Justifying war: the Bush-Blair axis of evidential evaporation

Hands up if you still think this country should have joined the American invasion of Iraq in March and the reasons the invaders gave are still convincing.

One basis for still arguing New Zealand should have been there is kith and kin: we should always join our tribe in war and the Americans, British and Australians are our tribe. Actually, “we” now include very large numbers from other tribes, which pro-invasion ACT and National overlook.

The second argument is that not having gone in with the United States killed our chance of a free trade agreement. (Though this is not the same as saying, as National and ACT have sometimes seemed to, that it would have got us to the negotiating table, as it did Australia.)

Neither of those arguments bother about whether the invasion of Iraq was justified. They are framed in terms of our national interest and align our interest unequivocally with that of all or some of the Anglo tribe.

There is a wider national interest case: that the invasion was a necessary battle in the “war on terror” to preserve our way of life, freedoms and “values”. Helen Clark used that argument to commit troops to the invasion of Afghanistan but rejected it in Iraq’s case.

For that rejection she had a majority, both in Parliament and the country. She and that majority felt the war was not justified. The case had not been made.

Sir Michael Quinlan, an eminent British security expert, in a lecture to the Institute of International Affairs on November 19, distilled six criteria for justifying war from a millennium of writings on the “just war”.

* There must be just cause — for example, to right serious wrongs, not just to exact revenge (even, for example, the September 11 2001 killings).

* Choosing war as the means to right a wrong must be proportionate to the issue.

* War must produce a better result than if there is no war.

* The decision must be by the proper authority.

* There must be reasonable chance of success.

* War must be the last resort.

On those criteria Iraq didn’t make the grade.

The only criterion met unequivocally was the certainty in advance of success in removing Saddam Hussein. Another criterion was arguable: there was prolonged consultation with the United Nations to get Security Council authority and, though that failed, the United States did line up several dozen supporting countries.

But the invasion did not meet the last-resort test. The United Nations inspectors were still at work. And invasion of a sovereign state was proportionate to the issue only if there was genuinely an imminent threat to the invading countries.

Moreover, it is doubtful invading Iraq has produced a better result than doing nothing or doing other things. The Middle East remains a mess. Conceivably, the rising tide of suicide killings across the world is a final shower of sparks from a dying firework, though, if so, we have yet to see the evidence. There is now a greater danger than before the invasion that Saudi Arabia will implode, with potentially devastating impact on oil supplies and the world economy.

And there is very serious doubt that there was cause. George Bush and Tony Blair were unequivocal that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), would use them and would make them available to terrorists who would imminently use them against westerners.

No WMD have been found. Active programmes to make them have not been found. No evidence of significant links with major terrorist organisations has been demonstrated. As Thomas Powers dismayingly demonstrates in the December 4 New York Review of Books, on the evidence so far the Bush-Blair claims remain unsubstantiated and time is getting on.

Either someone lied or those two countries’ intelligence services were severely incompetent. (Which, by the way, raises massive doubts about the treatment here of Ahmed Zaoui.)

OK, try the Bush-Blair fallback — it was worth the war to have put an end to a “rogue” state, an evil regime which maltreated its own citizens.

But that a regime is “rogue” “does not erode the rights of the citizens of that state”, Sir Michael argued, and those rights include not being invaded and occupied by a foreign state. And did the maltreatment constitute such a grave and concrete threat to others that it could only have been dealt with by immediate war, unsanctioned by the United Nations?

Moreover, has a better result emerged for Iraqis? Perhaps the economy will get better in time. A stable, humane democratic society looks remote. Meanwhile Iraqis are getting killed in rising numbers.

It is hard not to conclude that the government here correctly judged invasion unjustified.

But being right is a luxury when warriors are off the leash. Relations are cool with Washington and Canberra, where senior ministers now put the worst construction on Wellington decisions, as over the Solomons. China likes our Iraq line but Australia got a deal with China before us.

Who cares about “just cause” when power is the arbiter?