To take up the final point made by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) about honouring the 179 dead, I have in the past read out their names. I am sure it would make a deeper impression today if I read them out again, but unfortunately that is forbidden by the rules of the House.
That is part of the feeling we have—the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) made this point—and our reluctance to face the truth. Only the future is certain; the past is always changing. We have heard today so many attempts to fictionalise what happened and we refuse to face our failures. The hon. Gentleman made a marvellous speech on which I would like to base my remarks. He said that what characterises this Parliament is the unimportance of being right and the rewards for failure and the punishment for the truth. I am afraid that that is the abiding culture of this place.
I have received a message during the debate from someone expressing, in very strong language, incredulity at the suggestion that there was not a strong Whip on that day in March. I have been here for 26 years and it was the strongest Whip I have ever encountered. Many of those who were opposed to the war—about 30 or 40 of them—who had signed motions and early-day motions against it were bribed, bullied and bamboozled into changing their minds to either abstain or vote in favour of it. Almost all of them regret that bitterly. It was the most important vote of our careers and it is not true to say that it was easy to make our minds up. It was not. The threat was there that we would lose our seats and that the Prime Minister would resign. Members who were in any doubt were called in to see Ministers to be persuaded. Members of the Committees who had knowledge that we did not have, such as the Intelligence and Security Committee, went around cajoling Back Benchers saying, “If you knew what we know, you’d vote for war, but we can’t tell you because it’s all secret.” They were being fed nonsense and exaggerations as well.
Our reluctance to accept the truth seems extraordinary to me. It would be flattering to describe today’s speech from the Government Front Bench as vacuous. Even now, the Government cannot admit that there were no weapons of mass destruction. It is little short of insanity to suggest that anyone still believes that there were such weapons.
Members have questioned whether anyone foresaw what would happen. A great many people foresaw it at the time. To suggest otherwise is another attempt to rewrite history. I have dug out a letter that I sent to the then Prime Minister in March 2003 to point out what the consequences of the invasion would be. I see with nausea that Tony Blair is now explaining that the inherent nature of the Islamic religion was responsible for the terrible event that took place in Woolwich a few weeks ago. It was not. That event was a reaction to what happened in 2003. My letter stated:
“Our involvement in Bush’s war will increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks. Attacking a Muslim state without achieving a fair settlement of the Palestine-Israeli situation is an affront to Muslims, from our local mosques to the far-flung corners of the world.”
That is when it started and it continued in Afghanistan. The only decision that has been taken without a vote that is comparable to the decision to join Bush’s war in Iraq is the decision to go into Helmand province. There were two dead UK soldiers at that time. The figure is now 441. Nothing has been achieved in Helmand province. Indeed, conditions are worse than in 2006 when we went in.
This House was deceived. We failed. The organs that should have defended us and given us the truth—the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee—were all part of the hallelujah chorus of praise for the messiah, Tony Blair, who thought that he could walk on water. He had been successful in Kosovo. He had been successful in Sierra Leone. Although there were people who opposed him, he thought that he was infallible and was determined to go on.
Tony Blair was asked about the crucial decision in a splendid television programme that was aired recently on BBC2. The decision was not about whether we should stop the war. We could never have stopped the war, because Bush was determined to go in. Saddam would have been removed anyway. The decision that we had to make in Parliament was whether our soldiers should be involved in that. Tony Blair admitted to the shoulder-to-shoulder comment. He almost certainly made his decision in 2002, when he shook hands with Bush and said, “I’ll be with you.” They then invented the facts in order to present this House with a false agenda. If he had not persuaded 40 or so Labour Members to vote the other way, we would not have gone to war.
Tony Blair was asked in the programme why he did not pull out. His comment was:
“I thought it was the right thing to do, I wanted my country to be a part of it. I admit what I said about standing shoulder to shoulder with the US and I would prefer to have gone and left as Prime Minister than to have backed out on the basis that it was too politically difficult.”
There are a large number of “I”s in that statement, but 179 British dead is a hell of a price to pay for one man’s vanity, which I believe was the situation.
