Honesty and narcissism
James Turley looks at Tony Blair's performance before the Chilcot enquiry and the futile search for a smoking gun. Britain's alliance with the United States is the real culprit
January 29 saw, to much media fanfare, former prime minister Tony Blair face the Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Britain’s part in it. He had to be snuck in a back entrance to avoid a throng of angry protestors.
The excitement was understandable - Blair sometimes even put his senior partners in the US to shame in his messianic hawkishness at the time, and he was prepared to ignore a depth of opposition unseen for many decades in British politics, culminating in the 1.5 million-strong march in London on February 15 of that year. He did not, as he told a frustrated nation at the time, have a reverse gear.
Now he was to face, if not the music, at least some music - six hours of it, no less. Even within the somewhat narrow remit of the inquiry, there was the chance that something new would come out, that Blair could be forced to admit to dodgy dealings with the US, or caught contradicting himself on the question of the intelligence upon which the invasion was supposedly based.
As it was, Blair’s performance was more a source of nostalgia than anything else. We heard the same bluster about 9/11 - which was not an attack on the US, but an attack on “us”. The lack of proven links between al Qa’eda and Saddam Hussein’s regime (which they despised, thanks to its secularism and ‘socialism’) was basically an irrelevance, as Saddam certainly was not on our side and was therefore likely to sponsor terrorist operations anyway.
9/11 changed the “calculus of risk”. By opening up, as one of the loopier ‘clash of civilisations’ types put it, “unlimited Islamist aggression against western civilisation”, it made hitherto relatively unimportant threats like Iraq suddenly loom larger. They were now a source of ‘risk’ that could not be ignored any longer. All pure Blair - a manichean view of global conflicts, and even, in all this risk-obsessed jargon, a hint of Anthony Giddens.
Blair was obliged to go round the houses on the question of UN approval (the failure to get it was all France’s fault, apparently), and inevitably the infamous intelligence dossiers that have proven so thorny for the erstwhile PM. He conceded that the prominence of the sensational claim that Saddam was able to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes was a serious error. The claim, whatever its veracity, had only applied in its original form to tactical battlefield weapons - poison gas and bioweapons. In the event, The Sun claimed that British troops stationed in Cyprus were under threat. Blair’s mea culpa was slightly odd and vague: “I didn’t focus on [the tactical/strategic distinction] a lot at the time” - a slightly alarming confession from a would-be war leader. As for the 45 minutes claim, “it would have been better to have corrected it in light of the significance it later took on”.
It was, of course, this claim that first landed Blair and his allies in hot water, after information leaked to then BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan that it and many other fine points in the ‘dodgy dossier’ presented to parliament in September 2002 had been, in the now-classic phrase, “sexed up”. That was bad enough; when the source of the leak, Dr David Kelly, died under suspicious circumstances a few days after being named by the government, the result was the first major inquiry into Iraq, headed by Brian Hutton in 2004.
Hutton naturally sided with the government - he had done so many times before as lord chief justice in Northern Ireland. The thorough spanking administered to the BBC over the affair cost the heads of Gilligan and director general Greg Dyke, formerly a close Blair ally. It was also so obviously a whitewash that it proved something of a pyrrhic victory (although the media has not seriously challenged the Iraq war on any real scale since the Hutton inquiry and Piers Morgan’s removal as Mirror editor).
Perhaps the most damning revelation last Friday came at Blair’s moment of most uncharacteristic honesty. He was extremely clear that the close relationship between Britain and the US was both non-negotiable and an important condition for Britain’s ‘continued prosperity and influence’ in world affairs. “You can distance yourself from America but you’ll find it is a long way back,” he said. A long way back indeed - as Harold Wilson, who vacillated over the American attack on Vietnam, found when economic crisis bit in the mid-1970s. Every act of the British government, especially (though not exclusively) acts of war or diplomatic horse-trading, has to be filtered through the preferences of the global hegemon.
