiming “a certainty that was not justified”. That fact alone is enough to damn Blair in the eyes of history.

Tony Blair at Basra airport in Iraq, 22 December 2005.
‘For too many Iraqis, the cure prescribed by Bush and Blair was worse than the disease.’ Tony Blair at Basra airport in Iraq, 22 December 2005. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Listening to Gordon Corera’s Shock and War, a riveting new BBC Radio 4 series featuring interviews with several of the key players, you are reminded that the intelligence chiefs themselves also deserve condemnation for passing on such ropy information – some of it second- or third-hand, some of it from sources who turned out to be “fabricators” – for allowing themselves to be badgered into packaging it to suit a political project on a political timetable, and for over-claiming its reliability. Yes, the politicians misled the public; but, says Corera, “that’s because they had been reassured repeatedly by their intelligence agencies that the WMD were there. In my mind, the original sin lay with the spies – who got it wrong.”

The truth is, both spooks and politicians bear the blame; lord knows, there’s enough of it to go around. But if we are to learn from the catastrophe of 2003, we should be extremely wary the next time a prime minister tries to lead us to war on the basis not of what we can see with our own eyes but of secret intelligence. As the spies themselves admit, the picture they paint can only ever be “partial and uncertain”.

Some lessons apply outside wartime. One is that even the closest allies should never give each other blanket support. They should be discriminating, backing a friend when the friend is right, but reserving the right to stand aside when they’re bent on doing wrong. To this day, Blair explains his actions by saying that London was Washington’s “strongest ally”, as though Britain were therefore duty bound to join the Iraqi adventure. But that’s wrong, on two counts.

First, the US-UK relationship would have hit a bump, but it would have survived, just as it weathered Harold Wilson’s wise refusal to join Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. Second, it allows for no distinction between different US administrations. This was a crucial error of Blair’s.

Looking back, I realise that I was suspicious of this venture from the start – even though I had supported Blair’s intervention in Kosovo – in part because I’d been a correspondent in 1990s Washington. There I had seen up close the recklessness and extremism of some of the hawks now gathered around Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, ideologues who had had Iraq in their sights even before 9/11. I didn’t trust a word they said, on WMD or anything else. Blair drew no distinction between Democrat or Republican, let alone between different hues of Republican; he was determined to be at the US’s side, no matter who was in charge. That was a grave mistake.

Related: We Iraqis had survived Saddam Hussein. It was the US invasion that destroyed our lives | Balsam Mustafa

Part of that calculation of Blair’s was a political impulse essential to the New Labour ethos. There’s a Seinfeld episode in which the perennial screw-up George Costanza decides that, since his instincts are always wrong, doing the opposite will always be right. Blair was a bit like that. Anti-Americanism was old Labour; therefore, thought Blair, New Labour would do the opposite – even if that meant running into the abyss holding hands with George W Bush. There’s an enduring lesson there. As some readers may have picked up, I’m not a charter member of the Jeremy Corbyn fanclub. Even so, Keir Starmer should not assume an idea is a good one just because Corbyn would never have had it.

Voters can draw a lesson too. Blair was charismatic to the point of evangelical. He was able to lead a nation into a disastrous war for no better reason than that he believed in it. More than a decade later, another charismatic politician, Boris Johnson, persuaded the British people to make the UK’s second calamitous decision of the 21st century and vote for Brexit. We might complain now that the likes of Starmer or Rishi Sunak are dull technocrats, low on rhetorical firepower, but we should be careful what we wish for.

Finally, a note of caution: it is possible to over-learn the lessons of Iraq. Perhaps that happened 10 years ago, when Bashar al-Assad was slaughtering his own people in the hundreds of thousands, and Barack Obama allowed his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria to go unenforced. Today, tyrants such as Assad live in an age of impunity. Consider that another legacy of the Iraq war, a crime whose pain is still felt now, two decades on.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

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