The ironies flow from the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq

This last weekend was an anniversary of an event of high drama. Another looms, of a minor, but still important, event. Both have overtones not expected at the time.

The first was of the invasion of Iraq by United States President George Bush�s and British Prime Minister Tony Blair�s “coalition of the willing”. The coalition had overwhelming firepower so of course it won.

But has it won the peace?

In Iraq, it is argued, the peace is slowly being won. Living conditions are a bit better. Killings of citizens by authorities has ended, even if the killings by opponents of the occupiers and their puppets have not. If the wider coalition of reconstruction (including Helen Clark�s troops) sticks it out long enough there might be a more-or-less stable mandated government, though genuine democracy (as distinct from a temporary grafted variety) is a generation or two away.

But the occupation authorities now sound like a broken record when they call the latest terrorist slaughter a last gasp or desperation or claim the terrorists organisations have been greatly weakened.

Maybe they are right but the bombs keep coming. They came to Madrid last week. Fear has come to Sydney.

And in any case Bush did not go to war to make life better for Iraqis but to make life better for Americans. Is it? Not yet. It might even be worse — meekly taking off shoes at airports is not a giant step for mankind.

No matter: Bush and Co now adduce the end of a dictator�s tyranny in Iraq as ex-post-facto justification. And that outcome deserves respect. In a sane, cooperative world there would be international rules governing which circumstances warrant invasion to protect beleaguered citizens, who might conduct it and how to do the reconstruction.

But world leaders have rejected such rules, the United States especially. The United States has made an art form of standing outside multilateral agreements: the Kyoto protocol on climate change, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons and a treaty banning landmines, not to mention conventions on rights of women and children.

It has also stepped outside international law in its incarceration of people rounded up in its Afghanistan war.

And, as Professor Campbell McLachlan of Victoria University Law School noted in an address earlier this month, Bush’s international law arguments for invasion — Iraq’s non-observance of United Nations resolutions and its alleged ability and intention to strike at the United States — don’t stack up. The United States has been “reworking international law as [United States] foreign relations law”.

This “exceptionalism” has brought the United States international suspicion and opprobrium. I know of examples of innocent American children harassed at school here for the sins of Bush.

But McLachlan invited us also to take a longer view of our wayward friend. Its unilateralism has waxed and waned through the decades. There is every reason to think it will wane again. The United States has found in postwar Iraq it needs partnerships. Even the world’s greatest superpower needs some multilateral collaboration to advance its broader interests.

And so we come to the second anniversary: of Helen Clark’s injudicious observation a few days after the invasion that if Al Gore had been elected President (and he was a hair’s breadth away in a dubious count) the war would not have occurred.

Clark was probably right, though I have read arguments, based on Gore’s record, that he may well have ended up interfering in Iraq, perhaps, however, after first trying harder and longer for multilateral backing.

But whether Clark was right or wrong is not the point. It was a gratuitous foray into internal United States politics and a jibe at a President under the stress of war. It risked a serious return snub over trade and so damage to the national economic interest. Swift amends were called for but a too prideful Prime Minister would apologise only for having given offence if some was taken.

I contrasted that at the time with a certain humility I saw in Bush’s presentational style. He expressed simple certainties without bombast. That is a seductive combination (as Don Brash found after Orewa).

But a year later I can�t repeat that about Bush. He and Blair owe us all an apology, a big one. Either they or underlings answerable to them were highly selective in the “intelligence” they paraded on Iraq’s threat or they presided over, and so were answerable to their voters for, bureaucracies that included seriously incompetent intelligence services.

The honourable course for both is resignation or, at the very least, apology and humble beseeching of forgiveness. That neither shows the slightest inclination to do so besmirches the cause of democracy they claim to be serving.

War and irony are often wry comrades, as many an overconfident or overweaning “leader” has found to his cost. For Clark, however, the Bush-Blair irony is vindication.