The new decade begins with some unfinished business from the old. The official British Government Chilcot Inquiry in to the Iraq War resumed in London on Tuesday, with five more weeks of public hearings devoted to Ministers, senior civil servants and military officers. We shall have to wait until after the British General Election in May to hear the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and others in government whose continued operational command over British foreign policy precludes them from appearing. Others such as former Minister, Jack Straw, and Tony Blair will, however, be questioned by Sir John Chilcot and his team.
For his part, Chilcot is anxious to dispel any notion that his Inquiry serves as a spectator sport. Winding up proceedings on December 17th, he said, “The whole point of our approach is to get to the facts.” To that end, thirty-eight witnesses had made the short journey from Whitehall in London to the QE2 Conference Centre where the hearings are taking place in some twenty three sessions. Some forty thousand documents have been submitted, of which 12,000 have emanated from Number 10 Downing St alone. Much of the material is classified.
But if not exactly spectator sport, the Inquiry has so far presented a vivid spectacle of assorted Mandarins, diplomats and military officers, who far from presenting a united front have more often been at pains to illuminate the deep disquiet felt about the Iraq war and its aftermath that ran through much of the British Establishment. ‘Disquiet’ is an apt description, for few chose to make their reservations public at the time – or resign in protest.
I didn’t believe Tony Blair’s claims about Iraqi WMD from the very outset and was one of the first to go public with my very real doubts on BBC Radio 4 early on in 2002. My gut instinct told me that both Bush and Blair in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan were at the very least exaggerating Saddam Hussein’s capacities and were seeking a pretext for regime change. I didn’t like the Iraqi regime, but I made it my business to go to Iraq twice and to the United Nations in New York. As the months went by and the evidence was not forthcoming, and the agenda of the US neo-cons became more stridently clear, I couldn’t divorce the political imperative for regime change coming from Washington and London s well as the strong arming of dissent from the lack of very clear facts. So I tried to speak with as many people associated with UN attempts to disarm Saddam in the years since his rout from Kuwait, as well as Middle East experts with long experience of the region. Unconvinced by Tony Blair, I led the opposition to the build up to war on Labour’s official ruling body, the thirty strong National Executive Committee, which comprises the Prime Minister, leading members of the Cabinet, elected representatives from the Parliamentary and European Parliamentary party, trade union representatives and half a dozen members from the constituencies. To my knowledge, none of us who disbelieved Tony Blair and George Bush over claimed Iraqi WMD have been factored into the Inquiry.
My own opposition to the Iraq War wasn’t based on pacifism; Tribune, the newspaper which I then edited, had gone out on a limb to support the intervention to halt the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. We had also supported former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook’s mission to bring an end to the murderous butchery in Sierra Leone. But Iraq was different – not because Saddam Hussein wasn’t a ruthless dictator (whom we had once helped to arm) – but because Tony Blair was adamant that Saddam Hussein was flouting UN weapons inspectors and had WMD. He was equally adamant, telling us at the end of September 2002 that ‘regime change is not United States policy’.
But I take Sir John Chilcot at face value, and have sent him what I believe to be probably the only record of at which Tony Blair and various senior Government Ministers, including John Prescott, Jack Straw, John Reid and Geoff Hoon faced both serious questions and direct opposition to the road to war. We will have to wait another thirty years for the Cabinet records, and it is doubtful whether a record of meetings from the Parliamentary Labour Party or the European Parliamentary Labour Party was ever kept. These minutes, faithfully recorded by the current chair of the Labour Party National Executive Committee, Ann Black, provide a powerful snapshot of Tony Blair and Ministers at three key meetings of what is supposed to be the ‘sovereign policy making’ body of the Labour Party from September 2002 to March 25th, when Britain, along with America, was five days into ‘shock and awe’. While the Labour Party maintains a somewhat abridged and pruned version of events, Ann Black’s record has never been disputed. On three separate occasions with the support of three other lonely souls – Ann Black, Dennis Skinner and Christine Shawcroft – attempted to force votes blocking British involvement in the Iraq venture unless it was explicitly backed by the United Nations and in accordance with international law. Defeated twice, and finally blocked by a ‘procedural motion’ on the third, I walked out of the meeting, fortunately avoiding the ignominy of the late Eric Heffer who once stormed out of an NEC meeting – and straight into a broom cupboard.
Unlike any of the Mandarins, Ministers, Diplomats and military chiefs, none of us can claim to have seen intelligence reports on supposed Iraqi WMD. In common with those who at PLP and European PLP meetings wanted to support Tony Blair, but clamoured for facts to make their case to angry constituents, we did all finally got to read the ‘dodgy dossier’ that amongst other lurid claims had Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction menacing the British Sovereign bases in Cyprus.
Reporting from inside Iraq in 2002, and then on the eve of war in 2003 for the BBC and Daily Mirror, I interviewed Tariq Aziz in the echoing halls of the Foreign Ministry on the banks of the Tigris. Aziz was convinced that Iraq would not be attacked, citing the massive global anti-war demonstrations, and re-iterated that his country had no WMD. ‘Tell Mr Blair’, said the veteran Baathist Foreign Minister ‘I have met your Mr Heath and Mrs Thatcher, but I have not met him. Tell him that he can come to Iraq and send his own inspectors’. Having spent days with other journalists being promised visits to sites identified by America and Britain as having WMD, and being fobbed off with claims that they were ‘mushroom farms’ or ‘baby milk factories’, Aziz’s protestations sounded lame. But it was when I subsequently interviewed the former UN Chief Weapons Inspector, Scott Ritter, that my own doubts about the veracity of Blair’s claims really took root. Ritter, a lifelong US Republican, whose reputation was due to be be-smirched in the US media by the dredging up of old and unsubstantiated claims of ‘improper relations with a minor’, was clear. Although UNSCOM had been repeatedly frustrated, it had finally done its job. The nuclear programme was eliminated; if chemical weapons still existed there would be proof; Iraq was in compliance with UNSCOM over biological weapons.
