Following Tony Blair’s interview on Newsnight this week, there have been those who have criticised his invocation of Saddam’s crimes against humanity as one reason why those who supported the war might feel it was still the correct decision. Others have rushed to condemn this as retrospective justification that cannot be entered into the credit column given Blair’s own admission that full cooperation with Blix’s inspectors would have seen Saddam remain in power. A good example of such thinking could be found on Andrew Neil’s ‘This Week’ shown last night on BBC1, in which Michael Portillo (supporter) and John Prescott (recanter) both declared that the end of Saddam’s tyrannical rule could not be used to justify the conflict.
They are wrong, and the reasons they are wrong can be found, in part, in the text of the former Prime Minister’s speech given to the House of Commons on the eve of war:
I have never put our justification for action as regime change. We have to act within the terms set out in resolution 1441. That is our legal base.
But it is the reason, I say frankly, why if we do act we should do so with a clear conscience and strong heart.
I accept fully that those opposed to this course of action share my detestation of Saddam. Who could not? Iraq is a wealthy country that in 1978, the year before Saddam seized power, was richer than Portugal or Malaysia.
Today it is impoverished, 60% of its population dependent on food aid.
Thousands of children die needlessly every year from lack of food and medicine.
Four million people out of a population of just over 20 million are in exile.
The brutality of the repression – the death and torture camps, the barbaric prisons for political opponents, the routine beatings for anyone or their families suspected of disloyalty are well documented.
Just last week, someone slandering Saddam was tied to a lamp post in a street in Baghdad, his tongue cut out, mutilated and left to bleed to death, as a warning to others.
I recall a few weeks ago talking to an Iraqi exile and saying to her that I understood how grim it must be under the lash of Saddam.
“But you don’t”, she replied. “You cannot. You do not know what it is like to live in perpetual fear.”
And she is right. We take our freedom for granted. But imagine not to be able to speak or discuss or debate or even question the society you live in. To see friends and family taken away and never daring to complain. To suffer the humility of failing courage in face of pitiless terror. That is how the Iraqi people live. Leave Saddam in place and that is how they will continue to live.
We must face the consequences of the actions we advocate. For me, that means all the dangers of war. But for others, opposed to this course, it means – let us be clear – that the Iraqi people, whose only true hope of liberation lies in the removal of Saddam, for them, the darkness will close back over them again; and he will be free to take his revenge upon those he must know wish him gone.
So there it is. Regime change, whilst not the justification for war, was an inevitable corollary of it. This rather obvious point should have escaped no-one paying attention to the pre-war debate. Of course, opposition to the war did not mean opposition to the removal of Saddam, but it in any fair accounting of war pros and cons the continuation or otherwise of Saddam’s rule must feature. Neither the pro—war side nor those against are entitled to limit responsibility in a way that excludes all unhappy and happy corollaries of support and opposition. Accountability does not stop where good intention ends.
Saddam Hussein was a megalomaniacal, war-mongering dictator with genocidal tendencies and a predilection for weapons of mass destruction. No war meant more Saddam whereas war guaranteed an end to his tyranny. In the interests of a constructive debate about the rights and wrong of the war, it would be better if opponents did not run from this fact.
Back in February 2003 I was moved by Blair’s speech on Iraq at the Glasgow Labour Party conference. Blair laid out his humanitarian reasons for removing Saddam clearly and with conviction:
there are also consequences of “stop the war”.
If I took that advice, and did not insist on disarmament, yes, there would be no war. But there would still be Saddam. Many of the people marching will say they hate Saddam. But the consequences of taking their advice is that he stays in charge of Iraq, ruling the Iraqi people. A country that in 1978, the year before he seized power, was richer than Malaysia or Portugal. A country where today, 135 out of every 1000 Iraqi children die before the age of five – 70% of these deaths are from diarrhoea and respiratory infections that are easily preventable. Where almost a third of children born in the centre and south of Iraq have chronic malnutrition.
Where 60% of the people depend on Food Aid.
Where half the population of rural areas have no safe water.
Where every year and now, as we speak, tens of thousands of political prisoners languish in appalling conditions in Saddam’s jails and are routinely executed.
Where in the past 15 years over 150,000 Shia Moslems in Southern Iraq and Moslem Kurds in Northern Iraq have been butchered; with up to four million Iraqis in exile round the world, including 350,000 now in Britain.
This isn’t a regime with Weapons of Mass Destruction that is otherwise benign. This is a regime that contravenes every single principle or value anyone of our politics believes in.
There will be no march for the victims of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule, no righteous anger over the torture chambers which if he is left in power, will be left in being.