This article was originally published in the Fairfax press (The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times) on July 7th, 2016, here.
On February 3 2003, a short time before the Iraq war began, I wrote in the Fairfax Press here that Iraq posed a great moral dilemma for the West. While the UK’s Chilcot Report released this week will focus attention on Bush and Blair’s failings, the underling moral dilemma nevertheless still remains today.
I did not accept then, nor do I accept now, that the arguments on weapons of mass destruction or terrorism were valid. The Chilcot Inquiry report shows, in exquisite multi-million-word detail, that intelligence estimates were poorly justified and arguably misused.
“I will be with you, whatever” Blair wrote to Bush.
‘Military adventurism is wrong’, some will write. ‘Bush and Blair should be charged as war criminals they’ some will say.
Well may people hold anger in their hearts at the results of the war. Yet, if we take the lesson from Iraq, that intervention is always wrong, do we not condemn people to unnecessary suffering if we fail to intervene when needed? An anger focussed on Bush and Blair, creating a belief in universal non-intervention, will do nothing to solve the moral dilemma when countries butcher their own people.
In 2003 I wrote of the cost of non-intervention based on my experiences of working for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Rwanda and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. I wrote then:
“In 1994, the world had advance warning of the Rwandan genocide. The world, Australia included, ignored the pleas of General Delaire, the UN force commander, when he asked for a mere 2500 soldiers to stop genocide from happening.
“Just 100 days later, up to one million people were dead. That is 10,000 a day, every day, for 100 days. That was the cost of non-intervention.
“In 1992, the Europeans (especially the French and the Germans) said to the US that Bosnia was a European problem and that the US should keep out. “We will fix it,” they said. For three years, the Europeans tried and failed, and 250,000 people died before the US intervened. That was the cost of non-intervention.
Iraq was not a peaceful and stable society before the war. It was a society ripped with fear and brutally ruled by a blood thirst tyrant who killed hundreds of thousands.
In 2002 Amnesty International reported that in the ten years prior to war Saddam had killed between half a million and a million people. “Something must be done about Saddam Hussein” they called.
I wrote in 2003 “To say “continue with diplomacy” is to say “continue with rape, murder and torture”. To say “it is not our problem” is to say “continue with rape, murder and torture”. To say “the US is a global imperialist that just wants to control the oil” is to say “continue with rape, murder and torture”. Anything except regime change is to say “continue with rape, murder and torture”.”
Like Amnesty International I believed ‘something’ had to be done about Saddam Hussein.
People will respond to the above by saying ‘that is not why they went to war’. Blair pleads for us to ‘think in his shoes’ of what to do with imperfect intelligence in the aftermath of September 11. Bush and Blair ran an argument of WMD and terrorism which is demonstrably inaccurate in hindsight. Yet a criticism of Blair and Bush’s reasoning does nothing to answer the question ‘What should we do about dictatorial despots who murder their own people now?
Today we have a new tool available that did not exist in 2003. At the World Summit in 2005 many countries endorsed the new doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ often abbreviated to R2P. (ed see http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/index.php/about-rtop/learn-about-rtop)
In short R2P has a three stage process of a country taking responsibility to protect their own people, the international community supporting a state in doing so, or failing this, with the endorsement of the Security Council, diplomatic or military action may go ahead. Military action is a possible last resort even today.
When similar circumstances arise, which surely they will, how will we react? Non intervention may result in another Bosnia or another Rwanda. For every day the international community debates, delays, pleads and plans, innocent people suffer at the hands of a butcher or be left stranded in an unholy mess like Syria. On the other hand, intervening too fast may result in a poorly planned operation leaving a mess behind, like Iraq.
There is no easy path. And this is the moral dilemma of global leadership – often it is choosing between least bad options, but in doing so leaders should keep their people as informed as possible of true motives and plans. In that alone Chilcot shows that Blair and Bush failed.
Andrew MacLeod is a visiting Professor at Kings College London and a former UN and Red Cross official who served in countries like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others.