THE PRICE OF HESITATION - The Reykjavik Grapevine

THE PRICE OF HESITATION

THE PRICE OF HESITATION

Published February 11, 2005

“In politics, an organized minority is a political majority.”
– Jesse Jackson

On March 18, 2003, a decision was made that could have meant the end of the political careers of then Foreign Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson, then Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson and maybe even the end of the decades-long conservative majority in parliament. The decision in question regarded the then imminent invasion of Iraq.

Davið Oddsson said, in a statement quoted on the White House webpage
(http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/news/20030326-7.html):
“The United States now considers its security to be gravely endangered by the actions and attacks of terrorists and because of various threats from countries governed by dictators and tyrants. It believes that support from this small country makes a difference…The declaration issued by the Icelandic Government on the Iraq dispute says that we intend to maintain the close cooperation we have had with our powerful ally in the West. First of all, this involves flyover authorization for the Icelandic air control area. Secondly, the use of Keflavik Airport, if necessary. In third place, we will take part in the reconstruction of Iraq after the war ends. Fourthly, we expressed political support for Resolution 1441 being enforced after four months of delays.”

A clear declaration of national support, to be sure. There was only one problem: the nation itself was never asked.

En route to Iraq

US military planes had been landing in and flying over Iceland on their way to Iraq as early as February 19, 2003 as part of a routine agreement with the UN. But how Iceland became a member of the “coalition of the willing” is a matter still being debated.

During meetings of the Foreign Affairs committee in the winter of 2002 to 2003, Iraq was only mentioned twice. On neither of these occasions was the possibility of supporting any military action against Iraq ever discussed. When member of parliament Þórunn Sveinbjarnardóttir asked Halldór Ásgrímsson on March 21, 2003 how Iceland ended up in the “coalition of the willing,” he responded by saying the decision was made after a meeting between officials in the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s office three days previous. In other words, the decision was made without consulting parliament.

This should have been everyone’s cue – the opposition in parliament, the press, the people themselves – to jump up and demand answers. Instead, the issue was quietly forgotten for over a year and wouldn’t receive any serious attention until January 5, 2005, when the results of an IMG Gallup poll conducted the previous December revealed that 84% of those surveyed did not want Iceland to be a part of the coalition. Will the fervent, albeit very late, reaction now surfacing in parliament and in the media have any effect, or is the point moot?

Morally supporting war

Ásgrímsson, among others, has said that the Iraq question “was discussed many times in the Foreign Affairs committee and in parliament in the winter of 2002 to 2003.” Ásta Möller, vice MP for Davíð Oddsson, reiterated this same position to Grapevine:

“There had been discussion about Iceland supporting the coalition forces before the invasion. Our part was political support, and to allow military aircraft to land in and fly over Iceland on their way to Iraq. We are a part of NATO, but as we don’t have any troops, ours was more of a moral support.”

Iceland, although in the coalition, does not have an army. With no Icelander in danger of being killed in combat, any sacrifice made in supporting the war might not have seemed so great. After all, all we were doing was letting planes land and take off here, as they do all the time.

No smoking gun

President of the Journalist’s Union Róbert Marshall adds that the media bill brought before parliament in May of 2004 was also a contributing factor in keeping Iraq ignored:

“The decision was made shortly before the elections in parliament. Then came the elections, and all the attention that the media bill received, which might partly explain why no one paid attention to the Iraq issue. But there had always been rumours going around. Things escalated when [MP in Ásgrímsson’s Progressive party] Kristinn Gunnarsson spoke up, saying Iraq was never discussed in parliament or in the Committee of Foreign Affairs, then another member spoke up, and the matter began to rear its head.”

When asked why he felt the press didn’t react sooner, he said, “There were protests, statements made in newspapers, but I don’t think anyone realised the significance until much later. Now, when there are no weapons of mass destruction, it starts to look like something that it wasn’t necessary to get involved in. It was something I’d been thinking about for a long time, but we couldn’t see how we would get into the story; we didn’t know who would talk. The Progressives started talking on their own. If it wasn’t for them, we probably wouldn’t be talking about this now.”

Media bill or war

Hans Kristjánsson, chairman of the Movement for Active Democracy – an organization formed in response to the media bill which bought a full-page anti-war declaration in the New York Times – agrees:

“When Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir ran for Prime Minister in 2003, she said the first thing she would do would be to get Iceland out of the coalition. But in a televised roundtable discussion the night before the elections, with members of the press and leading politicians all talking and debating various matters, the subject of Iraq never came up once. We began to focus more on the Iraq issue after the media bill controversy began to quiet down in July. We had always been discussing Iraq, but we didn’t want to split up our energy.”

“Reactionary commie losers”

On September 15, 2004, Oddsson and Ásgrímsson changed places; the former became Foreign Minister and the latter Prime Minister. Government policy remained unchanged. Then came the news on December 1, 2004 that the Movement for Active Democracy was raising money to buy a full page in the New York Times for their declaration entitled, “The invasion of Iraq – not in our name.” Suddenly, the issue reared its head again. Davíð Oddsson, in an address to parliament, showed uncharacteristic emotion when he said that the only people against Iceland’s support of the US led invasion of Iraq were “afturhaldskommatittir,” which loosely translates as “reactionary commie losers.”

In January of 2005, with the results of the Gallup Poll made public, the Movement’s ad appearing in the New York Times that week, and more members of parliament – particularly from the Social Democratic and Leftist-Green parties – demanding answers. Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason reacted by saying, “I don’t intend to take part in this game that doesn’t make any difference.”

The collapse of the Progressives

As the controversy started to heat up, members of Ásgrímsson’s Progressive Party began to distance themselves from the Prime Minister, including Vice Chairman Guðni Ágústsson and former Minister of the Environment Siv Friðleifsdóttir. Support for the Progressive party, which was at 17.7% in the May 2003 elections, has plummeted to 8% as of February 1, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. The party’s national convention will be held at the end of this month. What will this mean for Ásgrímsson and his party? Are the Progressives splitting in two?

“I think that the Prime Minister’s control over the Progressive party is pretty secure,” says Marshall. “I wouldn’t worry about him being ousted, but I do think he’s not having a very good time right now. It’s difficult to say what will happen – it appears that nothing will. But if they don’t clear this matter up, people will remember this in the long run. When you leave things unclear for this long, you give your opponents an opportunity.”

Making a molehill out of a mountain

Möller disagrees, saying, “There already have been repercussions. I wouldn’t say that this matter is off the table in Icelandic politics, but it’s certainly off to the side. If we think of a subject as a hill or a mountain, this subject is going downhill. It’s past now, and I think the Iraqi elections took the heat out of this matter for the whole world. Now is the time for all parties to focus on the reconstruction of Iraq.”

So far, the only casualty of the Iraq controversy has been Marshall himself. After erroneously reporting that the decision for Iceland to support the US led invasion was made before March 18, 2003, Marshall resigned from his position as reporter for television station Stöð 2. Whether or not any resignations from politicians involved in this controversy are forthcoming remains to be seen.

If anything is to be learned from this, it could be that the chance for the press, members of parliament, and the people themselves to question the decisions made by elected officials should be taken quickly. This controversy could have been investigated thoroughly from the very start – instead, over a year went by before anyone took the matter seriously. Whether this issue will quietly disappear or result in consequences for those involved is anyone’s guess. However, as Róbert Marshall told us, “I don’t think it’s ever too late for the news to have an effect. Just look at Watergate. The break-in happened in 1972. Nixon was re-elected, and the Watergate story didn’t actually get him out of office until August 1974. Things like this can happen over time.”

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