In the weeks running up to the invasion, I met with former Czech Foreign Minister – and then President of the UN General Assembly – Jan Kavan in New York. Kavan was in regular contact with his old friend Robin Cook and was clear, as was Cook, that military action without a second UN resolution would be in contravention on international law – a fact finally publicly acknowledged when it was too late by Kofi Annan. That third motion I tabled on March 25th 2003 at Labour’s NEC in front of Tony Blair, John Prescott and Jack Straw was a joint effort by Kavan and me, with, I suspect Robin Cook’s knowledge and approval. The second promised UN Security Council resolution had failed, and the NEC motion demanded that ‘immediate advice’ be sought from both the UN Secretary General and the President of the UN General Assembly ‘on what steps need to be taken by HM Government to ensure that Britain is once again in compliance with the United Nations Charter’. Tony Blair – a former lawyer, had argued that ‘lawyers opinions tend to reflect their own political perspectives, but the Government’s own Attorney General [Lord Goldsmith] has ruled that this war is legal’. He went on to say that ‘structural questions about the United Nations and the European Union are secondary to those around future relations with the United States. Partnership is infinitely preferable to the French desire for a rival pole of power, which could revive the dynamics of the Cold War’. France had led opposition to the second UN Security Council Resolution, and Jack Straw added that ‘France simply can’t cope with the fact that America is also intellectually and scientifically dominant’.
Tony Blair had desperately wanted that second UN Security Council Resolution. Throughout all our meetings it was advanced by him as the reason for not binding his hands too early, as it was with the Cabinet and the Parliamentary Labour Party. On January 28th, after Dennis Skinner faced Blair and said ‘This will be the biggest mistake you’ll ever make!’, and others us had argued that the Europeans were demanding more time for Han Blix and his weapons inspectors, Blair said; ‘The inspectors can only interview scientists in the presence of ‘friends’ from the Iraqi security service. Backing down over Iraq will make it more difficult to deal with North Korea next’. But he remained optimistic about a second UN resolution, believing that that this would win members over.
Amidst scenes of high tension and low farce back during the September 2002 Labour Party Conference, Blair argued against my first resolution opposing military intervention, except with the backing of the United Nations. According to the minutes he ‘argued passionately for keeping the option of unilateral military action by the United States and Britain, in case other countries blocked the move in the UN Security Council. ‘ I was determined that the Labour Conference would get to vote on the resolution, and if anyone doubted the significance that Blair saw in this, he said ‘The NEC statement will be studied around the World and Saddam will exploit any signs of division’. An alternative set of words was eventually proposed by the leadership, which stated ‘that military action should only be taken in the last resort and within the context of international law and with the authority of the United Nations’. There was a cigarette paper’s worth of wriggle room between resting power with the UN and allowing for more time to get the UN to come around. Even so, Blair’s own words on ‘unilateral action’ should have set alarm bells ringing everywhere. As that debate began, and a succession of hand-picked speakers, one of whom accused some of us of ‘being appeasers and guilty of making orphans of the sons and daughters of Cyprus servicemen’, Labour Party Chairman, Charles Clarke confronted Christine Shawcroft and myself, and asked that we withdraw the motion altogether. We didn’t, and lost.
So does all of this matter? The World has moved on. Iraq is no longer ruled by a despot, there are regular elections and a free press. The denied motive of regime change has been practically fulfilled. Tony Blair is no longer Prime Minister and while the promised ‘Road Map’ to peace in Israel/Palestine was still born, he continues to act as the Quartets peace envoy. Minutes of long forgotten NEC meetings in soul less seaside hotel rooms are probably far from his mind. Yet Tony Blair, the ex lawyer, rested his arguments on legality, while apparently deliberately forestalling any attempts to get him to seek the advice of those ultimately responsible for upholding the rule of international law, especially once the prospect of a second UN Resolution had receded. Sir John Chilcot might ask a simple question of him; ‘is that because you knew the answer already?’ And what of those Cabinet Ministers and Opposition leaders who stood by him, some of whom now have reservations about what they did and said at the time, or those who put the ‘dodgy dossier’ together, or worse still knew what was going on, but chose to sit on their hands? Does all the blame for Britain’s involvement in Iraq now simply rest on the shoulders of Tony Blair?
Presumably it does all still matter as there would not be an Inquiry by Sir John Chilcot. And it clearly matters for other reasons too; thousands of Iraqis have died and suffered unimaginable hardships and while Iraq may now be a more stable place, the bulk of its minorities, including many of the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia, the Assyrian Christians, have fled. Islamacist extremism was fuelled by the war and terrorism is more menacing because of it. Britain, sometimes seen as a force for good in the Muslim World is now regarded in altogether different light. This legacy may not be for Chilcot and his team to ponder, but in attempting to get to the facts the deluge of Government documents cannot be allowed to obfuscate the central truths and the obvious – very simple – questions.