One of the great benefits of democracy over totalitarianism is its ability to criticize openly and scrutinize the major decisions of government. If weight of public and political opinion is against a particular decision, there are inevitably dissenters within the machinery of government. Whilst this doesn’t prevent damaging and foolhardy decisions from being made, it does strengthen the hand of these dissenters within the government hierarchy. This usually has the effect of limiting the damage, and speeding up both the reversal of the decision as well as the learning of lessons.
This was apparent in the case of the Iraq war. The public disquiet about the UK invasion of Iraq’s four Southern provinces, and the objections of the UK Liberal Democrats to the war as a whole, did not prevent the war from going ahead, nor the UK’s heavy involvement in it. However, it did serve to limit the depth of UK involvement after the invasion, and as the occupation started to go badly wrong those senior UK military, FCO and MoD officers who were skeptical about the venture were put in a stronger position. For many, of course, the Iraq venture was a travesty of democracy, especially with PM Blair’s reported promise to President Bush to ‘prepare public opinion’ in the UK for the conflict, rather than heed the wishes of the public. Nevertheless, the process through which the UK limited its role and withdrew its troops was a sign of ‘democracy at work’, despite this being a perverse concept for many.
The recent behavior of the UK administration over a potential war with Iran, however, suggests that senior UK security, military and diplomatic officials have chosen to interpret lessons from Iraq in their own special way – to make decision-making less democratic and not to engage with the political class on the matter as far as possible. This head-in-the-sand approach to democracy is a grave error which could backfire catastrophically, and lead to the destabilization of the United Kingdom as a nation-state. Whilst we learnt that the UK monarch praised Gus O’Donnell for holding UK plc together in the economic crisis and for focusing Coalition negotiators on the long term national interest, it is now all about to be undone by the UK’s traditionally pro-Pentagon security establishment over Iran.
The UK has foolishly followed ‘instructions’ from the Pentagon and led the call in Europe to apply general economic sanctions on Iran – an act of dubious legality and outside of the legal UN nuclear sector sanctions. In addition, the UK has sent its new Royal Navy Type 45 ‘stealth destroyer’ HMS Daring, to the waters off the coast of Iran, to join other UK surface and submarine assets.
It is foolish because these steps have been sold to Downing Street as a way to put pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear weapons development – in effect as a substitute for war.
The problem is, these steps and organising a partial global boycott of Iranian oil are a precursor to war and a potential cause of it. This is because the latest November 8th 2011 IAEA report on Iran provides no evidence that Iran has a physical weapons programme, and indeed concurs with the United States multi-agency assessment in 2007 that Iran gave up is embryonic nuclear weapons programme in 2003. What’s more, the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, very much the White House’s guy, stated only this week that Iran did not currently have an active nuclear weapons programme! One must not forget that Iran has been accused of being ‘nearly there’ with a nuclear weapon since 1984. There are many reasons to ‘pressure’ Iran on a range of matters, but Iran being anywhere near to having a nuclear weapon is not one of them.
Given that US security institutions have persuaded the UK to go along with steps to an unnecessary war, when the US Secretary of Defence (and half the Israeli cabinet, incidentally) is against it, one would expect some dissent in the UK political system.
But there is hardly a whisper. Where is the parliamentary debate ? Where are the anti-war Lib Dem voices? Has the UK Deputy Prime Minister looked past the CNN and BBC spin and actually read the IAEA’s short report? Has the Lib Dem Defence Minister got laryngitis? With hundreds of thousands of lives and the coherence of the UK socially and economically at risk, one would certainly hope so.
* Paul Reynolds is an independent foreign policy & international economics adviser, who has had senior political roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, among other countries across the globe.