On Not Apologising for the Iraq War

In a leading column in today’s edition of the London Times, Prof. Nigel Biggar responds to a recent pledge by Jeremy Corbyn, front-runner in the race to head the British Labour Party, that as leader he would issue a public apology on behalf of the party for its ‘deception’ of the British people over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and for the subsequent suffering endured by Iraqis.

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‘Jeremy Corbyn can apologise for the invasion of Iraq if he likes. But not in my name.

Saddam Hussein’s regime was monstrous. In the 15 years before the 2003 invasion it killed up to half a million of its own citizens. After the failed 1991 uprising in the south, its agents poured petrol down the throats of rebels and set them alight. Back in Baghdad the Special Treatment Department was busy dismembering living prisoners with chainsaws, squeezing their skulls in metal vices until brain-matter oozed out, and making parents watch their flailing children disappear under swarms of wasps in confined spaces. We know all this because it’s recorded on video. Such a regime deserved to be toppled; its vile nature was sufficient just cause for invasion.

Of course, we can’t afford to take on every nasty regime. So legitimate national interest must help us to discriminate. Fending off the threat that an atrocious regime like Saddam’s might acquire nuclear weapons as Pakistan had, North Korea has, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya almost did, and Iran has only just been dissuaded from doing, gave the UK such an interest.

Yes, it turned out that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction and so the threat wasn’t immediate. But since no one doubts that Saddam was intent on getting them, a longer term threat persisted. As Dr David Kelly, the WMD expert sadly famous for his suicide, wrote on the eve of the invasion: “The long-term threat . . . remains Iraq’s development to military maturity of weapons of mass destruction — something only regime change will avert.”

But what about the lies for which Mr Corbyn is so keen to apologise? There weren’t any — at least, not on this side of the Atlantic. The claim that Iraq possessed WMD was a serious mistake, but an honest one. It wasn’t fabricated by Washington and London, but was shared by all other western intelligence services, as well as Russia’s. In 2000 German intelligence reckoned that Iraq would have nuclear weapons capable of hitting Europe by 2005.

As for the “dodgy dossier” of January 2003, its only sin was to have borrowed material from a PhD thesis without the courtesy of acknowledgement; the material itself was perfectly sound. It’s true that the previous September’s dossier on WMDs was unclear whether its claim that Iraq could launch WMD within 45 minutes referred to tactical or strategic weapons; and when the media failed to ask, the government failed to tell them. That omission deserves censure, but it doesn’t (quite) amount to a lie.

Maybe the Chilcot report will yet reveal the smoking gun so eagerly expected by devotees of the ugly cult of scapegoating Tony Blair. But I doubt it.

Besides, even if the government had lied, it still wouldn’t follow that the invasion was unjust. In 1941 President Roosevelt bolstered American support for Britain by “sexing up” a naval incident into a Nazi act of aggression, and by claiming to possess a secret map of Nazi designs on Latin America — a map far more dodgy than any Iraq dossier, since the British had forged it and Roosevelt knew. Few would infer from this, however, that the US was wrong to enter the war against Hitler.

What, then, about the invasion’s illegality? That remains a moot point, since there is no international court to decide the case. But even if the invasion was illegal, it could still have been moral. As the leading international lawyer, Martti Koskenniemi, observed of Nato’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, “most lawyers have taken the position that it was both formally illegal and morally necessary”.

Without doubt the coalition’s planning for post-invasion occupation was woefully inadequate, and its consequent inability to secure order was a major failure. For that it deserves blame. But if an apology is fitting here, it’s not for too much intervention, but too little: the problem wasn’t too many boots on the ground, but too few.

What’s more, the vast majority of the 200,000 casualties of the ensuing anarchy were killed, not by American or British soldiers, but by Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists. And unless we subscribe to the racist view that non-westerners can’t be blamed because they aren’t full moral agents and only do bad things as the passive effects of western causes, then the primary responsibility for the carnage must rest with the perpetrators.

Most important, the coalition didn’t walk away from its mistakes. Rather, it strove to correct them by sustaining a costly military commitment for seven years, achieving a dramatic improvement in Iraq’s stability by the end of 2007.

Six years later, the Times’s Anthony Loyd, a journalist with more than twenty years’ experience of covering conflicts, was able to report that “contrary to the perception among western publics . . . the lot of the clear majority of Iraqis today is measurably improved. Many have a better quality of life, greater freedom of expression and more opportunity than during Saddam’s era.”

