The Chilcot Inquiry report, awaited for years but finally released during the greatest political tumult in the UK in generations, has disappeared from the media cycle, submerged by the Tories and Labour simultaneously tearing themselves apart amid Brexit.
Those two issues, however, are not as separate as we might assume. Trumpism in the United States, Brexit in the UK, even the return of Pauline Hanson here have political commentators — left and right — mulling over an Anglophone revolt against “elites” (which elites depends on which political side you line up with), a distaste for politics-as-usual and a desire to re-assert control (with the focus usually being control of borders).
It’s difficult to fault a desire for greater control, however xenophobically expressed, when it is motivated by perceptions that governments and large corporations do as they please with little accountability — multinational tax avoidance, for example, is another issue that has angered voters both here in Australia and in the UK.
The Chilcot report devotes much of its massive length to detailing what exactly Tony Blair should be accountable for — and what he shouldn’t be. Notably, the report concludes that whatever errors and misjudgments Blair made — for example, wilfully ignoring advice that attacking Iraq would make the UK less safe, not more safe — he did not take Britain into Iraq based on a lie.
That’s not a conclusion that can be drawn about the Bush administration, however. There is considerable evidence that Bush and Cheney knowingly lied about Saddam Hussein’s possession and further development of weapons of mass destruction. Not merely is this evidence strongly circumstantial, based on intelligence reports that the administration was given before making statements contradicting those reports, but includes the statements of those directly involved. Former CIA officers have detailed how the head of the CIA, George Tenet, gave Bush intelligence that Saddam had no WMDs, but Bush rejected it because he’d already determined on war. Tenet himself in his book At the Center of the Storm outlined in extensive detail the determination of Dick Cheney, long predating 9/11, to find a reason to attack Iraq, and along with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to insert what Tenet called “crap” in public justifications for attacking Iraq, as well as the administration’s willingness to “mischaracterize complex intelligence information”. One of Bush’s intelligence briefers has also admitted Cheney fabricated claims but said it “wasn’t my job” to correct the lies being told about his own intelligence briefing.
These were people who were literally in the room, who have acknowledged the Bush administration lied, inserted “crap” and “mischaracterized” information about Iraq.
Whether John Howard engaged in the same deception is unknown: we have never had a proper inquiry into the circumstances in which he led Australia into its participation in the invasion and occupation, and the only parliamentary inquiry into the WMD intelligence failure was not given full access to the materials provided to the government. At the very best, however, Howard was guilty of the same gross misjudgement as Blair; the fault lay as much with their own eagerness for war as any intelligence failure about the threat posed by Saddam. And Howard was guilty of making Australia less safe from the threat of terrorism as Blair was guilty of making the UK less safe. Like Blair, Howard failed on the most basic responsibility of any leader, keeping his country as safe as possible.
The three of them, and other Western leaders like Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, are responsible for one of the biggest mass slaughters of post-war history, a death toll of Iraqi civilians numbering in the hundreds of thousands, as well as creating conditions for the rise of Islamic State and the dominance of Iran in its region. They are responsible for more than 4400 dead US personnel and 179 dead UK personnel, along with tens of thousands of casualties and a bill that is estimated to eventually exceed US$4 trillion — quite apart from the ongoing human toll from veterans taking their own lives and suffering profound mental and physical trauma.
None have ever faced any accountability for, in the case of Bush and, possibly, Howard, deliberate lying about the need for an attack on Iraq, and in the case of Blair and Howard, a wilful misjudgment about that need. They still walk free, uncensured, apparently untroubled by the colossal disaster they bequeathed us.
Nor has Rupert Murdoch, who aggressively encouraged the invasion across all but one of his newspapers across the globe, been held to account. As Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre told the Leveson Inquiry, “I’m not sure that the Blair government — or Tony Blair -= would have been able to take the British people to war if it hadn’t been for the implacable support provided by the Murdoch papers. There’s no doubt that came from Mr Murdoch himself.” Murdoch, via orifices like The Sun, now claims to have been misled by Blair, complaining last week about Blair’s “weapons of mass deception” as though Murdoch was an innocent victim of Blair (and, by implication, Bush, although the former president has no connection with Wendi Deng). And we’re yet to see that US$20 barrel of oil that Murdoch declared would result from invading Iraq.
If there’s no holding to account for an act of mass murder costing hundreds of thousands of lives, resulting from deliberate falsehood and wilful misjudgement, one that has cost the West trillions in resources, one that continues to claim the lives of Iraqis and Syrians, former Western military personnel, and Western civilians, then what accountability exists at all for political elites? Under what genuinely democratic system does Tony Blair not risk prosecution while the men he sent to Iraq do? Under what genuinely democratic system does John Howard escape even an inquiry into his actions? How do George W. Bush and Dick Cheney face only the judgement of history, not the judgement of a court?
There are of course coherent answers to each of those questions, but we shouldn’t wonder about growing perceptions of a profound democratic deficit in Western countries when four members of the group that led us into such a catastrophe escape all accountability because of their elite status.