BBC Two: “The Iraq War: Regime Change” Review

Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, BBC 2 considers the question ‘how did the US and Britain become convinced that Saddam possessed WMDs?’ This is the tag line for part one, Regime Change, of the three part series produced by for-profit company, Brook Lapping Productions. It immediately reveals the programme producers’ (including a number of international media co-producers) underlying presumption – the US and Britain became convinced of WMD, rather than concocting the pretext.

Such a presumption of innocent intent on behalf of British and US leaders is hard to justify on the facts that have since been exposed. The programme largely gets around this problem by avoiding examining the evidence in any detail. There’s no serious consideration of the falsified British intelligence dossier. Instead, Tony Blair, Dick Cheney, Jack Straw, Colin Powell and various US and British advisers and officials appear to give their earnest accounts and the viewer is left to wonder who the insidious rogue forces were in the intelligence department that mislead their leaders so.

Perhaps the most glaring and blatant omission of the programme is the overlooking of the evidence of internal government documents that has since come to light. Take just one comment and consider the light it sheds on the intentions of the government: Peter Ricketts, Political Director of the Foreign Office, wrote to Jack Straw: “To get public and Parliamentary support for military operations, we have to be convincing… ‘regime change’, does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam. Much better, as you have suggested, to make the objective ending the threat to the international community from Iraqi WMD…This is at once easier to justify in terms of international law.”

By failing to critically examine the evidence and, rather, filling the programme with self-serving comments of officials, with intermittent counter-claims from Iraqi officials, the programme depicts Blair, Cheney, Bush and Co. as embroiled in a confusing and somewhat ambiguous situation. From this perspective, as Lucy Mangan of The Guardian writes, it might be possible to sympathise, to some extent, with the aggressors:

“But whatever the – probably irrecoverable – objective truth of all the matters, the programme’s great service was to re-complicate the story and humanise it. Humanise it not in the sense of softening, excusing or making it more appealing, but in the sense of reminding us that our leaders are people and that even the most dramatic and far-reaching decisions are born out of a webby mass of opinion, estimates, best guesses, personal as well as political alliances, and trust misplaced and justified that gathers round a few granite chips of evidence and hard fact. You were left to feel horrified, sympathetic or some swirling mixture of the two as you chose.”

The programme downplays or, even, omits certain key facts. There is no mention of the illegal bombing campaign that Britain and the US were engaged in against Iraq well before the ground invasion in March 2003 or any official declaration of war. Such attacks and the threats of attack against a nation that did not pose a credible imminent threat clearly violated the UN Charter – as much as the ground invasion. But, as is typical of our media, international law is considered to be a compulsion on others, not our states. Jack Straw makes it quite clear in his comments that the British efforts to push for UN resolutions before invasion were attempts at mere legal cover. Blair could not go to war without a UN resolution on Iraqi weapons inspection because it would not have been seen as “lawful,” that is, British public opinion would absolutely not stand for it – not for any moral reason.

There is, inevitably, no mention of the precedent of the Nuremberg Trials in which Justice Robert Jackson, prosecuting, stated that “to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Ten years after the invasion and with British and US troops withdrawn (though mercenaries and diplomats remain en masse), it is inevitable that the war could not be outright defended with any seriousness. The public knows too much. But, the bombardment of official statements in the programme somewhat drowns (or, ‘humanises’) some of the fundamental lies that has lead to untold death and devastation. Saddam Hussein had no links to Al Qaeda and no operable WMD. This was well understood in intelligence communities. Though admitting doubt about the accuracy of the claims, the programme does not try to investigate who was doing the deceiving that caused Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, to state in a memo “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of regime change, “justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD”. Dearlove’s memo is not mentioned in the documentary. There is no mention that an invasion without self-defence or UN authorisation is a war crime.

Whilst giving plenty of platform to Blair and Co., as well, to a lesser degree, Saddam Hussein’s ex-officials, there is no room for historians or researchers who may have turned a critical eye on the subject matter. No room for reflective opinions of ordinary Iraqis (who have survived the ten-years of bloodshed) or anti-war activists, no room for anti-war politicians, except for a few lines from French officials about their encounters with the US.

The documentary is largely a public broadcast for the aggressors, on one side, and Saddam Hussein’s officials, on the other. Without much serious analysis from the producers, it should be no surprise that the result is a somewhat confusing and incomplete series of conflicting statements which does little to contribute to genuine understanding. To try and exonerate Bush and Blair as victims of intelligence misinformation seems to be the primary objective of this documentary.


  1. Thankfully at least one establishment organisation is willing to accurately review this disgraceful ‘documentary’. This IWM review is spot on. What’s curious is that Bush and Blair clearly emerge as deliberate perpetrators of illegal regime change, yet the documentary makers let this pass as if it were perfectly reasonable. The programme is both a whitewash and an exoneration of war crimes.

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