Tony Blair did persuade the House; he was very persuasive and used his great talents. He thought it was a special day; it is the only time, I believe, that he invited his family up to the Public Gallery to watch his performance. He saw this; he was the great actor-manager of politics and he gave a splendid performance in the Chamber. There was the invention of the 45-minute claim, and the sexing-up of the introduction to the dossier. Because of that, we sent those young men to their deaths.
The awful thing is that those families who saw their loved ones die have constructed their own justification by saying, “Well, they died in a noble cause; they did not die in vain. Iraq will be a better place because of it.” Slowly, tragically, they must come to terms with a different reality that their loved ones died because of the ego of one man who used his position to send them into an avoidable war.
We must consider all the other wars we are faced with, and the extent of the deceptions. We went into Iraq to defend ourselves against non-existent weapons of mass destruction; we went into Helmand province to defend ourselves against a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat to the United Kingdom. We are now being told that we should perhaps go into Iran to defend ourselves against non-existent Iranian long-range missiles carrying non-existent Iranian nuclear bombs.
One issue that has come to light but received very little publicity is the activity of people such as the Kagans. Kimberly and Frederick Kagan are a married couple who were at Petraeus’s right hand. They were privy to all the private conversations, went to every secret meeting, and wrote Petraeus’s report to the Defence Secretary on what was happening in Afghanistan. Each time, they wanted a more hard-edged approach to military activities and more aggression, and each time, they tried to sabotage the peace initiatives. The Kagans were not employed by the military or by Petraeus—their paymasters were the defence industry and contractors. There was a strong element of that in Iraq and certainly in Afghanistan, and we must look to such things and to the revolving door that means that wars go on. We are at a stage where we are being told to go into perpetual wars. When one is over, we are softened up for the next one, and on and on it goes.
It gets worse. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) spoke about the error of saying that might is right. That works on the day and we win victories, but we store up huge resentment—just as we are doing now with the use of our vastly superior technology in drones and robot weapons. The price must be paid in the end, and we are paying it with the division between the western, Christian part of the world, and the Muslim side. Those divisions are deep and we did a great deal to cause them through our errors in the past.
I will conclude with a poem that was read the other day about the start of the first world war, because it is something we could apply to the former Prime Minister. It is a poem by Kipling, who spent his life celebrating and glorifying war. He managed to get his son, who was almost blind, into the war by pulling a few strings, but he was then tormented because his son died in the war as a result of his efforts. That changed his view, and if any poem will apply to Tony Blair when he becomes—this is the title of the poem—“A dead statesman”, it is this:
“I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?”
I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this debate, and it is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who made an extremely moving speech.
I was not in the House for the 2003 vote, and I certainly do not want to focus on it today; I am far from sure that I would have made the right decision. In fact, I think I would have been on the wrong side in 2003. It was not until I was stuck in Iraq in 2003 that I saw what a mess it was. I want to reflect briefly, therefore, on the lessons we might be able to draw, not so much from the decision to intervene, but from the questions about how we got stuck there and why we find it so difficult to acknowledge our failure.
The starting point for any discussion of Iraq has to be an acknowledgment that it was a failure and a scandal. However we look at the costs and benefits of what happened there, it was probably the worst British foreign policy decision since the Boer war or the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839. Never have the British Government made a worse decision. By that, I do not mean that had I been in the House I would have voted differently. In fact, I suspect that I would have voted in favour of the war, wrongly. I hope, however, that this is an opportunity to reflect on what Parliament is, what the Foreign Office is, what the military is and how Britain as a whole—or at least the British policy establishment—could get something so wrong.
This matters because there are many similarities between what we did in Iraq and what we are doing in Afghanistan, and many similarities between those things and what we occasionally think of doing in Mali or Syria. At the base of the problem is our refusal to acknowledge failure, to acknowledge just what a catastrophe it was, and the House’s refusal to acknowledge how bewildering it was, how little we know and how complicated countries such as Iraq are. Sitting in Iraq for 18 months from the middle of 2003 to 2005, I found myself facing, in a small provincial town called al-Amara, 52 new political parties, many of them swarming across the border from Iran and many of them armed.
