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A war of aggression

In Not The Chilcot Report (Head of Zeus books), Peter Oborne makes clear the erosion of trust between the British state and its public, as a result of the Iraq war.

Houman Barekat
5 July 2016
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Robin Cook resigns over Iraq war, March 17,2003. PA Archive/Press Association. All rights reserved. A death toll in the hundreds of thousands, an entire region catastrophically destabilised. Whichever way you look at it, the Iraq war has been the crime of the century so far. The only question mark is over the nature of the offence: was it criminal negligence or something worse? In anticipation of the publication of the government’s long-awaited Chilcot Report into the decision-making process that led to Britain’s involvement in the war, Peter Oborne has published Not the Chilcot Report, a succinct j’accuse – a mere 179 pages, all the more withering for its brevity – against Tony Blair and his duplicitous machinations in the run-up to the 2003 invasion.

In November 2000, Tony Blair told parliament: "We believe that the sanctions regime has effectively contained Saddam Hussein in the last ten years. During this time he has not attacked his neighbours, nor used chemical weapons against his own people." By early 2002 his position had shifted from containment to explicit support for regime change. In a March 2002 memo to Blair, the British Ambassador Sir David Manning records an exchange with Condoleezza Rice: "I said… that you would not budge in your support for regime change." The Bush presidency, and the bellicose atmosphere in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, had changed everything.

Regime change alone can never constitute legal grounds for the invasion of another country. In order to sell the mission to parliament and the public, Blair knew he had to link any military action to Saddam’s non-compliance with United Nations resolutions. Cue a rushed and shambolic attempt at securing UN approval for an invasion, on the spurious grounds that Saddam Hussein’s alleged failure to disarm had reactivated or ‘revived’ UN Security Council Resolution 678 – which had ended the first Gulf War in April 1991 – authorising military action against Iraq. 

Among several objections to this dubious logic, perhaps the most important is that 678 did not authorise regime change, only the use of force necessary and proportionate to the objectives of that resolution: the liberation of Kuwait, and the restoration of peace and security to the region. Kuwait was not under threat in 2003, nor was there any indication that Saddam was an immediate threat to his neighbours. (Despite this, the advice of the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to Blair was that the authority under 678 had indeed ‘revived,’ and British participation in the war was thus legal.)

The passage of a new resolution, Resolution 1441, was supposed to up the ante by providing Iraq with what it termed "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations." It was implicitly incapable of constituting, of itself, an immediate trigger for the revival of authority under 678. Cognisant of this, the UK government sought to obtain a second resolution determining that "Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it by Resolution 1441." The Security Council refused to endorse this, for the very good reason that inspections were ongoing, and there was no reason to stop the process now. On 17 March, Blair told his cabinet that he would join the Iraq mission regardless of the UN position; Robin Cook resigned in protest, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why the great rush? Because the US was going to start its war in March in any event – the US military wanted to avoid having to fight in the hot Iraqi summer – and would broach, at the very most, a week’s delay at Blair’s request. It was a fait accompli, and securing parliamentary approval was a mere rubber-stamp. The UN charade was never about achieving disarmament through inspections; on the contrary, it was about the forcible and premature curtailment of the inspections programme at the behest of the United States. At no point could anyone make the case that Britain, or any other country, would be in danger if UN inspectors were given more time.

Oborne revisits the litany of half-truths, obfuscations and misrepresentations that made up Blair’s case for war. The prime minister distorted information about Iraq’s chemical weapons capability in order to bolster his case: a quantity of mustard gas reported ‘unaccounted for’ was, in all likelihood, a matter of statistical error, but Blair twisted it to suggest a surreptitiously stockpiled arsenal; meanwhile, he selectively omitted to tell parliament that any remaining 1980s-era nerve agents such as sarin, VX and botulism toxin would have degraded years ago, and would not have been viable for use in warfare; he told parliament that France had said it "would veto a second resolution, whatever the circumstances," when France had said no such thing; when the Joint Intelligence Committee had reported that Iraq "may have hidden small quantities of [chemical] agents and weapons," Blair turned this to "we know that he has stockpiles of major amounts of chemical and biological weapons." And he even stooped to raising the spectre of an alliance between Iraq and Al-Qaida – an egregious canard – on the basis, not of intelligence, but hypothetical conjecture: "The possibility of the two coming together …. is now, in my judgment, a real and present danger to Britain and its national security." The fatuous non sequitur – how on earth can a mere "possibility" be a "real and present danger"?-– is classic Tony Blair sophistry.