What we are left with, then, is a central argument that has been thoroughly refuted (Iraq posed some kind of threat, or ‘risked’ posing some kind of threat, to the US and Britain), and a subsidiary argument that not only holds water, but effectively explains the whole thing. Britain went to war to stay onside with America, its sponsor - there it is, from the mouth of the man who pushed hardest on this side of the Atlantic for an invasion.
It is easy to miss this aspect of Blair’s argument, however, firstly because he presents it as a supporting case and insists that Saddam Hussein was an odd kind of tyrant, peculiarly resourceful and utterly insane enough to provoke the decimation of his country with an unspecified biological or chemical terrorist holocaust on US or UK soil; therefore Iraq was an immediate threat regardless of the ‘details’ so important to Blair’s various detractors (UN approval, legality, naked imperial ambition and so on).
That central case, however, can be demolished by way of reference to a huge amount of outstanding evidence; principally serious analyses of the dubious gossip presented as hard intelligence on Saddam’s military aspirations. You would expect an inquiry into the decision to make war to demolish that case, and press Blair further on the real dynamics at work. Yet it turns out that this, third, inquiry is to be just as much a cakewalk for Blair and his allies as were the others. Nakedly untrue implications - that Saddam was linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example - were simply allowed to slide.
Some, like The Guardian in an otherwise bilious editorial, pointed out that Blair was a witness, not a defendant: “those disappointed by the conversational tone of yesterday’s session should remember that this was not a trial” (January 30). One wonders if The Guardian’s editors have ever even been to a trial; if they had, they would know that witnesses are cross-examined quite as brutally (if the lawyers are earning their keep) as the defendant, and indeed such withering assaults, though often ugly, are the only way that inconsistencies in testimony can be exposed and the truth exposed. That is the ostensible aim of the Chilcot inquiry - to find out the truth as to why ‘we’ went to war. Being ‘conversational’ can only have the effect of hiding the truth - which, in the end, is exactly the point.
This is why this inquiry is viewed as a whitewash. The case is already so cut and dried that attempts to deny it are looking increasingly unhinged. In this connection, liberal imperialism’s descent into downright silliness continues unabated. Nick Cohen, who embodies Blair’s narcissism and displays a philistinism all his own, had a rather more sinister take on Sir Chilcot’s bad reputation - it was symptomatic of a revival in anti-Semitism.
His ‘evidence’ for this is worth quoting in full: “Sir Oliver Miles, former ambassador to Libya, has already predicted that the inquiry will be open to accusations of ‘whitewash’ because two members of the Chilcot panel are Jews. He’s not alone. I have had an allegedly leftwing journalist say the same to me. Once, he would never have allowed Jew obsessions to infect his thinking. Now, his battered mind was wide open to racial fantasies” (The Observer January 31). There you have it - one public statement, coupled with something Nick Cohen’s mate said. Is this the first step to a British Kristallnacht, or does Nick Cohen perhaps ‘batter his mind’ in the wrong pub with the wrong people? You decide.
In illuminating - albeit only in brief flickers - the unequal relationships between states even at the zenith of the imperialist order, the Chilcot inquiry has performed one service to the workers’ movement. Despite his gargantuan ego, Tony Blair has as much as told us that he is nothing special - that the pressure for compliance from Washington is so great that any prime minister would have to meekly obey.
And that is the danger of these inquiries - as well as calling for ever more of them. As the Iraq occupation slowly winds down, and the circumstances that ignited it recede into history, it becomes precisely of historical interest. Though burning issues remain for us in relation to Iraq, the obsessive focus on raking over who did what in the lead-up to that war tends to produce the illusion that if we ‘brought these men to justice’, the issue would be resolved.
That is the opposite of the lesson that we want people to take from this - that capitalism engenders war and structurally demands it; and that to end war, it is necessary to wage war on capitalism. Until then, there will always be more Blairs, and Chilcots at their heels l