The anticipated chorus of international support for Britain was missing when its sailors were captured by Iran. The manipulation of facts leading to the Iraq war has shot the credibility of the British, American, and Australian governments.
OH WHAT a difference a war makes! Five years ago, the same set of incidents with exactly the same sequence of events would have produced instantaneous and almost universal outrage and condemnations of Iran. Few would have queried the British version of events or doubted the veracity of their claims regarding the positioning of British ships and crew. It is only when the initial instinctive bellicosity from London gave way to quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and this was matched by a parallel shift in Iranian statements, that the tense standoff was resolved with surprising swiftness. Thanks to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (with enemies like the United Kingdom and the United States, does Iran need friends?), Iran deals from strength in its region.
As a corollary, few would have given credence to competing Iranian claims contesting the British version. After all, the present regime traces its descent directly from the Islamic revolution that toppled the Shah and flatly rejected many established diplomatic conventions and niceties. The searing images of American diplomats kidnapped in their embassy premises and held hostage for several months is firmly etched in many minds and still exert a powerful pull on the American political psyche.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has added to this legacy with fiery and intemperate threats against Israel, denials of the Holocaust, denunciations of the United States, challenges to the authority of the United Nations, and rejections of international demands to end Iran's unsafeguarded nuclear programme.
And yet when 15 British naval personnel were captured by Iran on charges of having strayed illegally, whether by design or accident, into Iranian waters, the anticipated chorus of international support for Britain was strangely missing. Even the Europeans have shown less than fulsome solidarity with a fellow-EU member at the very time that the Union was celebrating 50 years of peace and solidarity.
The silence has everything to do with the loss of credibility of the Blair government and very little to do with a hitherto unsuspected wellspring of sympathy and support for Iran around the world.
The lies, deceit, spin, and manipulation of facts and analyses leading to the Iraq war have completely shot the credibility of the British and present American and Australian governments. Perhaps the three leaders never learned the moral of the story of the boy who cried wolf.
Indeed in the now-infamous Downing Street memorandum of July 23, 2002 (nine months before the Iraq war), it was clear that the U.S. administration was determined to go to war and military action was thus seen as inevitable, but that British officials did not believe there was sufficient legal justification since there was no recent evidence of Iraqi complicity with international terrorism, Saddam Hussein's WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran, and he was not a threat to his neighbours. But because it was necessary to create the conditions that would make an invasion legal, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." The U.S. "had already begun `spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime," and an ultimatum for the return of U.N. weapons inspectors to Iraq might help to create the conditions necessary to justify military action.
With memories of that betrayal of the public trust on this most solemn of all governmental responsibilities, to choose war over diplomacy and negotiation, and in the context of escalating rhetoric over the threat to regional and world security posed by a nuclear Iran, London failed to prove to a deeply sceptical world that it had not deliberately provoked a crisis to justify retaliatory attacks on Iran. It is in the nature of such crises that London could not possibly have provided conclusive proof, any more than Saddam Hussein could prove the negative of not having nuclear weapons.
Related to this, there is an element of the three countries that embarked on a war of choice that has proven to be so catastrophic - it surely will rank among the greatest foreign policy blunders of all times for both London and Washington, with the gravity of the consequences outweighing Suez for the U.K. and Vietnam for the U.S. - having brought it on themselves. As Timothy Garton Ash noted in his Guardian column of March 29, "A few may even privately mutter: `Well, you had it coming to you.'"
To compound their international credibility deficit, the leaders of the three countries that went to war insist, against all evidence, that things are going swimmingly well in Iraq. They see progress where others see daily carnage and weekly worsening of the security situation. Even King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia - allies for the Bush family don't come any stauncher than the Saudi royal family - described the American presence in Iraq as illegitimate occupation.
In 2004 a team of epidemiologists did a rigorous statistical study to conclude that in the 18 months since the Iraq war, 98,000 people had perished. Fiercely attacked for their methodology and results, the team did a follow-up study last year and concluded that the total number of deaths caused by the war was a mind-numbing 650,000. The reaction from London and Washington was frankly dismissive. Yet now we learn, thanks to documents unearthed by the BBC using the freedom of information act, that the U.K. Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser believed the research to be "robust," "balanced," and close to "best practice." His advice was to be cautious "in publicly criticising the study."
Prime Minister Tony Blair's adviser concluded that "The survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished. It is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones." A government concerned about the humanitarian carnage unleashed by the war might have called for urgent independent verification. Instead Mr. Blair was advised to note that the overriding message was that there were no accurate or reliable death statistics in Iraq. This brings to mind the saying that the reason for the sun never setting on the British Empire was that even God would not trust an Englishman in the dark.
Of course there are additional elements in the equation. A simple look at the map shows that the British ships are operating far from home whereas the Iranians are in their own neighbourhood. There is a long history of Anglo-American interventions and threats against Iran whose memory is sharp for many Iranians. Tehran received neither understanding nor sympathy nor support from the west as the victim of Iraqi aggression, including the use of chemical weapons. To say that Iran is the object of U.N. Security Council warnings and censure carries less weight in the court of world opinion because the Council is far removed from being an impartial international arbiter or referee. The U.K. and the U.S. are permanent members of a Security Council that is an unreconstructed creation of 1945 and is seen too often as a mere mouthpiece of the west against the rest.
Similarly, the "coalition of the willing" has set back international humanitarian law by belittling and circumventing the Geneva Conventions and established norms in the treatment of prisoners. It requires real chutzpah to complain about Iran's treatment of the captured crew after the battery of torture, psy-ops and "extraordinary renditions" of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. In a delicious irony, the British sailors were paraded on Iranian television confessing guilt around the same time as the Australian David Hicks, held in Guantanamo for over four years, confessed guilt to a U.S. military commission.
The Iraq war did great damage also to the prestige and authority of the world organisation. Having thrown the United Nations in the rubbish bin of history in 2003, London and Washington cannot conveniently lift it out, dust it off, and put it to use again in 2007 as if 2003 never happened. Besides, if President George W. Bush can insist that he does not need a permission slip from the United Nations to defend America, what is to stop Iran from asserting the same claim?
A humane conscience is pleased and relieved that the captured sailors have returned home and are reunited with their families. But humanism does not stop with western victims; it should equally embrace the victims of abuses perpetrated by westerners.