By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Saturday, July 9, 2015.
The 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, author “Gulliver’s Travels,” famously said: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.” I was reminded of Swift’s words as I watched Tony Blair’s emotionally charged response to the publication of the long awaited Chilcot Report into the U.K.’s role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq Wednesday.
Sir John Chilcot delivered a damning verdict on Blair’s leadership, the most damning criticism of a prime minister in living memory. It took Chilcot seven years, and 2.6 million words, but his report makes plain that Blair took the decision to go to war at a time when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat and “before peaceful options for disarmament were exhausted.”
Chilcot found that Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction after accepting flawed intelligence, which he resolutely failed to question or properly scrutinize.
Chilcot also revealed evidence that Blair pledged to support U.S. President George W. Bush’s ambition to topple Saddam within weeks of the 9/11 attacks on America, culminating eight months before the 2003 invasion in an unqualified commitment to support the U.S. invasion – “I will be with you, whatever.” Yet at the same time Blair was still pretending to Parliament, and the U.K. public, that he was desperately seeking a peaceful solution.
Chilcot also found Blair sent British troops into combat ill-equipped, and that he had failed to plan for the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of the country.
And yet, when confronted with this woeful litany of deceit and failure this Wednesday, Blair, visibly shaken and looking like a broken man, was stridently unrepentant about what is widely seen as the worst foreign policy decision by a U.K. government since the disastrously botched attempt to gain control of the Suez canal in 1956.
“I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer,” he declared.
Blair confessed “more sorrow and regret than you can ever believe” but insisted he had acted in good faith, based on intelligence at the time which said Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. He conceded that this “turned out to be wrong,” but failed to refer specifically to Chilcot’s charge that he deliberately exaggerated the threat to gain support for the invasion.
In short, Blair said he would “do it all again.” The former prime minister, who at times looked close to tears, insisted he could “look the nation in the eye” because he did not mislead it into war. He insisted Iraqis today, dying in their thousands, are better off since the invasion, particularly the Kurds.
For all the drama of the last week, much of what Chilcot concluded in his 8,000 page report is already widely known, including Blair’s infamous note to Bush in July 2002, in which he said: “I will be with you, whatever.” This was quoted in journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s 2010 book “The End of the Party,” based on his interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then Britain’s ambassador to the U.S.
It’s also worth pointing out that we are unable to see the other side of the correspondence – what Bush said to Blair – which Washington has refused to declassify. That means the notes are onesided, and arguably lack context for a proper judgment.
One could also argue that some of Chilcot’s criticism of Blair is a little unjust. Chilcot’s accusation that Blair sidelined his Cabinet in the run-up to war, preferring instead to discuss key details with selected trusted aides is more than a little laughable.
At the time, Blair had overwhelming support for the invasion both in Cabinet and in Parliament – though not among the general public. Those politicians who supported him may now argue that they did so under a false prospectus, but all were happy to do so at the time without seeking to scrutinize the evidence themselves. Surely they should have spoken up if they felt they were being left out of key discussions?
Meanwhile, the U.K.’s top spy chief, Sir John Scarlett happily allowed Blair’s government to exaggerate the value of information the intelligence agencies believed to be flawed to make his case for war. The report also asks why the U.K. generals failed to protest that they were ill-prepared and inadequately supplied troops into battle. Chiclot specifically points out that U.K. military commanders made “over-optimistic assessments” of their capabilities, which had led to a number of “bad decisions.”
Blair does appear to have been able to cajole or bully the government’s legal adviser, Lord Goldsmith, into changing his initial legal advice over the legality of the invasion without United Nations support. Chilcot did not make a judgment on whether Blair or his ministers were in breach of international law, but added: “The circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for U.K. military action were far from satisfactory.”
Fair enough. But it is worth pointing out that for all the legal arguments surrounding the invasion, the West had created a humanitarian disaster in Iraq in the decade preceding the war courtesy of the U.N. sanctions program. By 2003, there was no electricity in many parts of the country, barely any running water, and few medicines. UNICEF estimated that more than half a million Iraqi children died as a consequence of sanctions between 1990 and 2003. Yet as Chilcot makes clear, there was no coherent plan by the invaders to rebuild the destroyed country once they occupied it.
Chilcot makes clear that Blair, and as such the U.K., had virtually no role in either planning the invasion or the aftermath which was left entirely to the Americans. Indeed Chiclot criticized the U.S. for ignoring U.K. pleas to avoid implementing a wide-ranging de-Baathification of the army and government offices. Blair’s comment Wednesday that the U.K. was a junior partner of the U.S., was an understatement. Looking at parts of Chilcot’s report it’s clear the U.K.’s role was sadly more akin to the wider world view of Blair being Bush’s poodle.
Finally, Blair insisted that those military men and women who have died in the conflict did so in the “defining global security struggle of the 21st century against the terrorism and violence which the world over destroys lives, divides communities.” Perhaps. But many more would argue the conflict they gave their lives for has instead had a significant role in if not creating, then shaping and fueling that terrorism.
Moreover, as Chilcot’s report shows beyond doubt, the decision to invade Iraq destroyed the U.K.’s international reputation, and single-handedly killed the notion of liberal intervention to protect human lives and human rights in future. In one of Blair’s most telling comments Wednesday, he appeared to express bemusement at that fact. “It [Iraq] also overshadows everything people think about me” he said, seeming to put his bruised ego and tarnished political legacy on a par with the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the bloody quagmire of Iraq since 2003 and their grieving families.
Blair it seems, is pretty unbroken.
The same cannot be said for the dead, the wounded and those left behind to grieve them. To borrow another phrase from Swift, Blair seems to have discovered that “Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived.”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 7, 2015.