"We are all historians
now. We have joined the ranks of those who sort out the political,
economic and social causes that lie behind great turning-points.
The causes are helpful little
things, ever ready to fill that mental space when bafflement
threatens. There's the long-term, or structural, cause - the
movement, say, of the landmass which created the Russian plains,
whose stubborn geography thwarted Napoleon's ambition. Then there's
the medium-term cause, which is often the story of an institution
in trouble: the finances of the English crown, for example, had
been in a mess for decades before the breakdown of 1642. And
then there's the trigger, the cynic's favorite. The trigger is
a short-term specialist, the one who pops up and claims that
history is random. Had Cleopatra's nose been shorter, wrote Pascal,
the history of the world would have been different. Antony's
loins would not have stirred. The triumvirate would have hung
together, and the Roman republic would not have collapsed into
civil war. Arguably.
The hunt for the cause is
more like Lewis Carroll's hunt after the delusive Snark than
a search for truth. It's a tribute to the practical impotence
of history, its necessary status as a limping servant always
turning up after things have happened. For the cause only emerges
as a candidate on the identity parade after the deed has arrived.
Whether we deal with the history of the climate in Mesopotamia,
which created the marshes of the south, with the history of the
American presidency in the 20th century, or the fate of that
one hanging chad which turned out to really matter - the fact
is that none of these long, medium and short-term events could
be seen to be a cause before the deed.
All causes are mental inventions
imposed on the past. They are ways in which historians negotiate
their way through the labyrinth. But who, after all, ever saw,
felt or smelt a causal connection? The thing is as imaginary
as, say, stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
WMD was a highly original
kind of historical cause. It was advertised as a cause of something
which was going to happen. Which should have been a pointer to
the fact of its bogus status. The war was going to break out
in any event, given the nature of the Bush presidency. And so
it was only a matter of finding the appropriate causal mechanism.
Bush-Blair simply jumped the gun and invented a new doctrine
of pre-emptive historical causation to justify their action.
Causes, after all, can slip
into being pretexts with the greatest of ease. From Bismarck
to Hitler, German politics had its agenda of Lebensraum as a
cause of aggression, the need to burst out of the territorial
straitjacket. And there were, admittedly, more Germans per square
meter than, say, the underbreeding French. But what turned that
into an effective pretext was the reality of Hitler's expansionist
aims to the east. It is just one of the many ways in which Hitler
was a very conventional German geopolitician.
Bush-Blair in 2003 - like
Hitler in 1941 - took a gamble. The ex- corporal did so with
the weather. The president and the prime minister did so on the
basis of intelligence systems offering claims that stockpiles
would be found, as well as the hope that the cause would oblige
by becoming a fact. Except that, to B-B's embarrassment, they
haven't, and so it didn't.
With that herd-like propensity
to graze together, British journalism shows every sign of moving
in uniform retreat behind the lines drawn in the sand. Once it
was all "Hutton good", and then it was all "Hutton
bad". Valiant knight of truth becomes snake-in-grass.
Now, after ritualistic outrage,
there's a furtive consumption of humble pie. Investigative journalists,
like some historians, pride themselves on hunting for a cause,
that hidden but still-smoking gun. Having been chastised, they
fall silent. But all three phases of the response are mistaken,
and all for the same reason. The presence of WMDs and sexed-up
material was irrelevant as a cause for the war. Equally, their
absence is irrelevant as a cause of opposition to the war. The
Iraqi conflict offers a tougher mental call, not the discovery
of causes but the unraveling of reasons."