Conventional accounts of Britain’s participation in the Iraq war contend that Tony Blair was a “poodle” to the US.
The neo-conservatives in Washington, it is argued, were driven by a post 9/11 desire to enforce regime change in Iraq as part of a broader mission to assert US’s global hegemony.
This took place while senior New Labour figures deliberately misled the country and parliament about the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in order to demonstrate Britain’s commitment to its chief ally.
Britain’s role in the war is reduced to giving George Bush a political fig leaf for his international misdemeanours.
The majority of commentators generally agree that Britain’s participation in the war provides a “barium meal” that illuminates the flaws in our democracy. They conclude that the way to revitalise democracy in Britain is through a series of reforms to strengthen Parliament and temper the dominance of Number 10.
These interpretations, although insightful, are problematic. Far from being dragged into a war out of desire “to help our friends in their time of need”, New Labour was keen to adopt an assertive foreign policy from the day it took office in 1997.
Blair wanted, from the beginning, to further Britain’s imperial ambitions, a strategy that predates the US neo-conservative’s rise to power.
This strategy of interventionism was progressively entrenched by a series of military campaigns: the four days of air strikes against Iraq in December 1998 (Operation Desert Fox); the crusade against Yugoslavia in 1999; and the dispatch of British troops to the African state of Sierra Leone the following year.
With Blair’s intervention in Sierra Leone seemingly successful, his appetite for more adventures became evident.
As he put it to Clare Short, then international development secretary, “If it were down to me, I’d do Zimbabwe as well.”
In May 1999, a joint memo produced by Robin Cook and George Robertson – the foreign and defence secretaries – set out New Labour’s policy for Iraq.
This outlined that the policy of “containment” (UN sanctions and no-fly zones) was flawed, since it did not “produce rapid or divisive results” – the fall of the Baathist regime.
The memo concluded that regime change was not viable. Not because it was unlawful, but because there was “no international support” for such a move at the time.
With the election of George Bush and the 9/11 attacks, New Labour’s new imperialist strategy was catapulted up the political agenda. Bush and Blair now pursued regime change in Afghanistan and set about creating the conditions for the invasion of Iraq.
In the spring of 2002, a top secret options paper compiled by the cabinet office outlined the framework within which government policy was developing.
The document concluded that there was “no greater threat now than in recent years that Saddam will use WMD”. However, the only way to remove the Iraqi leader would be “to invade and impose a new government”.
The optimum time for this war, the document concluded, was in the spring of 2003.
In traditional New Labour style the decision to go to war was taken by an informal, secretive and highly centralised cabal clustered around Number 10.
Although Iraq was discussed in cabinet more than any other topic in the nine months prior to the war, these were no more than briefings that Clare Short describes as a series of “updates”.
The cabinet did not engage in any substantial debate and was presented with no alternative strategies. But cabinet members also made no real attempt to challenge the decisions coming out of Number 10.
Having decided on war, the British political system provided Blair and his cabal with a high degree of freedom to pursue their agenda.
This was not a departure from the norm, or a break with British political traditions. It reflected the very foundations of a system that is based on a centralisation of power, hierarchy and elitism.
With the occupation spiralling out of control – and Iraq far from becoming a shining beacon of democracy in the region – the British establishment, in the form of the Hutton and Butler reports, rallied around the prime minister.
Although mistakes were made, the reports concluded, the decision to go to war was based on genuine concerns for national security. In sum, Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq does not so much reveal the failure of its democratic system as it signifies the triumph of its essentially undemocratic norms and values.
Far from Blair being subservient to the US, as the “poodle thesis” suggests, he was, in fact, a keen advocate of a war which he hoped would enhance Britain’s power and influence on the world stage.
Steven Kettell is a lecturer in politics and international studies at Warwick University. His book, Dirty Politics? New Labour, British Democracy and the Invasion of Iraq, is published by Zed Books at £14.99