Sometimes history slips out of buff government folders and falls into the rough-and-tumble of current affairs, creates an impression, is rewritten and is quietly replaced in its folder – but not this time.
I missed the (almost) live feed of Tony Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry and my subsequent viewing of a recording of the day had all the qualities of watching a tape of a football game after I had learned the result. Many of the press articles on the following Saturday morning contained what appeared to be pre-polished phrases and sentences – as if they had been written before Blair’s performance. Sometimes, political comment gave way to bar-room psychology and biased-reporting seemed to have achieved a re-birth. Supposition appeared to give way to facts. It all seemed quite messy and unnecessarily over-emotional.
The first impressions were of placards outside the Queen Elizabeth Halls and people in anoraks chanting “We all live in a terrorist regime” – rather bizarrely, to the tune of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine“. Then the inevitable interview with an inarticulate lady whose son had been killed. As usual , she couldn’t “find the words” but wanted to know why her son had been killed. Grave-looking TV newsreaders were conveying their disapproval of Blair, even before he’d had a chance to explain himself.
The odds appeared stacked against Blair.
As he sat at his table, ready to face Chilcot, the first thing that you noticed was that the boyish charm that had propelled him so far in the late 90s had gone. This was an expensively-suited, more serious introspective-looking Blair who had brought a rather thick lever-arch file to act as his comfort blanket and would allow him precious thinking time as he flicked through its pages when asked a difficult question. We knew that many of the people seated behind him were relatives of soldiers who had been killed in Iraq and if previous reports were true, they were angry; an only-just-contained mob which could strike at any minute. Blair’s hand shook as he filled his glass with bottled water.
This was British theatre at its best.
The following six hours were destined to rewrite Blairs’ place in history and at that moment, many were anticipating the odd admission, the odd touch of contrition, the odd apology and the odd regret. Once again, the “hand of history” was hovering over Blair’s shoulder.
The day unfolded to the gasping realisation that Blair was going to be having none of it. He defended and justified his position to the hilt. Contrition – forget it. Apologies – none.
Instead we had an exhibition of absolute self-regard – only just this side of vainglorious arrogance. There was even the odd laugh.
Previous witnesses had made it clear that the legal case for the invasion of Iraq was “constructed” and Blair was not only able to adopt the “I was only following advice” stance but showed that what has been interpreted as his “lying” was no more than the sum of his own self-justifying twisted reasoning and mutated thinking.
During awkward questioning, he would try and change the subject, use the “unfinished sentence” technique or even take his reasoning into a verbal “cul-de-sac” without actually answering the question. The stage-hesitation coupled to the slightly downward stare, the occasional shrug of the shoulders were all back!. It was to be a master-class in the art of provincial barristering.
So how did an apparently astute politician such as Blair manage to put himself in such an awkwardly – almost untenable position? How had he managed to paint himself into a corner? Back to the hand of history:
9/11 had undoubtedly given George W Bush the opportunity to make a tenuous connection between Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda and the Twin Towers. That was when the decision to invade Iraq had been made. What followed over the next year-or-so was simply a sales pitch to Blair, Jack Straw and Peter Goldsmith.
Saddam had blotted his copy-book several years earlier by invading Kuwait. What is not generally known is that Iraq has laid claim to Kuwait for many years. Kuwait would have given Iraq direct and much-needed access to the Persian Gulf. Baghdad had laid claim to Kuwait since the 1930s – ever since Kuwait was a British Protectorate (Kuwait did not achieve independence fro the United Kingdom until 1961). When Saddam finally invaded Kuwait, fellow Arab states saw this a far less objectionable than Jewish Israel’s appropriation of Arab Palestine. But because of Western interests, a series of United Nations resolutions were passed on Iraq in 1990. Saddam’s intransigence and military “munchausenisms” made the end-game inevitable.
Blair and Bush always referred to Saddam as a tyrant who killed his own people with weapons of mass destruction. That was true – but there is a context.
