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Bush and Blair fell foul of their own religion

15 July 2016

They substituted self-belief and personal faith for Christian traditions on the waging of war, says Michael Northcott

THE Chilcot report confirms the view I took before military interven­tion in Iraq began (Comment, 25 October 2002), which is that the decision of the Blair government to join the United States in invasion and occupation in March 2003 did not conform with Christian just-war criteria, since it was not a last resort, and it was not conducted under United Nations authority.

It was not a war of last resort, as the report confirms, because at the time of the invasion Saddam Hussein was not aggressively attack­ing any other nation, and did not repre­sent a threat to the UK. Further­more, he did not have the capability so to do, because of the enforcement of the no-fly zone, and because of the destruction of his former chemical-weapons arsenal, as well as his attempts to develop a nuclear capability.

If any doubt remained about this, and the edited intelligence reports suggested that it did, the situation could have been resolved without war by continuing with the weapons-inspection regime. Min­isters of the time, including Robin Cook and Clare Short, argued this in the House of Commons, having already resigned their posts.

To my mind, the Chilcot report also confirms, albeit without using the word “lawful”, that the war was not conducted under legitimate authority. The report says that the invasion of Iraq “weakened the authority of the United Nations Security Council”, which is a diplomatic way of saying the war lacked an authoritative mandate. As President Jacques Chiraq and other world leaders argued before the invasion, Resolution 1441 did not provide a mandate for war. The report presents evidence that this was the initial view of Tony Blair and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. Their views apparently changed under pressure from President Bush and his admin­istration’s lawyers.

The inquiry also confirms what the BBC’s Today programme, and others, argued, which is that the Blair government edited intelli­gence reports on Saddam Hussein’s possible remaining WMD capabilities in ways that made the case more convincing. Mr Blair and his staff materially manipulated intelligence reports by, among other things, changing question marks into full stops. As the report explains, question marks after claims in intelligence reports indicate claims for which there is insufficient evidence for them to be reliable. Full stops indicate reliable claims.

The inquiry report is also critical that the intelligence claims were not subjected to greater critical scrutiny in a Cabinet sub-committee. It notes that this lack of scrutiny was in part a consequence of the tendency of the Blair government to confine discussions to Mr Blair and his own staff, while resisting the involvement of Foreign Office civil servants, military chiefs, and other Cabinet ministers.

Since the publication of the Chilcot report, Mr Blair has de­­fended what he has repeatedly called “my decision” to go to war in Iraq. In doing so, he underlines what many see as a character flaw, which is his extraordinary self-belief. But he also underlines a deep problem with the UK government system, which is that sovereign power re­­sides with the Prime Minister — under the “royal prerogative”. Like Saudi Arabia, the UK has no written constitution. And, like Saudi Arabia, the UK is a monarchy.

But, unlike Saudi Arabia, the sov­er­­eign power of the monarch rests for the most part in the hands of the Prime Minister; and, under the current system of Cabinet govern­ment, if the PM chooses to make crucial decisions without the full involvement of civil servants and the Cabinet — whether to invade a country, or to leave the European Union — it is difficult for Parlia­ment to resist.

As a result of Mr Blair’s cata­strophic misjudgement, 179 British service men and women and ap­­prox­imately half a million Iraqi civilians lost their lives. Around ten million Iraqis were either internally or externally displaced. The war also led to the infiltration of Iraq by al-Qaeda, which was not present there before the war, despite Mr Bush’s and Mr Blair’s misleading claims. And, as a result of the dis­bandment of the Iraqi army, the Iraq war also prepared the ground for Islamic State to emerge.

A third area where the report clearly shows that the Iraq war did not conform to just-war criteria was in the conduct of the war and subsequent occupation. According to just-war principles, there is a duty on combatants to discriminate be­­tween military and civilian targets, and, when a war has been won, to occupy a country in such a way as to provide for a transition from viol­ence to peace.

But, while Mr Blair committed the UK to the invasion, his govern­ment did not develop a post-war plan for pacifying and ruling an occupied nation. The result was an extensive loss of civilian lives and a descent into chaos. Civil war and terrorism have beset the region since the first months of the invasion.

Christian just-war criteria have governed our use of the military for a century. The two government leaders who led us, in an alliance of 40 nations, into conflict in Iraq both claimed strong allegiance to the Christian faith. President Bush even used religious language in speeches justifying the war, and when celeb­rating the initial “victory”. But, de­­spite their shared faith, both leaders neglected their Christian tradition.

Governments are not — and must not put themselves, or their leaders — outside legitimate author­ity. When they do, their own claim to it is undermined. Neither self-belief nor personal faith in God is an appropriate basis on which to make good judgements. When governments fail in their God-given duty to judge between good and evil, they risk not restraining, but magnifying, that evil.


The Revd Michael Northcott is Professor of Ethics in the School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh.

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