Hilary Benn Defends War in Iraq as Duty of a Democratic State

The world takes notice of many things, but the contest for the Deputy Leadership of the British Labour Party is not one of them.  Those who have an interest in international affairs have followed the contest for the Labour Leadership, which has been resolved by the more or less unanimous selection of the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, as Tony Blair’s natural successor.  Even foreign policy wonks outside Britain have not followed the contest between six senior Labour figures for the Deputy Leadership.  Yet it has raised a number of interesting issues, some of which have international significance.

Last Tuesday night, the BBC’s Newsnight programme, which has some claim to be the most interesting English language current affairs programme in global television, put the six on a hustings programme in front of the star presenter, and inquisitor, Jeremy Paxman.  They expressed the usual range of “progressive” opinions, not dissimilar to those which might be expressed in a Democratic caucus in a primary state.  What was unexpected was that the liberal interventionist point of view had one very firm champion, Hilary Benn.  He is the son of Tony Benn, who was the champion of the left wing of the Labour Party in the 1970s and early 1980s.  The Benns are a political family of at least three generations, who trace their ancestry back to Josiah Wedgwood, the eighteenth century potter who belonged to the celebrated Lunar Society of Birmingham.  Other members of the Lunar Society included such scientific figures as Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, and James Watt, who developed an efficient steam engine.  Hilary Benn is descended from an American mother and has served, with some distinction, as Minister for Overseas Development.

The question put to all the candidates was whether each would have cast a vote for the Iraq War, if he, or she, had known then that the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction did not really exist.  Their replies ranged between the expression of regret at having cast a vote for war and the view that the removal of Saddam Hussein justified the war, whatever mistakes might have been made in the aftermath of the invasion.

Hilary Benn took a more emphatic view.  He defended the whole policy of liberal intervention which Tony Blair has followed.  He regarded intervention to prevent or stop genocide as a duty of democratic governments, and referred not only to Iraq, but to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone.  It amounted to a general commitment of the West to intervention wherever there was a genocidal issue arising in a failed state.  This is very similar to the commitment of Washington neo-conservatives.  It was an unqualified defence of Tony Blair’s policies, and of his support for the policies of President George W. Bush.

I admire Hilary Benn’s clarity of logic and consistency.  He was in the Government at the time of the Iraq invasion.  He thought that the invasion was justified and the alliance was right and necessary.  He still thinks so.  He would ask the critics of the war whether it is tolerable to stand aside and allow genocide to continue.  If one substitutes the phrase “war on genocide” for “war on terror” his arguments are identical with those of President Bush.

I do not think it will do him any political good.  As in the United States, the British public are tired of the war.  It has not been as damaging politically to the Labour Party as it was in the mid term elections to the Republicans in Congress, but Labour has a pacifist tradition and has swung against the Iraq campaign.  Hilary Benn is unlikely to be elected Deputy Leader of the Party.

Yet I found it fascinating to hear the case for the Iraq invasion presented from a left of centre point of view.  Liberal interventionism and neo-conservatism come to the same conclusions, though occasionally they might identify different states as “failed states” or “rogue states”.  Equally those who do not wish to intervene, the modern equivalent of the conservative isolationists of America, and of the appeasers in Britain, have essentially the same argument – they believe that no nation can be the world’s policeman.

Time seems to be of the essence.  Nations will go to war if they are persuaded it is right to do so.  But the initial enthusiasm is hard to sustain.  The war in Afghanistan is five years old, Iraq is four years.  Neither looks near a conclusion.  Vietnam started as a popular war.  There is an argument for war as a last resort against rogue states, but public support cannot be expected to last indefinitely.  Such wars will gradually become more unpopular.  They may help to win one Presidential election, but are less likely to win a second or a third.

William Rees-Mogg
for Markets and Money

William Rees-Mogg

Leading political editor William Rees-Mogg is former editor-in-chief for The Times and a member of the House of Lords. He has been credited with accurately forecasting glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall – as well as the 1987 crash. His political commentary appears in The Times every Monday. His financial insights can only be found in the Fleet Street Letter, the UK's longest-running investment newsletter.

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