Nobody in the Foreign Office or the military, and certainly nobody in the House, would have been able to distinguish between Hizb-e-Dawa, Harakat-Dawa, Majlis Ahla, Hezbollah—which turned out in the Iraqi context to consist of two men with a briefcase—or any of the other Shi’a Islamist groups that emerged. None of us in the British policy machine predicted in January 2005 that 90% of the votes in the south of Iraq would go to only three Shi’a Islamist parties. Everybody in the foreign policy machine then predicted that it would be different at the end of 2005, and we were all wrong again. Why were we wrong? We were wrong because we did not have the right relationship between politicians, diplomats, soldiers and the local reality of these countries. We have not got it right yet.
We have not got it right because it is not realistic today—as it was not realistic at the time of the Boer war or the first Anglo-Afghan war—to expect people in Parliament to be experts on the internal politics of Iraq. What really began to go wrong after the invasion, beyond the decision about WMD, was all to do with micro-relationships in Nasiriyah and al-Amara and in the relationships between the different grand ayatollahs in Najaf. These are not things that anyone in the Chamber, however well briefed, can pretend to understand or judge. Instead, we have to rely on the military, the Foreign Office and the intelligence agencies, and there the problem starts. The problem starts because the entire structure of our organisations—their incentives, their promotions, their recruitment, how they interact with policy makers, politicians and Ministers—does not help us ever to acknowledge failure. In fact, these institutions are designed to trap us in these countries.
Careers are made by people going out for short tours. I remind the House and those in the Foreign Office that the initial tours in Iraq were for six weeks, extended to three months, then to six months. The idea—that people living in heavily defended compounds, moving around in armoured vehicles, generally unable to speak a word of any local language, unable to interact with an Iraqi for more than half an hour or an hour at a time, except if surrounded by heavily armed men and operating through translators, could really get a sense of whether Iraq was stabilising or what, to use the Minister’s words, Iraq would be like in 10 years—was of course misleading. The advice and challenge that they could provide to the Government, therefore, was not good enough.
It is not good enough that not a single senior British diplomat formally recorded on paper their opposition to what was happening in Iraq. Many of those who were inside the system now say that they made private comments, that they were worried, but nobody, from the political director downwards, formally objected on paper to the Prime Minister.
Was that not compounded even further by the American Administration, where if someone questioned what was going on, either strategically or tactically, they were sent back to the states, their future career very much in question?
That is a very good point, and perhaps it is a way for me to wrap up my analysis of the Foreign Office. Of course, this is not a uniquely American problem. Within any British civil service Department, there is no great incentive to admit failure. When I look back at the reports I wrote stuck in al-Amara and Nasiriyah, I find it extraordinary how every week, I claimed great success. Every week, I would write, “We’ve hired another 300 people into the police. We’ve held a new sub-district election. I’ve just created 3,000 jobs. We’ve just refurbished another set of clinics and schools.” To read report after report, week after week, it looks as if the whole thing is getting better and better. In retrospect, I know differently, of course. When I began, I could go into the bazaar to get an ice cream, but by the end, I was stuck in my compound with 140 rocket and mortar-propelled grenades flying at the compound, and we had to abandon it and retreat back to a military base, essentially surrendering Nasiriyah, a city of 600,000 people, to the insurgents.
The situation is not helped by the way we talk about it in Britain today. We do not really think very much about Iraq. We do not think very much about what exactly Iraq is doing with Iran or Syria at the moment, why exactly Iraq got involved in dubious banking transactions to bust sanctions on behalf of the Iranian Government or why exactly our great ally, al-Maliki, appears to have been allowing trans-shipment of weapons from Iran into Syria. Why do we not think about these things? It is because we are not very serious. At some level, this country is no longer being as serious as it should be about foreign policy. Our newspapers are not writing enough about Iraq. The Foreign Office is not thinking enough about the failure. The military is not thinking enough about these things. Unless we acknowledge that something went wrong in Iraq and that something went deeply wrong in Afghanistan, we will get ourselves stuck again.
