Jonathan Powell, Tony Blairs former chief of staff, has given his first interview about life inside No.10 during the Blair government. For those unfamiliar with him, Powell (pronounced Pole) was amongst the former PMs longest standing consiglieres; he was there the day Blair entered No.10, he was there the day Blair left and outlasted Campbell, Mandelson and Blairs numerous policy heads (Mandelson called him Blairs echo). As a former civil servant and decidedly not part of the Labour machine, Powell has more credibility than most, in fact his older brother once served in No.10 under Margaret Thatcher.
While Powell has a lot of comments about life in No.10 and the character of the former PM, none of which will be too surprising for followers of British politics (the former PM had courage in spades the real test of political leaders, but was a bit of a flibbertigibbet when following through with decisions) his comments on the Iraq war are interesting. Asked about Iraq and liberal intervention, after admitting the mistakes that have been made, Powell continues
We should have been clear we were removing Saddam because he was a ruthless dictator suppressing his people. But the lawyers said there was no legal basis for proceeding on those grounds and so we would not be able to make the case as wholeheartedly as I would have liked.
The article goes on to say that, if anything, Powell believes we should be more rather than less willing to intervene elsewhere. Without commenting on whether this version of liberal intervention might stray dangerously into neoconservative military imperialism, its relieving to hear these words being spoken. In his speeches on Iraq after the invasion the former PM has continued to invoke the threat of WMD at the time and its link with terrorism arguments which were tenuous at the time and in hindsight seem somewhat ridiculous.
Liberal humanitarianism doesnt justify the war either (compare it to the principles the former PM outlined himself in 1999) and nor does it convey the true complexity of the legitimate and illegitimate reasons for invading Iraq, but it shouldnt be discounted as a doctrine. In the heady days of Blairs first term, Nato intervention was critical in driving the Serbs out of Kosovo and stopping the killing of Kosovar Albanians. In the light of Kosovos recent declaration of independence, we shouldnt forget the role that force played in reaching a just solution. No less important but less well known was the British forces decisive intervention in Sierra Leone first in scaring off Sankohs Revolutionary United Front and since managing to keep the peace.
The Iraq misadventure is a salient reminder of the danger of any war, particularly those which are poorly planned. War should always be an action of very last resort. But lets hope Iraq won’t prevent international leaders from being courageous when the situation demands it. Powells post facto rationalisation of what was a poor decision to invade Iraq aside, his and his former boss belief in the principles underpinning limited liberal humanitarian intervention deserve a continuing place in national and international debates.