“I’m with you, whatever”. Tony Blair’s memo to US President George W Bush, as recounted by the Chilcot Report, read like something out of a Mills and Boon romance. But this was a deadly embrace that led a weak prime minister to endorse a war he must have known was on a dodgy legal basis. It led to the deaths of tens, if not hundreds of thousands, including 179 British soldiers, and by destabilising the Middle East, assisted the rise of al Qaeda and Islamic State. Quite a mistake. You have to ask: why?
Of course he didn’t “deliberately deceive cabinet or parliament”; the “intelligence was not falsified”; there was no “secret commitment”; and Mr Blair “acted in good faith”. All the caveats Mr Blair’s team of lawyers have spent seven years shoe-horning into the text of the Chilcot Report were there. But there is 2.6 million words that tell a different story. Britain was taken to war on a false prospectus with public and parliament fed exaggerated intelligence claims and with no thought given to the consequences. It was an act of aggression against a country, Sir John makes clear, which posed no immediate threat to Britain. Military action was not, as it should have been, “a last resort”.
It’s true his report really doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know, but it tells it in magisterial detail. Sir John’s own summing up yesterday was in some ways stronger than the report itself. All are to blame for an avoidable disaster including the civil service, partisan MPs, the military and the intelligence service. The British people must be reassured they are in such safe hands as we prepare to leave the European Union.
But while many were involved, surely it was Tony Blair, as prime minister, who took the key decisions. He wasn’t an innocent bystander, a victim of circumstance, as he rather suggested in his own statement yesterday. Mr Blair may not be a war criminal in the strict sense, but this was an error of judgement on such an epic scale that you feel there must be repercussions. Any lesser figure in public life making an error of judgement that costs the lives of the innocent people would expect more than a few critical words.
But the establishment always looks after its own. David Cameron acted as Mr Blair’s lead defence counsel in a parliamentary statement which spent more time exonerating him than atoning for this wholly avoidable disaster. Legal eagles looking for a basis for prosecuting Mr Blair for a “crime of aggression” will no doubt continue to examine legal remedies, but I suspect this is destined to be one of those crimes where the guilty hide in plain sight.
But the lingering question remains one of motive. Why didn’t Mr Blair listen to the words of caution? Why was he so ready to believe intelligence that was so flimsy – based on one questionable Iraqi source? I watched Mr Blair at close hand in the years before he became Labour leader and he gave no indication he was a warmonger or intellectually incapable of understanding the consequences of his own actions. He was, in summary, no Donald Trump. Yet he chose to join this hectic military adventure led by a Republican President whose idea of international diplomacy is to shoot first and ask questions later.
The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the late Charles Kennedy, warned him. The Labour Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, resigned over the decision to invade Iraq. Nor did Mr Blair listen to the million plus people, most of them Labour supporters, who marched in London before the invasion of Baghdad. I’m not claiming any great insight or prescience for having myself written before March 2003 that the evidence for WMD was very thin, that without a second UN resolution invading Iraq would not be legal and that the whole enterprise was likely only to benefit international terrorism. That’s what most people who followed the story were thinking.
However, I could never have imagined it would be Jeremy Corbyn who would end up answering for Labour on the Chilcot report in parliament. His statement received some praise for being level-headed and serious when you might have expected this former leading figure in the Stop the War coalition to have brayed for Mr Blair’s head. It was his own Labour MPs who resorted to intemperate languages, some heckling their leader as a “disgrace” in an astonishing exercise in parliamentary indiscipline.
It is hard not to agree with Alex Salmond that the pro-war faction in the Labour parliamentary party had hoped to remove Mr Corbyn before Chilcot. But the “chickencoup” as it is called failed, and it must be doubtful Angela Eagle, will displace him since she was a supporter of the Iraq war. But that’s another story. Labour has to settle accounts with its own past and the fact it was Labour MPs who made the war possible by voting for it in parliament in 2003. Not all of them, but enough.
However, MPs voting as a herd is one thing, why Mr Blair made one of the greatest unforced errors by any prime minister in modern history is another. Of course, Mr Bush and the American neoconservatives were in the driving seat. But British support was not irrelevant. If America’s closest ally had withdrawn support and insisted on that second UN resolution before going to war, then the US might have thought again. Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator but he was not responsible for destroying the Twin Towers nor had be been harbouring the terrorists who conceived and executed 9/11. They were mostly Saudi Arabian citizens, like al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
But it seems Mr Blair was incapable of seeing and thinking rationally when he was in that deadly embrace with President Bush. Perhaps it was the adulation of American congressmen that turned the PM’s head. He almost certainly had an exaggerated respect for American military intelligence. The CIA was convinced Saddam had nuclear and or chemical weapons of mass destruction. Even UN weapons inspector Hans Blix believed Iraq had WMD of some sort, though if the weapons inspectors had been allowed to complete their investigations they might have discovered Saddam’s boasts were only that.
As they say in American politics, Mr Blair “drank the Kool-Aid” – he succumbed to the group thinking of the US Republican establishment as it sought to “change reality” in the Middle East. He believed American smart weapons had taken the risk out of war. That they would surgically remove Saddam and that liberal democracy would flourish once the oil started flowing again in Iraq. Mr Blair wanted to put an end to Labour’s reputation as defeatist, anti-American “surrender monkeys”, which dated from Harold Wilson’s refusal to join America in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. He wanted to be the first Labour prime minister to go to war with enthusiasm and determination. He was wrong. And the judgment of history will be his punishment.