What do we do about it? We need to reform. It cannot be business as usual. We cannot just go around pretending it was all fine. We cannot simply blame Blair and Bush.
Is not the reason for us going to war in Iraq actually quite simple? Prime Minister Tony Blair had some perverse obligation to George Bush, and that is why we went in.
The hon. Gentleman has raised exactly the point that we need to talk about. We believe that somehow it is all the fault of Blair and Bush—this is the myth that has entered the national consciousness. My experience as someone inside the system is that we have to look much more deeply at ourselves. We need to look at the Foreign Office, the military, the intelligence services and Parliament. These people, Blair and Bush, do not operate in a vacuum; they operate in a culture that did not challenge and shape the debate sufficiently. It is not realistic for Blair or Bush to know deeply about these situations and it is simply a constitutional convention, of course, that the people who make the decision are the Blairs and the Bushes. However, if we look at what got us trapped on the ground in Iraq—at why, for example, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) found it difficult to get out of Iraq or why President Obama found it difficult to say no to the surge—it is because these people are part of a much bigger system.
The reform of that system is threefold. First, we need radically to reform the way in which the Foreign Office operates. The Foreign Secretary has begun; we need to go much further, thinking all the time about the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to focus on people with deep linguistic and cultural expertise. We need to ensure that we change all the bureaucratic mechanisms. The core competency framework for promotion in the Foreign Office needs to be changed. The amount that people are paid for learning languages in the Foreign Office needs to be changed. The posting lengths need to be changed. The security conditions for the Foreign Office need to be changed, because unless we begin to understand deeply and rigorously what is happening on the ground, it is difficult to challenge the Blairs and the Bushes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making such a powerful speech, but when it comes to whether it is right or wrong to blame Bush and Blair, I think he is being a little too generous in his assessment of them. He is giving the impression that they were sitting waiting to hear what the evidence was, when it seems clear—certainly in the case of Bush and maybe in the case of Blair—that they had already made up their minds. They already had an agenda.
I am sure that much of that is true. I am not here to defend that decision—it was a terrible, catastrophic decision—but I think it is dangerous to put the whole blame simply on Blair and Bush, because the implication is that if we do not have Blair and Bush around, we will never get in these messes again. We will get in these messes again because we have not created the proper Government policy structures required to think these things through—not just to avoid the decision to invade, but above all to get out more rapidly once we have made a bad decision.
Military reforms—you have very kindly given me some time, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I do not have enough to talk about this today—involve accepting that the military have too much power in the policy debate. That is not the military’s fault: they are filling a vacuum. The military feel that the Foreign Office is not taking the lead and that somebody needs to do something. I saw that all the time on the ground in Iraq. I remember a major-general saying to me, “The diplomats and aid workers aren’t doing anything, so we”—the military—“need to take those things over,” but that is not the military’s job. It is extremely dangerous, because its puts generals in positions where they make optimistic predictions about their capacity to sort things out, albeit without a detailed understanding of the politics or the reality of those aspects of governance or diplomacy.
We in Parliament need to look at ourselves—it is on this that we need to conclude. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) was exactly right to ask us to look hard at how the Select Committee on Defence, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Intelligence and Security Committee got this wrong. What reforms have we introduced to those Committees to ensure that we do not get it wrong again? How do we as Members of Parliament operate in a very complicated world? It is not realistic for any of us in this Chamber to understand exactly what the difference is between Harakat-Dawa, Hizb-e-Dawa and Hizb-e-Dawa Islamiya. Everybody is learning desperately from briefs, trying to sound plausible, but there are 200 nations in the world. Ministers are busy. Politicians are busy; they are worrying about their constituents. They are not deep experts on these issues. We therefore need to create a system that we can rely on in the Foreign Office, the military and the intelligence services. We in Parliament need to know how to question those people, how to listen to them and how to promote people who disagree with us. We need in Parliament to learn how to look at which civil servants got it wrong and hold them accountable, rather than promoting, as we did, almost everybody who was implicated in the Iraq decisions.