How did it happen? By now it is effortless to say that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by American and British forces was the most disastrous—and disgraceful—such intervention of our time. It’s also well-nigh pointless to say so: How many people reading this would disagree? For Americans, Iraq is their worst foreign calamity since Vietnam (although far more citizens of each country were killed than were Americans); for the British, it’s the worst at least since Suez sixty years ago this autumn, though really much worse on every score, from political dishonesty to damage to the national interest to sheer human suffering.
Although skeptics wondered how much more the very-long-awaited Report of the Iraq Inquiry by a committee chaired by Sir John Chilcot could tell us when it appeared at last in July, it proves to contain a wealth of evidence and acute criticism, the more weighty for its sober tone and for having the imprimatur of the official government publisher. In all, it is a further and devastating indictment not only of Tony Blair personally but of a whole apparatus of state and government, Cabinet, Parliament, armed forces, and, far from least, intelligence agencies.
Among its conclusions the report says that there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein; that the British “chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”; that military action “was not a last resort”; that when the United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix said weeks before the invasion that he “had not found any weapons of mass destruction and the items that were not accounted for might not exist,” Blair wanted Blix “to harden up his findings.”
The report also found that deep sectarian divisions in Iraq “were exacerbated by…de Ba’athification and…demobilisation of the Iraqi army”; that Blair was warned by his diplomats and ministers of the “inadequacy of U.S. plans” for Iraq after the invasion, and of what they saw as his “inability to exert significant influence on U.S. planning”; and that “there was no collective discussion of the decision by senior Ministers,” who were regularly bypassed and ignored by Blair.
And of course claims about Iraqi WMDs were presented by Downing Street in a way that “conveyed certainty without acknowledging the limitations of the intelligence,” which is putting it generously. Chilcot stops short of saying directly that the invasion was illegal or that Blair lied to Parliament, but he is severe on the shameful collusion of the British intelligence agencies, and on the sinister way in which Blair’s attorney general changed his opinion about the legality of the invasion.
Planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam “were wholly inadequate,” Chilcot says, and “the people of Iraq have suffered greatly.” Those might seem like statements of the blindingly obvious, as does the solemn verdict that the invasion “failed to achieve the goals it had set for a new Iraq.” It did more than merely fail, and not only was every reason we were given for the war falsified; every one of them has been stood on its head. Extreme violence in Iraq precipitated by the invasion metastasized into the hideous conflict in neighboring Syria and the implosion of the wider region, the exact opposite of that birth of peaceable pro-Western democracy that proponents of the invasion had insisted would come about. While Blair at his most abject still says that all these horrors were unforeseeable, Chilcot makes clear that they were not only foreseeable, but widely foreseen.
Nor are those the only repercussions. Chilcot coyly says that “the widespread perception”—meaning the correct belief—that Downing Street distorted the intelligence about Saddam’s weaponry has left a “damaging legacy,” undermining trust and confidence in politicians. It is not fanciful to see the Brexit vote, the disruption of the Labour Party, and the rise of Donald Trump among those consequences, all part of the revulsion across the Western world against elites and establishments that were so discredited by Iraq. And so how could it have happened?
By now the war has produced an enormous literature, including several official British reports, beginning with the Hutton Report of January 2004 and the Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction the following July after an inquiry chaired by Lord Butler, a former Cabinet secretary. While its criticism of named individuals was muted, it built up a dismal story of incompetence and official deceit.
One member of Butler’s panel, which took no more than five months to hear evidence and report, was John Chilcot, a retired senior civil servant who had worked in the Home Office and with the intelligence agencies. On June 15, 2009, Gordon Brown, who had succeeded Blair as prime minister two years earlier, told Parliament that “with the last British combat troops about to return home from Iraq, now is the right time to ensure that we have a proper process in place to enable us to learn the lessons of the complex and often controversial events of the last six years,” and he announced a new inquiry, chaired by Chilcot. In those two years, everything had gone wrong for Brown, from continuing violence in Iraq to financial collapse, and his plain purpose was to push the matter aside and distance himself from his predecessor.
One of the comic subplots of this unfunny story is the way that Brown, as throughout his career, always tried to avoid being associated with contentious questions or difficult decisions. “For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!,” nor James Gordon Brown if he could help it. Chilcot mentions that Brown would sometimes send Mark Bowman, his private secretary, to meetings concerned with Iraq in his place, in the hope he could avoid personal responsibility.
So it was characteristic that when Brown first assigned Chilcot to lead the inquiry, it was to be held in camera, with as little publicity as possible. But parliamentary and public outcry put a stop to that, and Chilcot began his hearings in public view. They could all be followed, and then accessed online, and this has already been made use of by Peter Oborne for Not the Chilcot Report, a concise assessment, carefully sourced, that appeared before the report itself, and Tom Bower, whose Broken Vows is a full-dress assault on every part of Blair’s record. That includes a hair-raising account of his wildly profitable financial career since leaving office, but the book’s most startling contribution to the Iraq debate is the number of attributed quotations from former very senior government officials who belatedly criticize Blair and a war which, it must be remembered, he had begun by ignoring all professional advice from anyone who knew anything at all about the subject. A Foreign Office authority on Iraq who pleaded with him that, from all previous experience, the invasion would likely be fraught and possibly calamitous, was dismissed by Blair: “That’s all history, Mike. This is about the future.”
