The new issue of Liberator contains this article by me on Iraq and the Chilcot Report. It was written in haste and owes an indecent amount to Peter Oborne and James Graham, but I wanted to have my say n an event that continues to haunt British politics.
Disgraced in the Desert
“We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there.” Tony Blair put it more elegantly when assuring George W. Bush that “I will be with you, whatever,” but this order, given to Christopher Meyer when he became Britain’s ambassador in Washington by Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell, conveyed the essence of the relationship that led to disaster in Iraq.
It was entirely reasonable of Tony Blair to associate himself closely with President Clinton when he first became prime minister. Here was a popular and successful politician with views notably similar to Blair’s own.
But the Blair inner circle’s insistence that Meyer became so unhealthily close to the US had its roots in Labour’s long years in opposition to Margaret Thatcher and John Major. With the Thatcher years dominated by the Cold War and arguments over the British deterrent and the deployment of American weapon systems on British soil, Labour struggled not to be painted as unpatriotic.
Blair overturned all that, and it drove the Conservative Party mad. You can see this in their reaction to Charles Kennedy’s brave speech in the Commons before action in Iraq began. Their outrage was surely a mask for their anger that Labour had usurped their role as America’s staunchest ally. Somewhere there too was the jealously of a younger boy who fears he has lost the friendship of an older, cooler boy because the latter has allowed someone else into their gang.
Blair, the new boy in the gang, certainly saw it that way. In his book DC Confidential, Christopher Meyer records that the new prime minister “pulsed with ill-suppressed excitement” during his first official visit to the US. That excitement continued when George W. Bush was elected, no matter how crass his views and actions.
As Peter Oborne reminds us in his book Not the Chilcot Report, in January 2002 Bush startled his allies by naming Iraq, Iran and North Korea as "an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world":
Iraq, he claimed, had been plotting for more than a decade to develop anthrax, nerve gas and nuclear weapons. As a supporter of "terror", it might well provide these to terrorists.
In fact, there was no evidence to support this last claim: not only was Saddam Hussein ideologically opposed to al-Qaeda, but he wouldn’t allow it to operate in his territory.
Regardless, the United States now set about seeking allies for an attack on Iraq. Thus, Bush invited Blair and his family to visit him at his family ranch in Crawford, Texas that April – nearly a full year before the invasion.
Most unusually, there were no advisers present and no notes were taken.Oborne goes on to piece together what he thinks was said at Crawford.
Bush, he argues, told Blair he was committed to regime change in Iraq. Blair expressed strong support for this, but said he would need to find cover under international law by seeking support from the United Nations. Well-placed observers, claims Oborne, also believe that he also made a private pledge to commit Britain to war.
The real Chilcot Report sets out the background to this meeting. On 12 March 2002, just weeks before the Crawford summit, Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser David Manning had a conversation with Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser. The prime minister, Manning told her, “would not budge in [his] support for regime change”.
Five days later, Meyer met the US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Meyer told him that Britain "backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option". And on 25 March, just before Blair’s meeting with Bush, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw sent him a memo.
To provide legal cover and a plausible pretext for war, said Straw, Blair needed to present his objective as the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, rather than regime change. On this analysis, Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors were dispatched to Iraq in the hope that Saddam would deny them entry and provide a pretext for war.
Oborne concludes that Blair committed himself to regime change – and agreed to support US military action – during that secret meeting at Crompton.
Blair’s response to this widely made charge is strange. On the one hand he maintains that war in Iraq really was caused by fear of Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons, yet whenever he makes the moral case for that war, he does so entirely in terms of regime change. So the end he denies seeking before the war was fought is not the one he uses to justify it.
To listen to Blair now you would imagine that, in those febrile weeks before war began, he argued that we must take action in Iraq to overthrow Saddam’s dictatorship. I love to see tyrants overthrown, their statues torn down and their prisons broken open to public gaze. If you are not a pacifist, such action must sometimes be an option if the tyranny is extreme enough and the prospects of success are strong enough.
