State of the Race: Burnham on Iraq

I like David Milliband but he’s a bit wonky, he makes me think of the ‘tiny head’ scene from The Thick of It, and that may not be what we need to win an election. Andy Burnham, however, comes across as a passionate and interested man, and the NS doesn’t seem to be able to handle him. When so many Labour leadership candidates fall over themselves to apologise for Iraq, and so much of the party has bought into the silo narrative, Burnham’s stance is refreshing.

You took a decision without having all the facts at your disposal.
On Iraq, I voted for it because the leader of the Iraqi Kurds pleaded with MPs to do that at a private meeting here before the war. I asked him outright: ‘Do you think weapons exist?’ And he said: ‘I don’t know, but our people will for ever be suppressed because we can’t be sure.’

And that was the problem with Saddam Hussein — to maintain his grip over his own people, he had to maintain the pretence that he had them. That’s why he had to frustrate [the UN weapons inspector Hans] Blix. He couldn’t let him finish his work, because the minute he finished his work and the world was told he didn’t have any weapons would have been the moment Saddam would have been drummed out of power. I believe there would have been a civil war, which would have been problematic in a different way. The root cause of all this was the failure to remove him at the end of the first Gulf war. And I think the world, because of that, was going to have to come back to the Iraq question.

You say that if Hans Blix’s inspection had run its course and he’d said, ‘Actually the WMDs don’t exist,’ there would have been a civil war, but that’s exactly how it ended up anyway.
It was certainly bloody and it was certainly ugly, there’s no getting away from that. The question is now: is Iraq in a better position than it was? Does it have hope of a better future than it did? Is there more order in the country than would otherwise have been the case? Does the government have more of a chance of making a success of itself in the medium to long term? The answer to those questions is: yes, it does, it has hope of rebuilding itself and not becoming a failed state. And that, for me, justifies the decision, hard as it was.

Is it easier to move on with someone who didn’t vote for the war?
I do feel there is a need to take the party beyond the damaging argument we’ve been through. I’m proposing that, as leader, I will set up a commission on military intervention in the party, in the wider Labour family and also drawing in representation from civic society, to look at Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan. The central question is: what, where and under which circumstances should the Labour Party give its endorsement to military intervention? So, essentially, what it would be trying to do is develop a framework for intervention.

I sense you have a view on that already.
I’m not articulating a doctrine of intervention; it’s not a neocon view, it’s absolutely not that. It’s simply that I fear Labour could get it wrong, coming away from Iraq and saying: ‘Never again.’ If you look back at Kosovo and Sierra Leone, while the intervention in Iraq is much more contested and disputed, there are people in Kosovo and Sierra Leone who are, to this day, joyous that the Labour government took a moral lead. Labour cannot give up on that moral lead, which improves lives and upholds human rights. My worry would be, yes, we learned a lesson from Iraq and the [conclusion of the] Chilcot inquiry will be a sobering moment for Labour, but you can’t then [allow] the pendulum [to] swing right back and say: ‘We can never do that again. We’ve now become a country that doesn’t play its role on the world stage.’

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