Over seven years, much has been done to obstruct the inquiry. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the present Cabinet secretary, deplorably tried to protect Blair, and although much of what Blair wrote to Bush in the year before the war has been published, Bush’s side in the correspondence has been withheld. In any case there was the ludicrous process of “Maxwellization,” by which anyone criticized adversely in an official report is shown the criticisms before publication and allowed to respond. This dates back nearly fifty years to a legal challenge to such a report by the crooked publisher Robert Maxwell; that such a process should still be named after the greatest scoundrel to disfigure British public life in our time suggests that it could usefully be reexamined.
Scarcely any individual or even institutional buyer is likely to acquire the twelve printed volumes of the report, although every family of the 179 British service personnel who died in Iraq is being presented with a set, for what consolation that may be, while the entire report is freely available online. Nor are many likely to read all 2.6 million words of it, but the 62,000-word executive summary is well worth reading. It illuminates once more, but very clearly, the yawning gulf between what Blair was saying publicly in the year before the war to Parliament, and even to his own Cabinet, and what he was saying in private to Bush.
Hence the anger with which the press pounced on Blair’s letter to Bush on July 28, 2002: “I will be with you, whatever.” It has taken some people a long time to grasp this. The story falls into place when those words are read in conjunction with the Downing Street Memo written in the greatest secrecy five days before Blair’s promise of fealty, in which Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, reported on his recent talks in Washington. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam,” the memo said, “through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
While the spread of nuclear weapons was plainly a problem, Iraq was far from the gravest threat. Sir William Ehrman, Foreign Office director of international security in 2000–2002, told Chilcot that the nuclear programs of Iran, Libya, and North Korea were “maturing” and were “probably of greater concern than Iraq,” not to mention Pakistan, where A.Q. Khan, then nuclear program director, was operating something like a mail-order system in nuclear know-how, and had supplied uranium-enriching equipment to Libya. WMDs might have been a plausible reason for invading Pakistan, just as Islamist terrorism might have been a plausible reason for invading Saudi Arabia, which had fostered al-Qaeda and from which most of the September 11 murderers came, but neither made any sense at all as reasons for invading Iraq.
At the time the war began, Sir Jeremy Greenstock was British ambassador to the United Nations. He said on BBC radio some weeks ago, “Hans Blix told me privately, ‘I don’t know that they’ve got them and I don’t know they’ve not got them,’” which was the simple truth, and is perfectly congruent with Blix’s saying then that his inspection regime was working and needed more time. But Blair knew that the approaching war was unwanted and unpopular in his country: a poll on January 21 found 30 percent for war, 42 percent against. Aware that he could not take a reluctant Parliament and country to war on the basis that “we don’t know they’ve not got them,” he had little choice but to dissemble and mislead.
“I wouldn’t call it a lie,” says Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet secretary at the time of the invasion, quoted by Bower. “‘Deception’ is the right word. You can deceive without lying, by leaving a false interpretation uncorrected.” Most of us would call that a distinction without a difference, but few who read Chilcot attentively will doubt that the brew of exaggeration, distortion, misrepresentation, suggestio falsi, and suppressio veri that was Blair’s case for war was anything other than mendacious.
What Blair knew well was that the Bush administration was determined to destroy Saddam, whether he possessed weapons of mass destruction or not. The purpose of the war was regime change for its own sake, even if in defiance of international law and the United Nations. And Blair’s great deception—his true crime—was not his September 2002 “dossier” and all the other claims about WMDs as such, false as those claims proved to be. It was his larger case, kept up for the best part of a year, that he had not committed the country to war, when privately he had.
For the British, this was the end of a long story, from the defeat of a British army by the Turks south of Baghdad in 1916, to the creation after that war—and then pacification by bombing—of a new country called Iraq, supposedly a friendly regime with Sunni Hashemite princes ruling a Shiite majority as well as Kurds, in which respect Saddam was the princes’ heir. After he invaded Kuwait in 1990, the British joined the campaign to expel him, led by President Bush the Elder but crucially with authorization by Security Council resolutions, and supported by Saudi Arabia as well as France among others.
At that time Blair was a rising politician still in his thirties and the Labour spokesman on employment. Until he was elected party leader after the sudden death of John Smith in 1994, Blair had shown no interest at all in international politics, although just before Smith died he saw Schindler’s List. Blair “was spellbound,” he tells us, and his life was changed, though maybe not his alone. There can be no “bystanders,” Blair decided: “You participate, like it or not. You take sides by inaction as much as by action…. Whether such reactions are wise in someone charged with leading a country is another matter.” Yes, it is.
