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Research on Danish war stirred up a political hornets' nest

War report — When University of Copenhagen (UCPH) researchers Rasmus Mariager and Anders Wivel presented their report on the Iraq war at the beginning of February, it led to intense criticism of the former centre-right government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen. According to political opponents, the report documented that the Danish government had misled the Danish parliament prior to the Iraq war. For Wivel and Mariager though, the assignment was never to pass moral or legal judgment on politicians.

Anders Wivel and Rasmus Mariager can finally take a deep breath.

Since they released their analysis of the causes of the Danish involvement in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, in the beginning of February, they have been at the centre of a veritable media vortex. They have been practically everywhere on every platform.

And all the words that they have voiced and stated have been scrutinised and pulled into agendas pushed by Danish politicians in parliament.

When they presented the analysis at the University of Copenhagen, they could explain that “surprisingly” few people since the end of the Cold War had been in on the decision-making on whether Denmark should go to war. That Denmark to a remarkable degree simply followed all US decisions in this area. And that Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s VK governing coalition , in particular, had inflated the importance of information from the United States and the Danish defence intelligence service FE to the Danish parliament when a narrow majority then decided to enter the Iraq war.

Several politicians on the left were, on the basis of the results of the investigation in the report, quick to speak out on the 2003 Iraq war decision: “It is a scandal,” said Nikolaj Villumsen of the Red/Green Alliance to TV 2 News and demanded that a discontinued Iraq commission was reinstated.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Party’s foreign policy spokesman Michael Aastrup Jensen said on the Danish TV programme Deadline that the former Liberal-Conservative government had only lost their footing on singular occasions.

Rasmus Mariager and Anders Wivel present in the report several proposals on how to improve the decision-making process before Denmark goes to war. They suggest, for example, an analysis office that stores the experience from past wars, and a catalogue of critical questions that politicians and officials need to ask before they commit the forces.

But the researchers did not make moral judgments, even though the attending journalists fished for them at the report presentation.

“I remember that one of the journalists said that the investigation was exciting, but that it seemed a bit clinical. Did we not have any moral messages? But this was not our job,” says Anders Wivel, who is professor of political science and deputy research director of the war analysis.

“It is important that you put away your moral indignation when you as a researcher have an assignment like this. For us, it was about clarifying the decision-making processes (prior to Denmark’s military commitments, ed.), so that we can improve the quality in the decision-making in the future.”

Is it not difficult to put away your moral indignation?

“I don’t find it difficult,” says Rasmus Mariager, associate professor in history and research director of the war report. “It is crucial that we are open and transparent, so that anyone can form their own opinion.”

Controversial right from the start

The researchers were well aware that the investigation would become a part of an intense political struggle in the centre of power. It fact it was even before the first word was written.

Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s Liberal Party government set up the Iraq and Afghanistan commission in 2015 with the task of investigating what the basis of the Danish participation in the war was, and the issue of the rendering of prisoners in the two wars. The work was to ultimately result in a legal assessment, and the commission had the option of subpoenaing key players to give evidence. But it did not get far before it was shut down.

Anders Wivel and Rasmus Mariager have not had the opportunity to require evidence from decision-makers. And it was not their job to make legal judgment on the issues, but to describe the political process that led to the Danish participation in the wars. Two formulations in the terms of reference for the commission angered the critics in particular. That the authorities were only “generally” obliged to hand over all relevant material to the researchers, and that they could refuse to hand over “particularly sensitive material” in individual cases.

On the news site Politiken, six history professors called on universities to boycott the investigation and to not allow their researchers to take part.

“I hope that none of my colleagues say yes to this. I urge them not to do it,” CBS professor Kurt Jacobsen said to the news site.

But Mariager and Wivel did so.

“I could actually understand the concerns, because not everything in the process looked pretty from the outside,” Mariager says.

“But in such a situation, you have to decide whether you will stick to your principles, or whether you have to be pragmatic. And our attitude towards this was that we wanted to give this a try. We felt that it was important that we, as representatives of our profession and for this university, were able to take on this assignment.”

When the political parties in the agreement, via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked the historian whether he would manage the project, he went directly to his department management and said that he wanted to accept the offer. On one condition: That the department would support him, and speak up if the authorities attempted to block the work.

The department agreed to this, and Mariager said yes.

“These years we talk a lot about the university’s position in society, and part of this discussion is also about relevance. It is clear that if you are not willing to contribute to this type of assignment, when things get a little dangerous, then it is your fault if you become irrelevant.”

"We talk a lot about the university's position in society, and part of this discussion is also about relevance. It is clear that if you are not willing to contribute to this type of assignment, when things get a little dangerous, then it is your fault if you become irrelevant.
Rasmus Mariager, associate professor in history and research director on the war report

Anders Wivel agrees:

“It meant something for me that I could use my professional skills as part of an important assignment in society. I consider it important that we clarified what went on, so we could start a debate on how we make decisions to go to war in Denmark. A debate, that is more solid academically than the one we had seen until then,” he says.