Since then, of course, things have taken a turn for the worse. For that the responsibility lies mainly with prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian government, but also with President Obama’s abandonment. Whether Iraq’s future can be retrieved from its current woes depends partly on how we respond to the new government’s pleas for help.

Five years ago I asked a group of young Iraqi professionals what they thought about the invasion. Their spokesman replied: “It’s good that it happened. It could have been done better. And it isn’t over.”

I cannot disagree. So Mr Corbyn will have to apologise without me.’

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral Theology at Oxford University and author of “In Defence of War”

Death by Degrees

Following the Second Reading of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords last month, Prof. Nigel Biggar has contributed to a recent exchange of letters on physician-assisted suicide in today’s edition of the London Times.

To view the letter, please click on the image below:
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Remembering Hiroshima

hiroshimaOn August 6 the world marked the seventieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and the beginning of the atomic age.  Prof. Nigel Biggar joined a discussion of the ethics of nuclear weapons on the BBC radio program “All Things Considered” with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s Vice President, Bruce Kent; the Reverend Guto Prys ap Gwynfor, Chairperson of Cymdeithas Y Cymod, the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Wales; and oral historian Elizabeth Chappell.  The edition can be accessed from the program’s podcast platform here.  Prof. Biggar also contributed an article on the question of nuclear weapons to this month’s edition of Premier Christianity.

The Nation State: How Ethical Is It?

Ongoing news reports concerning the plight of migrants in Calais and the Mediterranean have brought into renewed focus the ethical questions and policy challenges presented by immigration.  Prof. Nigel Biggar recently joined Dr. Stephen Backhouse and Prof. Sajjad Rizvi to discuss these issues with Mark Dowd.  A recording of the discussion can be downloaded here and further details of the exchange are available here.

“Everyday Ethics: A Future for Moral Theology?”

How might a focus on “everyday ethics” shape the discipline and the methods of moral theology and religious ethics? What can attention to social practices teach us about moral formation, ethical citizenship, or human flourishing? What can moral theologians, philosophers, and social anthropologists learn from thoughtful and constructive engagement with each other?

These questions frame the McDonald Centre’s upcoming conference, “Everyday Ethics: A Future for Moral Theology?” to be held on 26–27 May, 2016, at the University of Oxford. The McDonald Centre, in collaboration with the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, will welcome an esteemed group of theologians, ethicists, philosophers, and social anthropologists to explore how various disciplines might benefit from collaborative attention to the moral, spiritual, and secular practices of daily life.

Michael Banner’s recent book, Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human (OUP, 2014), provides our starting point. Proposing a new direction for moral theology, Banner suggests that the discipline should offer plausible and therapeutic narrations of everyday practices that take social anthropology, rather than moral philosophy, as their primary interlocutor. The conference will both critically evaluate Banner’s methodological proposal and also consider a number of everyday moral practices, including eating, learning, working, loving the neighbour, mobilizing citizens, using technology, and borrowing and spending. We anticipate a rich and fruitful dialogue as speakers and participants consider how attending to everyday moral practices such as these might shape the future of moral theology and its contribution to human flourishing.

Keynote speakers include:

  • Michael Banner, Fellow and Dean of Chapel, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, author of Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human
  • Luke Bretherton, Professor of Theological Ethics and Senior Fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke University, author of Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life and Christianity and Contemporary Politics
  • Brian Brock, Lecturer in Moral and Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen, author of Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture
  • Molly Farneth, Assistant Professor of Religion, Haverford College
  • Craig Gay, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Regent College, author of Cash Values: The Value of Money, the Nature of Worth
  • Eric Gregory, Professor of Religion, Princeton University, author of Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship, and What Do We Owe Strangers? Globalization and the Good Samaritan (forthcoming)
  • Jennifer Herdt, Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics, Yale University, author of Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices
  • Philip Lorish, Director, Project on Vocation and the Common Good, New Cities Common / Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia
  • Charles Mathewes, Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, author of A Theology of Public Life and The Republic of Grace
  • Rachel Muers, Senior Lecturer in Christian Ethics, University of Leeds, author of Living for the Future: Theological Ethics for Coming Generations, and co-author, Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet
  • Joel Robbins, Sigrid Rausing Professor of Social Anthropology, Trinity College, University of Cambridge, author of Becoming Sinners: Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society
  • Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury; Member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards; former treasurer of Enterprise Oil PLC; author of Can Companies Sin?: “Whether”, “How” and “Who” in Company Accountability

Registration details for the conference will be forthcoming.