The Greek tragic poet Aeschylus was not, as far as I am aware, a member of the Conservative party. Yet his astonishing trilogy the Oresteia—concerning as it does the cycle of blood-guilt and revenge afflicting the House of Atreus, the King of Mycenae—perfectly illustrates the conservative insight that the past conditions the present, and the present in turn the future.
Central to the Oresteia are the ideas of blood-guilt, transmitted down the generations from an original act of folly; and hubris, the individual arrogance which inevitably brings nemesis or retribution in its train. Atreus quarrelled with his brother Thyestes, killed his children and fed them to him, only to be killed in turn. His son Agamemnon has sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia to get favourable winds before the Trojan War. Now he insults the gods as well and is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. She is killed in turn by their son Orestes. Only a civil hearing, at which the case for and against Orestes is publicly heard and adjudicated, can bring the cycle to an end.
I have found myself reflecting on these themes over the last day or two, as the commentariat has ceaselessly indulged itself on the issue of Syria. Why has the public debate been so peculiarly anguished and intense?
We need not look far for reasons: the barbarous nature of the Assad regime, the character of civil war, the more than 100,000 people already killed, the horrific scenes of death and suffering. And, conversely, the very rapid transition to possible use of force, the risk of escalation, the uncertain outcomes of any military intervention, the instability of the region, and the fragility of the wider geopolitical context. All these factors have played their parts.
Yet hanging over the whole is, undeniably, one huge and still unresolved issue: the war in Iraq. Of course Syria now is very different to Iraq in 2003, as the Prime Minister was at pains to stress. But many of the key figures then are still active today, both in politics and the media. Old emotions, rivalries, arguments beckon. The fires of self-justification continue to burn.
And there are specific parallels to be drawn as well. The first concerns intelligence, and the use of intelligence. People today are apt to forget that the Blair government produced not one but two dodgy dossiers in the run-up to the Iraq War: the “45-minute missile launch” dossier signed off by the Joint Intelligence Committee, and another which copied verbatim (including typographical errors) parts of an article by an American graduate student named Ibrahim al-Marashi. This was issued by civil servants under Alastair Campbell, and was not reviewed by ministers before publication.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell later found to his enormous embarrassment that his speech calling for military action to the plenary session of the UN Security Council had drawn heavily on that plagiarised second dossier—as well as on single-sourced intelligence about an alleged attempt by Saddam to obtain yellowcake uranium from Niger, intelligence which proved to be false.
The present Government would never stoop to the depths plumbed in 2002-3. But is it any wonder that the British people, and British parliamentarians, have found themselves pausing at the last-minute publication of excerpts from intelligence sources, including the JIC?
A second parallel concerns legal advice. The government last week published a note outlining a supportive legal opinion from the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, regarding a military strike in Syria. Again, Iraq reminds us of the true meaning of this step. In late 2003 I published in the Spectator the first article asking whether, as it appeared, the provision of legal advice in the Iraq war had tracked that during the Suez crisis. In the case of Suez, as we now know, Anthony Eden as Prime Minister ignored the advice of the government’s own legal officers in favour of the opinion of the pro-war lord chancellor, advice which had been given in a personal capacity and was based on a clear misreading of just one relevant authority. Had a little friendly lawyering happened over Iraq as well, I asked?
It very much looks as though it had. On 7 March 2003 the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, gave a distinctly equivocal opinion in writing to the Cabinet on the legality of an Iraq invasion. This suggested that it would be preferable for the Government to have a second UN resolution clearly authorising the use of force; and that without such a resolution a decision to invade might later be judged illegal by an international court.
Ten days later, however—less than a week before the invasion began—Goldsmith replied to a written Parliamentary Question by stating in terms that a decision to invade would be legal under existing UN resolutions. This was a very different view. But in 2005 it was discovered that the original written advice was never revised. The second, unequivocal, version—on which this country went to war in Iraq—was not based on any written opinion at all. It wasn’t just the dodgy dossier that had been “sexed up”—the legal advice had been sexed up too.
Dominic Grieve is a man of huge integrity, but suspicion and mistrust have been injected into the system by the Iraq war experience. Is it any surprise then that public, Parliament and Prime Minister alike now demand proper due process in the provision of legal advice?
There is a third parallel. Last week’s events showed that the Labour party remains deeply traumatised by the Iraq war. Whatever one’s view of Ed Miliband’s performance, it was that of a man desperately trying to keep his own party, and his backers, in check. It cannot have helped to have Tony Blair opining not once but twice in the pages of News Corp about the necessity of military strikes.
And this is the rub. For ultimately one person more than any other is to blame for the odium and distrust into which politics in this country has been allowed to sink.
Who gave a private undertaking to President George W. Bush in mid-2002 that the UK would support the US in an invasion of Iraq, provided the US supported the quest for a second UN resolution? Who was left high and dry when, despite US support, he was unable to secure that resolution? Who was ultimately responsible for the dodgy dossiers, and the sexed-up legal advice? Who insisted on the country going to war on what proved to be false information, with no endgame or proper plans for reconstruction, misleading the British people and Parliament alike?
It was Tony Blair. His actions have created an Aeschylean tragedy of hubris and nemesis—of individual blindness and arrogance, and collective retribution. We are still paying the price. But he has yet to answer for it.