The frenzied morning that the Chilcot report was released in the UK, Tony Blair appeared at a rare press conference on home soil. This was Blair at his bestworst: the street fighter determined to defend his record and his legacy. The Chilcot report had laid out much, though not all, of the disastrous process by which the UK had got into the war, and laid it at Blair’s feet.
Mere days before it was released, 250 people were killed by car bombs in Baghdad. There was no Orlando or Paris effect — only a few cities lit up monuments in the Iraqi colours. No wonder. They would have to keep them permanently lit, for the unceasing carnage. To add to it all, the report landed — who can know for what reason? — on the centenary of the Somme.
But no matter. Blair gave his usual act, an appeal to the importance of personal conviction and conscience (“whatever you believe … you must believe …”) in his decision to go to war, which alternated with a legalistic logic chopping about the evidence presented to him about Iraq and WMDs — “evidence which we now know to be false” — and clinging to the notion that “nothing was falsified”. He ended, looking and sounding near deranged, that “he’d do it again” and “it had made the world safer”.
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We can reasonably suppose that this last part is a desperate defence against the truth. The world would only be a safer place if we presume that Saddam’s regime had in fact been moving towards WMD capability, either as a national project or for sharing them with terrorist groups. The Chilcot report demolishes both justifications.
The notion that nothing was “falsified” — the defence Blair and his epigones have been using for a decade — is irrelevant. The report undoubtedly damns the UK and other Western intelligence services for their wilful presentations of shoddy evidence, shaped both by what they believed the ruling powers wanted to hear, and whatever would maximise their own importance within their states. But it also paints a clear picture of Blair’s deliberate and sustained attempt to manufacture a false negotiation process — a complete sham of inspections, negotiations and UN resolutions, designed to gain consent for a decision that had already been made.
Were there nothing else, this damns Blair absolutely. Blair lied to his cabinet, his party, and the people of his nation. Effectively he used the entire UK as a patsy.
Throughout 2002, the US public remained in a frenzy of desire for retribution for 9/11 — and were sufficiently ill-educated to believe that Iraq was responsible for the atrocity. The pro-war forces needed a more informed public to be pro-war, and the UK was it. The parts of the executive summary and the report that detail Blair’s assiduous work to lie, dissemble and deceive everyone British, in the cause of a small American power elite, are sickening to read.
Yet the full mendacity of the war extends well beyond the bounds of the report itself. It is not within Chilcot’s remit to describe the manner in which the Iraq invasion came about, in US circles — merely to describe UK policy in relation to it. In doing so, Chilcot sticks to a fairly perfunctory notion: that the idea of an Iraq invasion returned to US power circles in the weeks and months after 9/11.
This is false, of course; talk of an Iraq invasion was not a cockamamie response to a terrorist attack by young Saudis under the operation of a Saudi terror organisation hiding in Afghanistan. It had never gone away, following the conclusion of the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, after the former had invaded in 1990. George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy team had concluded that Saddam should be left in place — a reliable secular dictator capable of keeping a colonial hybrid nation united, a bulwark against both Shiite Iran, and pro-Soviet/pro-Russia Syria. The hawks employed by his predecessor Reagan — and out of office — howled blue murder, arguing for invasion now.
Through the ’90s, and the further exile of the first Clinton term, they squatted in DC think tanks, coming up with grandiose theories of historical change. Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument emboldened them: nationalist-Third Worldist entities like Iraq were, after the USSR, halfway to the scrapheap. When Clinton was re-elected and withdrew troops from Somalia after one disastrous encounter, the neocons — as they’d been called in the ’80s — regrouped, creating the “Project for a New American Century”.
The PNAC saw the US as threatened by a rising China and India, and needing to re-assert both its raw power and its historical destiny as the embodiment of human freedom. During the 2000s, there was much discussion as to whether many of these figures were “Straussians” — followers of Leo Strauss, a European philosopher who taught in the US for decades, and proposed a notion, drawn from Plato, that “democracies” should be guided by a hidden elite, who understood the perils of a nation being being steered by popular opinion.
