Can government evasiveness over Iraq be justified? Not quiteby David Goodhart / March 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
The Iraq war refuses to fade into the background of British politics. That is partly because of the continuing difficulties in Iraq itself. But it is mainly because of the way the decision to go to war provoked an almighty clash between the logic of a media-driven popular democracy and the logic of “grand strategy.” The reverberations from that clash continue to dominate British politics. The Blair government failed to marry the two logics – and in so failing found itself in a battle for legitimacy with an important section of the media and public opinion. One consequence of that failure is that, for good or ill, it will now be virtually impossible for any government to pursue a preventive war strategy in the battle against terrorism.
The logic of popular democracy involves an extension of the democratic mandate into all corners of public life, with the media rather than parliament or formal checks and balances as its main agent. It demands maximum transparency. It enthrones public opinion as king and it insists that authority figures and politicians are guilty until proved innocent.
The logic of grand strategy – meaning the attempt to calculate the long-term interests of the nation on the world stage – assumes that decisions of fundamental national interest in matters of war and peace are taken by politicians in good faith consulting with experts, often based on secret intelligence. Complete openness with the public is problematic in this logic partly because the idiom of foreign policy is often brutally self-interested while the idiom of domestic politics is ethical. In the case of Iraq there were three more particular reasons for lack of openness. First, the arguments were complex and intelligence-based: whether, for example, there is a new form of terror threat, or whether Saddam could have acquired a nuclear capability within, say, three years. Second, one of the main reasons for action in Iraq was that the US administration had convinced itself that forced democratisation in the middle east was necessary; but this reasoning is not accepted by most people in Britain and even if it had been accepted, it runs counter to other obligations, such as membership of the UN. Third, some of the reasons for British involvement contained implicit rebukes to our allies. For example, it was thought that if we did not join with post-9/11 America it would become even more unilateralist, and…