Media headlines today in Britain are dominated by one story: the resignation of Rebeka Brooks from her job as Chief Executive of News International. Elsewhere there is the continuing drama in Libya and the rest of the Middle East, rumblings in Egypt, a brewing financial crisis in the Eurozone and a gathering deficit crisis in the US where the parties cannot agree on a debt reduction plan whilst economic data (eg a shock rise in unemployment) suggest that the economy is teetering on the brink of a crash.
One high profile political commentator prefers to ignore these issues whilst focusing on something else, which he presumably feels is more important. That commentator is the Independent’s former chief political editor, John Rentoul. His post in the Independent today is not about any of the matters that presently dominate the news but about a written submission made by the former foreign minister Jack Straw to the Iraq inquiry.
John Rentoul was once one of the most incisive and influential voices in British journalism. At some point however he succumbed to Tony Blair’s charm and ever since he has been Blair’s most passionate defender in the media. Ever since Blair’s resignation his posts and commentaries have been dominated by one subject: Blair’s virtue and why Blair was right to attack Iraq. In post after post and in article after article he returns to the subject obsessively, discussing in extraordinary detail and at astonishing length every twist and turn and revelation in the Iraq war saga in order to vindicate his hero. His use of Straw’s latest submission to the Iraq war inquiry is a case in point. Stated briefly Straw’s point is that the war against Iraq became necessary because the sanctions were disintegrating and in the absence of the inspectors, whom Saddam Hussein had expelled in 1998, the strategy of “containing” Saddam Hussein had failed. Rentoul appears to think that this somehow proves that Blair was right. He implies that the reason no other newspaper or commentator has mentioned Straw’s submission is because of this.
In reality Straw’s point, as one might expect coming from such a source, is a clever inversion of the truth. In making it Straw starts with an outright lie, which is that Saddam Hussein “expelled” the inspectors in 1998. He did no such thing. This lie is one that has been repeatedly refuted including by the inspectors themselves, a fact which does not however prevent apologists for the war from constantly repeating it. Both Straw and Rentoul must know it is untrue. In any event the point about the “expulsion” of the inspectors in 1998 is neither here nor there given that in 2002 Saddam Hussein allowed them back.
As for the disintegration of the sanctions regime, this was undoubtedly taking place largely because most countries by 2001 had concluded that the British and Americans were using the question of Saddam Hussein’s supposed secret weapons as an excuse to maintain the sanctions against him indefinitely. There was I remember growing international irritation at this and at the way in which the question of the weapons was being kept artificially alive with many starting to question why Iraq was being punished because three countries (the US, Britain and Israel) had a feud with its leader, Saddam Hussein. I have always thought (and thought at the time) that the true reason the war was launched when it was, was precisely because the US and Britain were becoming alarmed that the sanctions regime was about to collapse and decided that they could not afford the humiliation of having this happen with Saddam Hussein still in place. For what it is worth I would say that Straw’s latest comments tend to bear this out. Whether they do so or not they do not excuse or justify the war or Blair’s conduct.
Whatever, John Rentoul’s endless harping on the same point reminds me of a pub bore. He is entitled to his views about Blair and Iraq even if he is now the only one to still hold them. He cannot complain that we do not know what his views are since for the last ten years he has passed up no opportunity to remind us of them. He has long since passed the point when it was wise for him to stop. If he cannot stop now then the Independent should ask itself whether he continues to deserve the very generous salary it pays him.