Deposing Saddam and occupying Iraq was central to that vision from the start. It predated the sudden visibility of al-Qaeda — with its African embassy bombings — an organisation that many neocons regarded as trifling non-state actors. Iraq was a dodged up country, created in the ’20s by the British, carved out of three provinces of the Ottoman empire (the fourth in the region was left as a UK protectorate for port access — a little town named Kuwait).
Unlike Iran, it had no core cultural ground. It also had a lot of oil. The country could be occupied, a Western-style parliamentary regime put in place, and private deals made with Western oil companies. The neocons derided the Clinton administration’s focus on al-Qaeda. They were engaged in extensive planning with the Iraqi exile apparatus, headed by a shady Middle East banker named Ahmed Abdel Hadi Chalabi, who plugged US spy agencies into intelligence on Saddam’s regime.
When George W. Bush was elevated to the presidency by the Supreme Court in 2000, the thread with the ’80s neocons was taken up. Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Rumsfeld — the gang was back into town. The Clinton-established bin Laden unit was all but dissolved, as part of a scorched-earth policy taken to Clinton-era intelligence. There remained a ghost of the old ’80s attitude from the fundamentalist-Christian Bush administration: that they had something in common with fundamentalist Islam, more than they did with secular, “socialist” Arab dictatorships.
Hence the shock and disablement when 9/11 hit. Hence the discussion of an Iraq invasion within days, even hours of the attack. The 9/11 event proved a perfect pretext and cover for an invasion that would otherwise be difficult to sell. To sell it to Americans was easy — to the rest of the world another story was needed.
Blair’s “New Labour” team had already provided the ground for that story with the notion of an “ethical” foreign policy, bound up in humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect. Kosovo had been one result of that, and Kosovo provided a model for what Blair would do with Iraq. The “Rambouillet” agreement provided to Serbia as a “take-it-or-leave-it” agreement on the eve of NATO attack gave total power to NATO occupiers, and dictated the explicit terms as to how Kosovo would be run.
Through the lead-up to invasion, in 2002 and 2003, the justification flashed back and forth between WMDs, the threat of global terror, and humanitarian justifications. Much of the intelligence that sealed the justification for the idea of WMDs, even when it was transparently ludicrous — satellite photos of trucks and pipes, designated as chemical factories — came from a single intelligence source, “Curveball”, a comprehensive hoaxer, who was connected to the US intelligence services by … Chalabi. The circle was complete.
Blair’s actions have been the focus of the report, and subsequent reaction. Some have argued that Blair is now serving as a scapegoat for the wider process: a supine right-wing section of the British Labour Party locked into an imperial global system, a fervent braying UK press, with Murdoch papers in the lead, and a global foreign policy establishment that portrayed the dissent of people such as Hans Blix and Scott Ritter as marginal and naive.
There is truth to all of that (and to the involvement of John Howard, too, which will have to await a deeper dive into the report), but what has really put Blair in the gunsights is his commitment to fabricating a process of negotiation — and targeting it explicitly at the UK public, whom he was supposed to represent. Blair and others have tried to keep the emphasis on the supposedly honest treatment of the intelligence they received (if you want to hear a masterpiece of prevarication and special pleading, take a listen to Greg Sheridan on Sunday Extra yesterday).
But the crucial issue is the contempt with which the public were treated, on three continents, as the war was engineered. It is this, in the UK instance, that the report has documented in a way that leaves no other conclusion. It is that which prompted the shift in Blair’s tone — no longer magisterial, but angry and strangled. For what has ultimately been revealed is his disloyalty to the people he was elected to serve.
The Chilcot report shouldn’t be taken as the full story — its remit means that it couldn’t be the full story — but it is enough of one to permanently shift the view in which the period was held. And the people. Caught in the sheer light of history, stubbornly refusing to end.