But that was not the case Blair made. The first bombs fell on Iraq on 20 March 2003, buy as late as 25 February he told the Commons:
"I detest his regime but even now he can save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully."Blair frequently implies that there was no middle position between doing nothing about Saddam and invasion. The truth is there were many things we could and did do against Saddam before we went to war in 2003. There had been two separate no-fly zones in Iraq since the first war in 1992.
Tony Blair today cuts a tortured, Christ-like figure, albeit one with a peculiar orange hue and multi-million pound annual earnings . It is hard to resist the conclusion of the Guardian journalist Mike Carter:
A colleague just said to me: “if Blair hadn't toppled Saddam, he'd be doing his PR for him now.” Scary thing is, that's probably trueThe war was a disaster for the people of Iraq, not least because the victors had no plans for running the country after it was over beyond disbanding the Iraqi army and civil service.
Though British participation was buoyed by imperialist nostalgia – we flattered ourselves that we understood the Arab world in a way the Americans never could – we were not prepared even to count the number of Iraqis who died under our rule. As a result the independent website Iraq Body Count was set up. It now estimates there have been more than 250,000 deaths from the war and the violence that engulfed the country afterwards.
Besides the Iraqi people and Blair’s reputation, progressive politics in Britain have suffered because of the dishonest way the country was led into war in Iraq. Look at the disputes between the Corbynistas and the rest of the Labour Party today. The former use the cry of “Iraq”” as a means of silencing their opponents in the way that previous generations of far-leftists used “Fascist!” So it is that, because of her support for war in Iraq, a mainstream Labour figure like Angela Eagle is branded a “Tory”.
Nor have the Liberal Democrats escaped the baleful legacy of Iraq. Because the party lacks strong intellectual foundations, often seeming to be shored up by a combination of support for Guardian editorials, leaflet distribution and general benevolence, we find it hard to explain how it is that we differ from moderate Labourites. We have a tendency so seize upon policy questions where we are in the right, such as Iraq or identity cards, and elevate these into insurmountable peaks of principle.
You would never guess from all the praise for Charles Kennedy and his courage in the face of that heckling from the Conservative benches that he had originally been wary of opposing the war in Iraq and was rather bounced into opposition by the wider party.
Writing five years after the event, the Liberal Democrat blogger James Graham recalled the opposition from the party’s big-wigs after a motion he and Susan Kramer took to the Federal Executive, calling on the party to oppose the war and on members to join the Stop the War demonstration, was passed:
Senior figures in the party did everything they could to stop any aspect of this motion from being implemented. They point blank refused to put anything up on the party website … They wouldn’t link to my site.
Then: with less than a week to go before the demo itself, Kennedy was asked a direct question by David Frost on live television and, bottling it, turned volte face and said he would be “very happy” to go on [the demonstration].
Suddenly we got our link on the front page of the party website, publicity in Lib Dem News (which until that point had been relegated to the letters pages) and the full weight of the party’s campaigns and press departments behind us.
Yet even then Kennedy remained obsessed with having it both ways. Notoriously, his Hyde Park speech argued meekly that he was “not persuaded” of the case for war and demanding that Parliament be allowed a vote (it was; the troops went in).In my experience those party big-wigs were never much interested in Liberal Democrat News, but that was how James saw it.
Our finest hour
Charles Kennedy’s opposition to war in Iraq is now established in the popular mind and the party’s own mind, as our finest hour. But we do need to be sure what lessons we draw from that.
We are not a pacifist party, so in what circumstances would we support military actions abroad? Must there be United Nations support for it. Must we be part of a wide international coalition? Must we be sure of success? We need to decide.
And those who oppose such action need to be clear why they do so. I did detect a conscious rerunning of the debate on Iraq by those Lib Dems who opposed what turned out to be near token action against ISIL forces in Syria.
It is too late for the people of Iraq or for Tony Blair’s reputation, but the rest of us need to learn from the wretched affair and be clear about which lessons we need to learn.