Letting Blair off the hook
Eddie Ford is not holding out any hopes for the Chilcot report
At long last, the Chilcot report will be published on July 6 - after being “cleared” by the security services, of course. It will be 2.6 million words long and based on the testimony of more than 150 witnesses, incorporating the results of the examination of 150,000 government documents - of which 1,500 will apparently be published online.
Even for a British public inquiry - nearly always tortuously long exercises in obfuscation - the whole process has been a farce. The report was initially expected within months of the last evidence session way back in February 2011, yet here we are. According to Sir John Chilcot, a privy counsellor and former civil servant mandarin paid £790 a day to head the inquiry, the absurd delay in publishing is due to “negotiations” over which documents should be declassified and the need to give those individuals criticised in the report the chance to respond to it first. Most people would think that five years is quite sufficient to prepare a defence.
Previously, there had been extremely optimistic stories about how the Chilcot report would deliver an “absolutely brutal” verdict on the failings of the 2003 occupation of Iraq and “savage” Tony Blair - claiming he offered military support to George W Bush a year before the actual invasion of Iraq (The Independent May 22 2016). We also read that the harshest criticism would be reserved for the former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and in general would “damage the reputations” of various people - including Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, for allowing Downing Street to “gloss”, or ‘sex up’, supposed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, and so on. In turn, this led to some speculation that Blair would “refuse” to accept Chilcot’s findings - especially when he remarked that he would be taking to the airwaves to defend himself rather than going to ground (The Guardian May 29 2016).
Frankly, these stories were hard to take seriously. Are we really supposed to believe that an establishment figure like Chilcot would find an ex-prime minister guilty of conducting an illegal war - or even lying? Such an accusation was unthinkable. Chilcot was a participant, after all, in the discredited 2004 Butler review - clearly watered down to protect Blair.1 This report did not apportion blame to any specific individual, the assumption being that everyone was acting in good faith. The main conclusion was that the key intelligence used to justify the Iraq war was “unreliable”, as the security services did not check its sources “well enough” and sometimes relied on “third-hand reports” (with an “over-reliance” on Iraqi dissident sources). Overall, said Butler, “more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear”, and that judgements had stretched available intelligence “to the outer limits” - suggesting that the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission’s inability to find WMDs should have prompted a “rethink”. The nearest thing to a criticism of Tony Blair comes with the comment that the government’s language left the impression that there was “fuller and firmer intelligence” than was the case. Say that again. When the review was published, the joke went: ‘When you call the Butler, you get what you ordered.’
And now we have son of Butler. Philippe Sand, an international lawyer familiar with Chilcot’s approach, went on record as saying that “it is not immediately apparent that he will have the backbone” to take on former government ministers. As an example, he mentioned Chilcot’s questioning of attorney general Peter Goldsmith during the Butler review - remarking that the “spoon-fed questions give every impression of being designed to elicit a response from the attorney general that would demonstrate the reasonableness of his actions and those of the government”.2
The remit of the Chilcot inquiry itself was made quite clear in 2009 by Gordon Brown, who insisted it would not find evidence of “dishonesty” in the use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war - adding that, in his view, the Butler inquiry had found none and “if you are looking for a great conspiracy you are not going to find it”.3 The Chilcot report was always going to find what it wanted to find. No wonder Jack Straw told the BBC that “I’m not nervous” about the pending publication.
Therefore it is not in the slightest bit surprising, though morally disgusting, that all the latest leaks and rumours strongly indicate that Blair will be vindicated - not guilty. Instead, just as predictably, the report will criticise easy targets like the cabinet secretary, the chief of the defence staff, MI5, MI6, etc. At most, Blair will be rebuked for undermining government ministers or having no plans for post-war Iraq - essentially harmless fluff that he can easily shrug off. That will be the extent of his ‘savaging’ at the hands of Sir John Chilcot. In which case, he can merely dust off the ‘apology’ he gave last year in an interview with CNN, because “the intelligence I received was wrong”. He also apologised for “some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime”. On the other hand, though, he told the Andrew Marrshow on May 29 that he made his position on Iraq quite clear at the time (ie, for regime change), something no-one can “seriously dispute”, he said.
Many on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, have banged on repeatedly about the Iraq war being ‘illegal’. The Labour leader has already strongly hinted that he will push for Blair to be prosecuted if found to have broken any laws - not that Chilcot will say any such thing, of course. Last August, Corbyn declared himself “confident” that it was an “illegal war” - pointing out that Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, had “confirmed” that was the case, and so Blair “has to explain to that”. Corbyn’s aides signalled last week that he stood by these comments.