Out of the silos

After more than two years of work and an investigation that now consists of four volumes and more than 2,000 pages, Mariager and Wivel describe the process as “satisfactory”. They have not experienced authorities limiting access to sources in particularly sensitive cases. On the contrary, they say the officials were cooperative. They contacted some individuals, who were not willing to let themselves be interviewed.

If they had had the same powers as a commission, they could have forced them to give evidence, . They are nevertheless not convinced that this would have been an advantage.

“When commissions ask witnesses to make statements about something that happened 20 years back in time, with criminal sanctions lurking on the horizon, then they sit in the room with observers, lawyers and a judge, so there is a tendency to be very careful,” says Mariager, who had previously worked on a commission that investigated the work of the Danish police intelligence service PET during the Cold War.

“When we had conversations with politicians and civil servants, there was no opportunity for criminal sanction. And they wanted to talk about how they experienced the process, and it has been our responsibility as professionals to handle what we were told. I believe that the way we interviewed people has been productive and in accordance with our purpose.”

You did not need a professor of law to pass judgment on the decision makers?

“No, not in any way,” says Rasmus Mariager. “We had two colleagues from the University of Copenhagen to write a legal analysis, to clarify the legal framework. But it has actually been very liberating that we did not have to consider whether things were permissible or not. We had to first and foremost describe what was going on.”

And when this was the assignment, the two researchers believe that the combination of political science and history was ideal.

Wivel and Mariager had never met each other before the work started, even though often worked on the same topics. One of them worked out of the SAXO Institute on South Campus, the other at the Department of Political Science political science at CSS. Suddenly they had to sit together in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and get their methods in sync.

This has been one of the strengths of their work, they say.

Anders Wivel gives an example: Mariager and the other historians in the research team made sure they dug as far down into the source material as possible, before Wivel, almost reflexively, got the urge to make a model. To divide the political process into phases and to create order in the historical material. The model could then be used from then on as an “analytical anchor”.

“We got the best of both worlds in terms of both being able to go into more detail on the source material, and to get it organised in a way that pointed forward,” says Wivel, and Mariager agrees:

“It has been uplifting and enriching.”

Inflate or deceive?

One of the tables that came out of this interdisciplinary approach has been scrutinised more than anything else in the four heavy volumes. The table which outlines how information changed prior to Denmark’s participation in the Iraq war. More specifically, how the intelligence that was characterised by uncertainty, was turned into clear statements of fact in the Danish parliament.

A couple of examples: The Danish Defence Intelligence Service (FE), other countries abroad, and experts assessed that Iraq and Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. To the Foreign Policy Committee and the Danish parliament, the liberal-conservative government argued that it was known that Iraq had the weapons.

In the same way, the purpose of the Iraq war changed from ‘regime change’ to ‘disarmament’. The consequences for the region, which the intelligence pointed out that the war would lead to, was ignored in the dialogue with the Danish Parliament and the Foreign Policy Committee.

It is these events, in particular, that have had the critics calling for a reopening of the Iraq Commission, so that the decision makers – in particular the former Danish Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen – can be held accountable.

The question is whether the liberal-conservative government simply inflated the intelligence reports, or whether they deliberately misled the Danish parliament. Many observers believe that the table confirmed the latter interpretation.

Wivel and Mariager do not agree:

“Then it is them that inflate what we write,” says Mariager.

Wivel takes over:

“When you put it up in a table, then it is very clearly illustrated. If you only see the table and do not read the text, then there is the risk of a sharper angled interpretation, because many of the intermediary steps are not included.”

“So this is an invitation to read the text,” interjects Mariager.

What do you think, when journalists and others conclude that they misled the Danish parliament?

“I think that we all have a responsibility for how we express ourselves,” continues Mariager. “We have only tried to describe and illustrate how these decisions were taken. And I think you should consider this instead of talking about misleading and lies.”

We found the solution that we said there were some things that surprised us. This does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. It just means that it is worth thinking about.

Rasmus Mariager, associate professor in history and research director on the war investigation

But can you not understand that people consider it misleading parliament, when you see this table, where the information clearly changes from it being received by the liberal-conservative government to it being shared with the Danish parliament? An example is the transition from regime change to disarmament as the war aim.

“I can understand many things, but this is not what we write. In addition, it was no secret that it was US policy that there should be regime change. This was something they decided in 1998, so everyone would know this if they had made themselves informed of the matter. But clearly you can form your own opinion on this,” says Mariager.

Look for the surprise

The table is an example of how particular illustrations, phrases or words can have far-reaching political importance in a research project like the war investigation. The two researchers were aware of this. Anders Wivel says that he was offered a three-day course in rhetoric by his department head before the presentation.

The researchers have been walking a rhetorical tightrope. On the one hand, they did not want to take a moral standpoint on the former governments’ war decisions. On the other hand, it was considered an important task to discuss how politicians in the future could make better informed decisions.

“We came to the solution that we said there were some things that surprised us. This is a nice way of saying that there is something here,” says Mariager and smiles.

He mentions that it surprised them how many military conflicts that Denmark got mixed up in after the end of the Cold War, how few people it is that actually make the decision to go to war, and how little the Foreign Policy Committee is involved.

“This does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. It just means that it is worth thinking about,” says Mariager.

Translated by Mike Young