Saddam had spent years fighting the fanaticism of Islamic revolution in the Middle East. His own regime was grounded in Ba’athism which was a brand of Arab Socialism that owed more to Moscow than to Mecca. Everywhere but in Iraq, ideology was beginning to defer to theology. Consequently, he was viewed with suspicion by his neighbours who were busying themselves with Islam-driven political re-engineering. The West did not like him because of his Mussolini-like macho posturing and his refusal to be bullied by succesive American Presidents.
In those days the social climate in Iraq was far more liberal that in the rest of the Middle East and Saddam was not considered to be either the religious bigot or crazed tyrant that he has been portrayed by both Bush administrations.
However, there was one major 1988 episode which would provide the catalyst for the Blair/Bush invasion of Iraq and which forever sealed Saddam’s reputation as a terrorist bogeyman. The Kurds in the north of Iraq welcomed Iranian invaders into Iraq and were consequently attacked with mustard and nerve gas by the Iraqi air-force . The manner of their death has without doubt not-only made this one of the most appalling episodes in human history but subsequently enabled Bush and Blair to promulgate Saddam as a “monster capable of anything”.
It was Saddam’s reputation and attitude which clouded the West’s every single subsequent Iraq-linked decision. That in turn, led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the deaths of over 100,000 people. A Royal Running Flush of UN resolutions would have made little difference and as for the “legality” of bombing and invading a non-aggressive state – it was irrelevant. The United States had already decided to invade Iraq and would have done so with or without Blair’s connivance. British participation in the war was firmly in the “nice to have” category and served only to give the invasion a superficial legitimacy.
Politically, it can be argued that Blair had made the right decision. Although in the 2005 General Election, Labour’s Westminster seat-count went down to 356 (from 413 in 2001), the still-healthy Labour majority demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that Blair was continuing to enjoy the backing of the British voter. That was in spite of the 2003 Hutton Inquiry.
Tony Blair now says that his reference to the fact that Saddam was capable of deploying weapons “within 45 minutes” referred to “battlefield” weapons and not ballistic weapons. That suggests either a total lack of communication skill on Blair’s part, or a very selective use of information and misinformation. There is little doubt that Blair was in a hurry: He told us that Saddam’s weapons capability was “active, detailed and growing”. That appears to be a statement designed to motivate and hurry the country to action. Blair was in a hurry because Bush was in a hurry.
Later, Blair said that it was the future threat which Saddam posed which meant that action “had to be taken” . His earlier television interview with Fern Britton demonstrated the full extent of his clouded judgement and inconsistent thinking when he said that he would have removed Saddam regardless of whether or not he had Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Blair seemed to be clutching at every excuse and justification that came to mind – even if they contradicted each other.
Jack Straw’s and Peter Goldsmiths evidence has clearly demonstrated that the legality of the invasion was “finely balanced”. Therefore, one would assume that because the invasion of a foreign state is such a profoundly major event, one would naturally err on the side of caution and not invade.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s entire retinue of 27 Foreign Office lawyers thought that the invasion of Iraq would be illegal. Unfortunately, Straw failed to convey that message to No 10. Why? Probably because he knew that some bosses only want to hear either the good news or the news which happens to dovetail with their own judgements.
Blair’s most memorable moment at the Chilcot Inquiry occurred when Chilcott asked him directlly whether he (Blair) had any regrets. This was Blair’s big opportunity and he blew it. He said that he felt “Responsibility but not regret”. He was implying that Saddam-like, he felt no regret for over 100,00 dead soldiers and civilians. He delivered his pre-prepared and ill-judged “no regret” vignette to the chorus of “Murderer” and “You’re a liar”. Finally the gallery behind were able to have their say.
It is doubtful that this is the way that Blair would wish to be remembered by history. Remembering Saddam’s dignified exit as he stood quietly on the trapdoor while his executioners screamed obsceneties at him makes you think that Saddam may yet have the last laugh.
When that lever was pulled – it ended several careers.