Prior to Chilcot, three inquiries had already more or less exonerated the Blair government. The Foreign Affairs Committee of July 2003 found the government not guilty of wrongdoing, although its report did admit that, as the committee had not been allowed access to the intelligence in question, it was not well placed to make a finding. In 2004 the Hutton Inquiry – into the events surrounding the death of David Kelly – also exonerated the government, as did the report of the Butler Inquiry, which found that although the government’s notorious "September dossier" on Weapons of Mass Destruction did contain some misleading language, its contents still fall within "the outer limits of the intelligence available" – i.e. there was no fabrication as such. Oborne points out, however, that only a couple of years later, Lord Butler, speaking in the House of Lords, characterised Blair’s assessment of the intelligence picture  – "extensive, detailed and authoritative"  – as misleading, noting that Blair had disregarded an August 2002 intelligence briefing that "we … know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988." This would seem to bear out Robin Cook’s opinion that the dossier "bore no relation in tone to any of the intelligence assessments that I saw. It was one-sided, dogmatic and unqualified."

(It is worth noting that, quite apart from its inaccuracies, the dossier started life as a report on the nuclear capabilities of a quartet of pariah states – Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea – and its focus was narrowed down to just Iraq on the advice of the Join Intelligence Committee Chairman, John Scarlett, who advised that "This would have the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD, Iraq is not that exceptional.")

The Chilcot report is published this week. What will it achieve? For his part, Oborne is unequivocal in his conclusions:

"No country was attacked by Iraq in March 2003 and there were therefore no grounds to go to war with Iraq on grounds of self-defence. The Security Council never authorised military action to disarm Iraq of its ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Therefore, that attack on Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom in March 2003 was a war of aggression."

Oborne expresses concerns about how this saga has damaged British politics. During the period in question, Blair’s governmental style became increasingly dictatorial, the cabinet increasingly marginalised in favour of unaccountable special advisers like Alastair Campbell. Meanwhile, the sense that there was some level of inappropriate collusion between the security services and the political establishment has worrying implications for civil liberties in Britain. Oborne is right to conclude that the episode has severely eroded the trust between the British state and its public.

But to suggest, as Oborne does, that Blair’s ‘progressive’ political inclinations rendered him especially receptive to neoconservatism’s penchant for imposing top-down, sweeping societal change, both overstates Blair’s progressive credentials and does a disservice to the respect most true progressives have for international institutions and international law. On the international stage, by 2003 Blair was already a seasoned interventionist – having overseen military conflicts in Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone – and preached a doctrine of humanitarian intervention, according to which western powers should proactively reshape the world to spread liberal democracy. If we must attribute this to some facet of his philosophical makeup, I would suggest his religious faith, rather than his political ideology, is the place to look. Blair is no fundamentalist, but in certain respects his process of reasoning and discourse resembles a fundamentalist’s. One illuminating passage in Oborne’s damning book recalls an exchange between Blair and a Middle East expert from Cambridge University, professor George Joffe: after Joffe had spoken at length about the possible ramifications of an invasion, Blair came back with "But he [Saddam] is evil, isn’t he?"

And that, ultimately, was the beginning, the middle and the end of the matter for Tony Blair: pure blind faith, personal conviction and, one suspects – a sense of reflected glory in standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s only superpower. To this end he applied himself with single-minded fervour and considerable energy. As Oborne recalls: ‘When the intelligence was uncertain, when the legal advice went the wrong way, he asked for them to be adjusted. Blair never once looked for any way out of the war.'

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