July 15, 2016
The Chilcot Inquiry and Report–The Legacy of Blair, The Bush Poodle
By Meera Badmanaban
In 2003, the former Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, led his country in a US led invasion of Iraq, with devastating long term consequences. The war and post war occupation of Iraq stretched out for many years, leading to catastrophic loss of lives and leaving Iraq, in the eyes of many, worse off than before the invasion.
The Chilcot Inquiry, after almost a decade, published its report last week. It pronounced a scathing verdict on Tony Blair by concluding that his decision to join the US in the invasion of Iraq was not justified. Sir Chilcot delivered a damning blow on Blair, by stating that :
“We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”
What this means is that Britain did not actually have to go to war. Blair made the deliberate choice of invading Iraq before exhausting other peaceful options. He could actually have avoided war instead of playing pet poodle to the US. In fact, Chilcot concludes, contrary to Blair’s claims, that UK-US relations would not have been jeopardised if UK had stayed out of the war.
So, did Blair lie ? I suppose it depends on what one considers to be a lie. Somehow politicians seem to have a different definition for it. Is a lie an untrue statement? Misleading the public and parliament? Giving the impression that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, the then leader of Iraq, was far graver than it actually was? By presenting that Iraq possessed a quantity of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which, if in the wrong hands, could jeopardise the security of the UK? If these are tantamount to lies, then Blair is guilty, surely. Because the evidence clearly points to the reverse : that he deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein; the decision to invade itself was made in haste and “in unsatisfactory circumstances”, without much thought or planning for the aftermath and consequences of war. And the shame of it all – that till today the world is yet to find these so called weapons of mass destruction. What a horrific waste it has all been.
No imminent threat from Saddam Hussein
If one was concerned with global threats, be they chemical, nuclear, or biological, wouldn’t countries such as North Korea, Iran or even Libya have posed more of a threat at the time? The Chilcot Report revealed that there were a series of blunders by the British intelligence services which produced “flawed information“ about Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMD, which was the main basis for going to war with Iraq. The Report also concludes that the UK military were not really well equipped for the monumental task of going to war with Iraq. Chilcot felt that British forces had “wholly inadequate” planning and preparation for the aftermath of war. The Report said that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was over hasty and planned the invasion in a great deal of rush; so much so that they were not fully prepared for security threats on the ground, especially the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that led to the death of many British troops (not to mention the number who were maimed and crippled).
In short, the government simply had no postwar invasion planning or strategy. There were vague assurances that there would be a US led and UN authorised force in operation in Iraq, but no one really seemed to know what was happening. A recipe for the subsequent chaos; sectarian conflict and violence that inevitably ensued. Some commentators have even argued that herein were sown the seeds of hatred, revenge and violence that would ultimately grow to become the poisonous fruit of deformed growths such as Al Qaeda and the IS. People displaced from their homes; people who had lost their families and loved ones ; a devastated and angry country torn by war and sectarian strife. The seeds of disaster were sown. Sometimes we look at the Middle East and the terrorism that we say is breeding there – but the so called liberal and democratic First World, led by the USA and Britain, are not totally free of guilt. They too have a part to play in this – for they have helped to sow the seeds of discontent in a war that many now see as illegal.
Tony Blair’s Reaction
In a reaction to the report, Tony Blair hung his head (a little) and said in a suitably sombre tone of voice that he felt sorrow and regret beyond what “people may ever know” at the loss of life. He even accepted that intelligence had been at times wrong and that the British post war planning had been poor. That would have been easy for him to do, of course, because the “mistake” belonged to someone else. How magnanimous of him. However he remained astonishingly unrepentant of going to war in the first place, insisting like an adolescent schoolboy that what he did was still right. Despite the damning evidence, he persisted in saying that he did what he thought was the “right thing” at the time and that he still believed that Iraq was “better off” without Saddam Hussein. In his exact words:
“The world was, and is, in my judgment, a better place without Saddam Hussein”.And then he went on to say :
“Secondly, I will never agree that those who died or were injured made their sacrifice in vain. They fought in the defining security struggle of the 21st century against terrorism and violence … and their sacrifice should always be remembered with thanksgiving and honour.”
