The Chilcott Enquiry has been bubbling along nicely for the past month or so. This week though it seems to have risen up the news bulletins as the appearance of the former Prime Minister Tony Blair has got closer and closer. Yesterday Blair was due to appear in front of the enquiry panel, and by all accounts gave a suitably solid performance.
I say by all accounts, because I didn’t see all of his submission to the Chilcott enquiry (only the edited “highlights” on the various news channels). Some of us have to work you know… However his answers did raise a couple of interesting points.
The first part of the evidence seemed to hone in on the mindset of foreign affairs in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Blair seemed to be influenced by the event, and from what we gather, he let it cloud his judgement of who was a threat and who wasn’t – “The calculus of risk changed” is how he put it. Of course the risk of leaving volatile countries should be seen through the light of the two intelligence failure’s the UK and US suffered in 2001/2. The US authorities failure to pick up the 20 odd Middle Eastern men learning how to fly planes in Florida in the spring of 2001, but not to land them. The other failure was in the reports that pinpointed WMD in Iraq.
As a result of the change in atmosphere in diplomatic circles, Iraq and Sadam Hussein emerged as a threat to the western world. Hussein had already been a bogeyman to the Americans, in 1991 the first Bush presidency had successfully evicted Iraqi troops from Kuwait only to be stopped from a full scale invasion of Iraq by their fellow allies. Little reported is the impact of the US/UK/Allied troops occupancy of Saudi Arabia on its society. The wealthy construction firm run by the Bin Laden family saw one of their sons leave the country in protest for example.
To the younger Bush and the people who he picked as his cabinet, The Neo Con Hawks and the followers of the “New American Century”, Iraq was a long term target. They were set on regime change and set out to get it. In the hours after the New York and Washington terrorist attacks, the likes of Richard Pearle, Paul Wolfavitz and Donald Rumsfield set out to spin the attacks as having the hand of Saddam Hussein behind it, appearing on American news networks to spell this out. When the Osama Bin Laden led group Al-Qeada admitted responsibility, the United States put Iraq on the back burner and made plans to, as Bush described it “smoke ‘em (Al-Qeada) out”.
The second part of Blair’s evidence was about the road to war, and Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, they did not have missiles – or as the late Robin Cook described it during his resignation speech a delivery mechanism. Cook did admit Iraq might have chemical’s and possibly the bacteria, but without that crucial “delivery mechanism” – they were effectively impotent. The New Labour government produced a dossier which all sides agreed meant that Iraq had to be dealt with. All sides, except the Lib Dem’s, despite their Foreign Affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell embracing the dodgy dossier and the nationalist parties. Considering Blair’s reputation as Bush’s biggest cheerleader at Westminster, it’s bizarre to think back and recall that Ian Duncan Smith was even more keen on acting against Iraq than Blair. It’s a stance that Howard and Cameron have done very well to …err gloss over. Today though Blair continued the mantra of WMD, and also the mantra that he did the right thing.
Blair did concede that mistakes were made. He had assumed that there would be a “civil service” – i.e. that there would be a system of making the country run. The UK and US governments did not anticipate the complete re-structuring of the country after Hussein was toppled, with Blair conceding “If we knew then what we know now we would, of course, do things very differently. But for what we thought we were going to have, we had planned for it and we met those eventualities." Yet this is the same mistake made with Afghanistan, where time was taken to set up (impose) a centralised (and unpopular) system of government, which has certainly helped turn people against the British/US military forces in Afghanistan.
Blair did throw a couple of curve balls at the watching masses. He threw up the Minority Report defence, ie what would the world be like if Hussein had not been removed, Blair’s description of this was “Sometimes what's important is not to ask the March 2003 question, but to ask the 2010 question”. Blair believes that Iraq and Iran would have been locked in an arms race not unlike the developing one between India and Pakistan. He also believes that, contrary to evidence, Hussein’s Iraq would have become a haven to Islamic fundamentalist groups and provided materials to enable other terrorist attacks on the scale of that seen on September 11 2001. After all Hussein had the means to raise capital to fund research. Blair believed the effectiveness of the sanctions was “eroding”, despite the evidence of the UN’s own weapons inspectors, who under Hans Blix could not locate any WMD.
Worryingly Blair also raised the prospect of action against Iran, who many people believed was next on Bush’s hit list anyway. Blair believes that collusion between Al-Qeada and Iran were behind the welter of terrorist attacks which hit Iraq in the aftermath of the fall of Hussein. Blair also sees the same situation with weapons of mass destruction arising with Iran. The difference between Iran and Iraq though is that Iraq lost a lot of their capacity to manufacture WMD in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Iran do have some sort of nuclear programme ongoing, whether its for military purposes or for more peaceful motives remains to be seen, and still has full military capacity whatever that is.
Blair’s evidence was a useful insight into the mind-set of the British Government at the time. The consensus at the time was that the motive for going to war changed with the weather, where Blair yesterday stuck to the weapons of mass destruction motive. Blair also introduced the Minority Report argument, where it was more important to think of what Iraq might do rather than what they were capable of at that moment. Blair also acknowledged that the USA went into this with different motives (regime change, oil…). Ultimately though this was not evidence to change anyone’s opinion of whether it was right to go to war in Iraq, and no I was not a supporter of the war. What Blair did change, I think anyway, was people’s perception of how the decision was made. Subtle dividing lines were drawn by Blair yesterday, where British and American motives and method’s were picked apart. The Americans were not keen on going to the UN, Blair had to convince them to get even the first resolution. What Blair ensured yesterday was that should there be any war crimes trial, that he is not alone in the dock.