Blair Did It – or Did He?

So far, Blair’s testimony before the Chilcot Inquiry has been seen as a largely self-incriminating affair, illustrating the extent not only to which Blair was willing to lie, or deceive himself and others, to go to war, but also the extent to which he remains utterly unrepentant for doing so.

His argument scurried round the complete non-evidence of Saddam’s WMD, and focused instead on the idea that the world had changed after 9/11. Before 9/11, containment would’ve been the normal procedure, but 9/11 proved that rogue states or terrorist networks anywhere could endanger us all. So if there was even a chance of Saddam having WMD, war was necessary. This, of course, is quite a faithful rendition of the traditional neocon position justifying unilateral pre-emptive warfare.

And evidence continues to emerge about Blair’s pivotal role in the run-up to war. Although he adamantly denied that he had made his own deals with Bush about the war irrespective of dissent in his own Cabinet from the likes of senior ministers such as Jack Straw, Claire Short and Robin Cook, we now know otherwise. For instance, much has been made of Blair’s meeting with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002, particularly in the context of Elfyn Llwyd MP‘s claim of possessing a memo showing that “Tony Blair and George struck a deal to invade Iraq a year before the 2003 war.” Several witnesses at the Chilcot inquiry corroborate this, saying that Blair assured Bush at this meeting that Britain would support the American war-drive. Indeed, Blair’s foreign policy chief Sir David Manning had already referred to Blair’s instructions to then defence secretary Geoff Hoon to devise a war plan nine months before the invasion.

But the deeper question is whether it is really feasible to hang primary responsibility for the war on one admittedly unscrupulous Prime Minister. Was Blair the prime culprit? Was the Iraq War a person-centred problem that could have been solved with a better Prime Minister less enamoured of war (or neocons… or Bush)? Or was the Blair-phenomenon itself a product of deeper systemic problems at the heart of the British –” and American –” foreign policy establishment?

There was certainly dissent. Then foreign secretary Jack Straw’s damning letter to Blair sent 10 days before his secret Crawford love-in with Bush, pointed out that “there is at present no majority inside the PLP [parliamentary Labour party] for any military action against Iraq”, that there was “no credible evidence” linking Iraq to al-Qaeda, and that 9/11 had not “worsened” the “threat from Iraq.” It also added, for good measure, that there was no legal or UN mandate for the war either.

So how is it that despite the opposition of the vast majority of the public, the majority of the Labour party, senior Cabinet officials, and even the majority of mid-level civil servants (such as Carne Ross, Britain’s Iraq expert at the diplomatic mission to the UN who resigned over the decision to invade), Blair was able to lead the country to a war that no one apparently wanted? This question highlights a fundamental issue that all the finger-pointing at Blair has missed –” the issue of the abject failure of Britain’s democratic decision-making institutions to reign in a Prime Minister leading a government into an illegal and immoral war.

Indeed, although Blair clearly enacted a pivotal role as our own home-grown chief ideologue and salesperson for the war, we also know that by and large, the government itself did little to stand in the way. This emerged from the testimony of Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British Ambassador to Iraq (1997-2003), who told the inquiry that the government had by and large decided a year before the invasion that it was “a complete waste of time… if we were going to work with the Americans, to come to them and bang away about regime change and say: ‘We can’t support it’.”

In other words, once the Bush administration had made its decision, Blair’s government simply decided to go along for the ride. Rather than the time-line to the war being dictated by issues such as diplomacy or what the UN weapons inspectors were saying, British officials were “scrabbling for the smoking gun” evidence for WMD. According to Meyers, there was a consensus among the senior mandarins in Whitehall that the policy of containment and sanctions had “run its course” by 2002. But that was not the view of mid-level officials working directly on the Iraq question, according to Carne Ross, who noted: “The mid-level people who spent all their time doing Iraq –” our view was that sanctions had been effective in stopping Saddam rearming, and several of us believed a lot more could have been done to stop Iraq’s illegal oil sales.”

All this highlights fundamental problems. The extent to which Britain’s special relationship with the United States implicitly informed the scope of what was expected of Britain is alarming. The US took for granted that the trans-Atlantic alliance entailed British support for a fundamentally American decision. While Blair has taken the fall, and rightly so, for his role in steering this, the fact that senior government officials and advisers largely accepted this as a reality that could not be altered, despite opposition from the lower rank and file, says volumes about the deeply damaging role of the ‘special relationship’ in the formulation of British foreign policy.

It also says volumes about the extent to which British intelligence services allowed themselves to become political tools. We didn’t need to wait for Chilcot’s inquiry to see this. It emerged in the 2003 Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee investigation of whether Blair’s infamous September 2002 ‘dodgy dossier’ had been “sexed up”. Although that Committee laughably absolved the government and its director of communications Alistair Campbell of including the ’45-minute’ Saddam-WMD claim, it did so only by overlooking the obvious evidence. The committee’s report noted that the 45-minute claim was “discussed at a meeting” of the Joint Intelligence Committee “on 9 September 2002”. Yet the same report notes, and Campbell’s Chilcot testimony corroborates, that Campbell “actually chaired” the same JIC meeting in which publication of the dossier was planned.

What was the government’s head of PR doing chairing a JIC meeting where the heads of British intelligence are supposed to deliver impartial advice to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on intelligence collection and analysis priorities? Who, precisely, was advising who? We don’t know. As if in a bizarre parody of a Mexican stand-off, Blair says that he responded to advice from his aides, while his aides are saying that Blair did what he wanted to do –” all trying to shift the blame onto someone else, it is more than likely that they all share systemic responsibility.

Unfortunately, we will probably not know the whole truth for another 50 odd years. Sir Chilcot has agreed a protocol with the Cabinet Office that allows Whitehall to effectively control what classified documents, of the 40,000 made available to the inquiry team, are released to the public. This means that largely the real decision-making process behind the Iraq War will remain the province of a few ministers and civil servants.

This is dangerous, as the inquiry has so far failed to interrogate the fundamental problem: not simply that Blair was a liability for democracy, but that democracy was never even a particularly significant obstacle to Blair being a liability. The real decision-making processes behind British foreign policy belonged, and still belong to, a small cohort of people: the Prime Minister, his senior advisers and aides, and the intelligence services; all of whom work, it seems, rather unquestioningly within the framework of the British-American ‘special relationship’. The British foreign policy establishment, in other words, suffers from a deep-seated institutional unaccountability and arrogance.

Blair did it, no doubt about it. But his accomplices still sit in Whitehall.