I wonder how he would have felt if one of his own sons had been sent to Iraq, and never came home? Would he still have made that statement? It is easy to speak of the nationalistic glory and patriotism; the pride of fighting in the name of Queen and Country; but these are other people’s children he has sent to their deaths.
The Legal Basis for a War
Iraq was a sovereign country with an equally sovereign leader in 2003. The US and Britain invaded because they felt like it for self serving reasons of their own; got rid of Saddam Hussein, and imposed their own rules in the conquered nation. And who says colonialism has ended ? One cannot help but wonder – would they have tolerated this kind of behaviour had it been the other way round ? If Saddam Hussein had felt that the US or Britain were doing something sinister; and if Iraq had invaded them instead, wouldn’t it have led to a so called “illegal war” and would Saddam not have been hauled off to stand before an International Court (such as the International Criminal Court (ICC)) for “war crimes “? The double standards and hypocrisy of the countries involved are highly questionable and unethical. At least in the UK there has been the Chilcot Inquiry and Report, damning the PM.
What about in the good old USA? Bush must be enjoying his retirement and golden years in pastures green. I still sometimes wonder what his famous phrases which he used time and time again to justify military action outside the US : “axis of evil” and “war on terror” actually mean. He coined them up himself in a grandiose manner in a so called global war against terrorism. And he got away with it.
I guess what ultimately constitutes a “war crime” or “an illegal war” depends sometimes, on the eyes of the beholder. Like “justice” or “liberty”, it can mean different things to different people at different times. International law has failed us, for at the end of the day it is subject to politicisation by the leaders of the most powerful countries in the world. As the Chilcot Report said, the circumstances in which Britain decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were “far from satisfactory”.
The exact grounds on which it was made was unclear and in fact it may be argued that what the UK did actually constituted a threat to the security of the world; by undermining the authority of the United Nations. If one examines the UN Charter, it places responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security in the Security Council. The UK government claimed to act on behalf of the international community “to uphold the authority of the Security Council”. But did they actually have a majority supporting this decision ?
There are also many grave constitutional implications from Blair’s conduct as Prime Minister. Questions arise whether he actually consulted his Cabinet about these key decisions that he took in relation to the invasion. There appeared to be a lack of regular cabinet committee scrutiny. Was Parliament adequately informed? Were all aspects of intervention debated and calculated in Cabinet and Parliament ? It appears not. The final decision seems to have been taken by Blair; not his cabinet or the government’s legal officers.
The Secret and Personal Memo to George Bush : “I will be with you, whatever”
What was this? Surely even hardcore romantic fools; or partners in long term relationships / marriages do not make such promises of undying loyalty. But here it was in black and white, a secret and personal memo from Blair to Bush eight months before the invasion; offering his unqualified and unwavering support for war. Bear in mind that this was well before the UN weapons inspectors had completed their investigations on WMD. Yet Blair pledged that “I will be with you, whatever”. It was one of 29 letters Blair sent to Bush and its contents were released as part of the Chilcot Report. What undying loyalty and commitment from an unconditional ally. And astonishing, too.
Ministerial Responsibility and Accountability : Myth or Reality ?
At the end of the day, what are the consequences of the Chilcot Report for Blair? Chilcot emphasised that their committee was not a court, and they were not a jury. They were not set up to make any legal findings. They were an independent inquiry. Whether or not Blair will face any “punishment” is another question altogether. Whilst the Report itself must be applauded for clearly exposing that the war itself was not justified; that it was a fiasco in many ways; in reality this was actually something everyone already knew. Yet the Report was still a necessary thing, in order to mete out the principles of ministerial responsibility; accountability; transparency; and disclosure of information to the public. The notion is that the PM is also subject to the same rules as other Ministers and must be answerable to the public who have a right to know.
Whether or not Blair could face a motion of contempt in the House of Commons over the invasion of Iraq in the future remains to be seen. John Prescott, who was Deputy Prime Minister at the time of the invasion in 2003, has now come out and said that he believes that the Iraq war was indeed illegal.
The Chilcot Report may hang as an albatross around Blair’s neck for the rest of his life; but he will live. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the British and Iraqi soldiers; innocent children; women and citizens who lost their lives in Iraq. For them and their families, it is all too little, too late.