A thoughtful five years on editorial last Sunday is probably as close as the paper is going to come to admitting that this was a mistake.
Terrible miscalculations were made in the preparation for war and a catalogue of blunders made in its prosecution. As an
intervention, whether for moral or strategic goals, it failed. The consequences are grave, and not just for Iraq.
The 2003 decision to back the war of recently departed Observer editor Roger Alton is lambasted in Nick Davies' Flat Earth News. However, Davies charge which is essentially that Alton turned the Observer into a pro-war propaganda sheet, simply ignores both the way in which both its reporting and commentary gave a great deal of space was also given to anti-war analysis and arguments, with columnists including Mary Riddell and Will Hutton arguing just as stridently against the war as David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen were arguing for it, while external critics including Terry Jones, Dilip Hiro and John Pilger also wrote scathingly about Blair and Bush for the paper. (It is interesting that Nick Cohen became the fiercest critic of left opponents of the war, many people forget that he took that position himself against the Afghanistan war, and argued against the Iraq war, before he was for it).
I am looking back on that now because that debate which raged inside the Observer reflected the way in which liberal-left thinking about foreign policy and intervention had shifted after 1989, largely in response to Bosnia and Rwanda.
The Observer on Sunday asked:
It is a blow to the idea of 'liberal intervention'. But does that blow have to be fatal?
For me, this is a central question. Can we learn from the mistakes of the Iraq war without forgetting the lessons of Bosnia and Rwanda?
Richard Norton-Taylor, as part of his extensive series reviewing the Iraq legacy for the Guardian, notes the retreat from intervention and asks if
Would there have been a consensus to intervene in the humanitarian disaster of Darfur, had Iraq not been invaded?
At the Fabian conference, John Kampfner accurately diagnosed liberal internationalism as at its weakest point for two decades. Andrew Grice makes a similar point in his column reviewing the Iraq inheritance this morning:
The other casualty of Iraq is the noble cause of liberal interventionism against evil regimes. Supporters expressed the hope this week that events in Iraq would not make it less likely to happen in future. I hope they are right, but fear they are wrong.
Still, a rescue, however difficult, is also necessary.
I argue in a Comment is Free commentary that a any rescue must also involved recasting liberal internationalism.
Rescuing liberal internationalism requires what Blair never offered: a much clearer analysis of where it should differ deeply from the neocon project.
This should be a central project for creating the 'after Bush' agenda we need.
Learning the lessons would create a different, humbler agenda. But if we have to accept that the neocon embrace has killed off liberal internationalism for good then it will prove impossible to replace Bush's unilateralism with the "new multilateralism" we need.