For communists, all this talk about legality (or not) is liberalistic drivel. If the Iraq war, or any other war, was deemed ‘legal’, does this mean we cannot oppose it? What nonsense. We in the CPGB oppose all imperialist wars and adventures, regardless of their ‘legality’ or the exact circumstances that lead to the conflict - we reject fundamentally irrelevant questions, such as who fired first or who was the ‘aggressor’. The fact that during World War I Germany invaded Belgium, no doubt illegally, did not make the latter ‘plucky’ or a victim worthy of support. Nor do communists make appeals to the bogus moral authority of the UN, a den of thieves and dictators. We want to overthrow ‘international law’, not shore it up.
However, once the report officially confirms the invasion’s legality, Blair has stated that he “looks forward” to participating in the post-Chilcot debate. You can bet that is true, as he and his advisors will have already read the pertinent parts and know he is going to be let off the hook. His lawyers will not be visiting him in jail.
Obviously convinced of his own innocence, if not pristine virtue, an increasingly confident Blair has made a number of direct political interventions. Most significantly, on May 28 he came out with an explicit attack on the Corbyn leadership, whilst being interviewed for BBC2’s This week’s world. Rejecting the suggestion that he was responsible for Corbyn’s emergence as a political force, he argued that it was a “result of the way the world works these days”. He then went to comment:
It’s a big challenge for the centre and, when I’m not thinking about the Middle East, I’m thinking about this, because I do think, by the way, it would be a very dangerous experiment for a major western country to get gripped by this type of populist policymaking left or right - a very dangerous experiment. I do think the centre ground needs to work out how it gets its mojo back and gets the initiative back in the political debate, because otherwise these guys aren’t providing answers - not on the economy, not on foreign policy (my emphasis).
The following day, Blair disingenuously denied on the Marr show that he was referring to Corbyn - rather, merely “about the general populism there is in the world today”. But, given that the original comment was responding to a specific question about Corbyn, this is transparent nonsense. Indeed, you cannot entirely dismiss the possibility that Blair and elements of the Labour right will urge a non-Labour or Tory vote in 2020 - even if he did tell Marr that he was “not being disloyal” to the Labour leader and would “always tell people to vote Labour because I am Labour - it is just the way I am”. Hmm …
Perhaps more interestingly, as implied by these remarks, Blair seems to assume that Corbyn will still be leader by 2020 - this implicitly backs up the view of Lord Peter Mandelson that the ‘moderates’ will have to engage in a patient, long-term war, not just go straight for a coup. For Mandelson, who is certainly no idiot, they should only consider forcing out Corbyn when the majority of party members realise the public has formed a negative view of him:
Nobody will replace him, though, until he demonstrates to the party his unelectability at the polls …. In this sense, the public will decide Labour’s future and it would be wrong to try and force this issue from within before the public have moved to a clear verdict” (The Guardian September 25 2015).
Yes, of course, there are still those rightwing hotheads who dream of removing Corbyn in some sort of putsch - but time is fast running out for them. Fairly obviously, they cannot move before the June 23 referendum - otherwise they will be accused of aiding and abetting the Tories. But rule changes at the September party conference will ensure that the incumbent leader is automatically placed on the ballot paper in the event of a challenge - and everyone knows, of course, that under those circumstances Corbyn will almost certainly win by an even bigger majority. It is nearly now or never for the Corbyn-hating, recalcitrant Labour right.
Showing that a sinner never really repents, Blair has also been urging boots on the ground in Syria to “crush” Islamic State - western intervention has worked out so well in Iraq and Libya, so why not do it again? Writing in TheSunday Times, he says: “We must build military capability able to confront and defeat the terrorists, wherever they try to hold territory. This is not just about local forces. It is a challenge for the west. Ground forces are necessary to win this fight and ours are the most capable” (March 27). Blair’s obvious calculation is that Donald Trump will not win the presidency, and Hillary Clinton will be sympathetic to the military option: ground forces, not just air strikes. He might well be right.
Meanwhile, another hellish battle of Fallujah is ongoing - two separate large-scale offensives by the US military in 2004 destroyed much of the city, which fell to IS early in 2014. Yet who was one of the prime architects of this horrific situation? Yes, a certain Mr Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. But on July 6 you will search in vain for such a conclusion in the Chilcot report: yet another establishment whitewash.