Ming Campbell on Chilcot: “My ally right or wrong is not sustainable”

The House of Lords has been debating Chilcot this week.

Ming Campbell, our foreign affairs spokesperson at the time, spoke in the debate. Here’s his speech:

Contrary to popular belief, I have never believed that what we were presented with was a false premise—implying that there was some effort at deception—but I have always believed that it was flawed, and the distinction is important. But it is clear that throughout these events Mr Blair thought that it was the right thing to do—and he still does. That was inevitably a moral judgment, but the strength of it gave rise to the error of making the evidence fit the judgment rather than the judgment fit the evidence.

The belief that the United Kingdom should be with the United States “whatever” was a flawed belief. Indeed, some would say that that single word reveals all that lay at the heart of the disastrous decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein. On reflection, there seems to have been a complete misunderstanding of the position of the United States. George W Bush always wanted regime change—it was no secret—but why was that? It was because around him was a cluster of influential neocons who thought that his father had made a fatal error in not instructing American forces to go to Baghdad at the end of the first Gulf War. If anyone doubts the good reasons for that decision, I suggest they read the memoirs of Sir John Major, who sets out with great clarity his support for that decision.

These were the same neocons who wrote to President Clinton telling him he was in breach of his responsibilities as commander-in-chief for not seeking to remove Saddam Hussein. It is true that the Motion passed at the end of the two-day debate in the House of Commons concentrated on weapons of mass destruction as a justification for what was being proposed, but I suggest that by our concurrence with the United States’ military action we inevitably became party to the policy of regime change and the responsibilities that flowed from it.

At the heart of all this was the belief that we had to stay close to the United States to be of influence. We had, we have, and I hope that we will continue to have an intimate and rewarding relationship with the United States, but we cannot allow our foreign policy to be defined by that relationship alone. “My ally right or wrong” is not sustainable.

It is clear that the intelligence assessments were accepted at face value and without demur. They formed the basis of the document of 24 September 2002 but were never revisited after publication, even when Dr Blix and Dr ElBaradei were saying something different. Indeed, as Sir John Chilcot records, no one ever considered that Iraq might be telling the truth or that Dr Blix and Dr ElBaradei were right.

The really dodgy dossier was not the one of September 2002 but the one produced in the spring of 2003 in advance of the decision-making. It was based on the 10 year-old thesis of an American PhD student—hardly, one might think, a compelling basis for justifying actions of the kind being contemplated. There are questions here. Why was no account taken of Dr Blix and Dr ElBaradei? There has been no proper answer to that. Was it because their reports undermined the case for intervention, even if Resolution 1441 allowed it? Was it because they contradicted the assertion that Saddam Hussein’s weapons programmes were “active, detailed and growing”, made by the Prime Minister on 24 September? This was plainly not true but it became, as Sir John Chilcot has recorded, an “ingrained belief” that inevitably polluted all other thinking.

The authority for intervention was said to be derived from Resolution 1441 of the Security Council. But read that resolution: it is a masterpiece of ambiguity, designed to persuade the French, who were wholly opposed to military action, to sign. There is more than a hint Lewis Carroll: “Words mean what I want them to say”. United Nations-speak for authorisation is the expression “all necessary means”, but Resolution 1441 simply talked about “serious consequences”.

Sir John Chilcot is highly critical of the process by which legal advice was provided. Without going into that in detail, because it is fully recorded, let me put it this way: at the highest the Attorney-General’s final view was little more than lukewarm and,

“on balance, the better view”.

I respectfully suggest that, if we are going to commit thousands of our young men and women to circumstances where their lives may be at risk, we need something a little better than a “better view”.

We know that the Cabinet was not provided with the full, detailed opinions of the Attorney-General. Sir John Chilcot forcefully finds that that was not proper and should not happen again. He says that he had no obligation to take a view on legality, but he has provided all the information necessary to do so. He found that military action was not yet the last resort, that diplomatic options were still available, that there was no imminent threat, that Dr Blix and Dr ElBaradei were still able to fulfil their responsibilities, and that there were conflicting views about Resolution 1441. When you add to that Article 2 of the United Nations charter which prohibits regime change, it is a legitimate judgment that this was not a legal war.

No account was taken of Iraq’s recent history: no account of the anger and frustration felt by the Shia majority at their brutal subjugation by the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein; and no account of Iran’s resentment of Saddam Hussein’s 10-year war against it, in the course of which he used chemical weapons. As a result, a vacuum was created and, as a consequence of the failure to have a plan, the Shia population, encouraged by Iran, was emboldened to take revenge against the Sunnis, who, not surprisingly, fought back. We became embroiled in a civil war. The welcome army of liberation became an army of hated occupation.

I began by saying that the prospectus was flawed. The unhappy truth is that the prospectus was flawed not simply in conception but in execution. The lessons to be learned from that are manifold. It will only be a justification of Sir John’s work and that of his committee if we can say with confidence, now and in the future, that these lessons have been properly learned.


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This entry was posted in Op-eds.

One Comment

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Jul '16 - 1:32pm

    Ming the merciful! The best foreign secretary we never had , on the worst best prime minister of many years !

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