After he became prime minister in May 1997, Blair found new places to take sides. He sent British troops to restore order in Sierra Leone; he urged Western action to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo, where he was welcomed as the liberator he later thought he would be in Iraq; he tried to formulate such actions in a doctrine. One of the Chilcot panel members was Sir Lawrence Freedman, a well-known historian, who contributed to Blair’s famous or notorious Chicago speech of April 1999, a speech inspired by what the jurist Phillippe Sands has called “the emotional and ahistorical interventionist instincts that later led directly to the Iraq debacle.”*
Today it’s hard to recapture the mood of less than two decades ago, and the wave of adulation when Blair first entered Downing Street. Soon that adulation had washed across the Atlantic: well before The New York Times was writing about the “Blair Democrats,” Paul Berman had called Blair “the leader of the free world.” It would have gone to the head of a naturally humble man. Both Turnbull and Jonathan Powell, Blair’s erstwhile chief of staff, have spoken of his “Messiah complex,” without irony, alas: he really did come to believe that he was a new redeemer of mankind.
But the crucial events took place far from London or Kosovo, in Washington in November 2000, and in New York the following September. Robin Cook was Blair’s first foreign secretary, and in March 2003, the month of the invasion, the only member of the Cabinet to resign over Iraq. In his resignation speech, he rightly said that the invasion would not be taking place if Al Gore were in the White House, and so if one wanted to say who was ultimately responsible for the war, one answer would be the Supreme Court, when it feebly awarded the 2000 election to Bush the Younger.
We know that the new administration was discussing an invasion of Iraq as soon as Bush was inaugurated, urged on by the neoconservatives who had been publicly advocating a war to destroy Saddam for years past. Just what the neocons’ motives and objectives were, and those of the right-wing nationalists Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, may be debated. But one thing is certain: those motives and objectives were in no way shared by most Labour MPs and a “progressive” media in London, who were suspicious of American power and critical of Israel, who affected to revere international law, who thought that regime change as such was unlawful, and who made a cult of the virtue of the UN. To enlist their support was no easy task, but Blair was counting on the corrupt servility of his MPs as well as the supine credulity of the media, and he proved to be correct in his estimate of both.
Hence the angry bafflement of those supporters, unable to contemplate the possibility that Blair might actually have had a natural affinity with Bush and the neocons, while failing also to recognize his frantic desire—somewhat at odds with the tough and decisive persona he tried to project—to be the president’s best buddy: “I will be with you, whatever.” And so a false account of events became almost unavoidable for him. In her great biography of her father, Lord Salisbury, Queen Victoria’s last prime minister, Lady Gwendolen Cecil wrote ruthlessly of Disraeli that “he was always making use of convictions that he did not share, pursuing objects which he could not avow, manoeuvring his party into alliances which, though unobjectionable from his own standpoint, were discreditable and indefensible from theirs.” That exactly describes Blair, above all over Iraq.
Yet it will not do to blame Blair alone. Among the effects of the war were a collapse of cabinet government and parliamentary government, along with what might frankly be called the corruption of the intelligence agencies, as Dearlove and Sir John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, colluded with Downing Street to “fix the facts,” as well as of Peter Goldsmith, the attorney general, who just as patently changed under pressure his previous advice that the invasion might be of dubious legality.
Since then Dearlove has been the head of a Cambridge college and is now chairman of an insurance company, Scarlett was knighted and promoted to succeed Dearlove as head of MI6 after the invasion and is now advisor to an investment bank, while Goldsmith works for the American law firm Debevoise and Plimpton. Whatever the fate of the Iraqis, the officials responsible for their plight have not suffered greatly.
Nor was Iraq the finest hour of the media, on either side of the Atlantic. The morning after Chilcot was published, the front pages of London newspapers shouted “Weapons of Mass Deception” (Sun), “Shamed Blair: I’m Sorry But I’d Do It Again” (Daily Express), “Blair Is World’s Worst Terrorist” (Daily Star), “A Monster of Delusion” (Daily Mail), “Blair’s Private War” (The Times). You would never guess from this chorus of outrage that those newspapers all supported the war at the time, as of course did almost all the America media, with the exception of that unlikely pair: the Knight-Ridder chain and The New York Review.
Sorriest of all were the liberal papers, The Guardian and its Sunday counterpart, The Observer. While The Observer fell completely for Blair and his war, The Guardian was more hesitant. And yet a week before the invasion it did say editorially, and lamentably, “But there is one thing Mr. Blair cannot be accused of: he may be wrong on Iraq, badly wrong, but he has never been less than honest.” No hindsight is needed to deplore those words—or to point out that the two papers had the right response ready-made, from what they had said about Suez in November 1956.
“It is wrong on every count—moral, military and political,” said the Manchester Guardian (as it still was). “To recover from the disaster will take years—if indeed it is ever possible.” More eloquent still was the Observer, with what is perhaps the single most famous editorial sentence to appear in a London paper in my lifetime, penned as British troops went ashore at Suez by David Astor himself, the paper’s owner-editor: “We had not realized that our government was capable of such folly and such crookedness.”
Apart from privately sharing the view that a stable democracy could be created in Iraq, Blair thought it was his duty to support Washington in principle, and that he was Bush’s guide as well as his friend. As early as March 2002, he told Labour MPs “very privately” that “my strategy is to get alongside the Americans and try to shape what is to be done.” He endlessly repeated this, to his Cabinet (without telling them that he had committed the country to war) and to favored journalists, some of whom swallowed it. When the invasion began, the commentator and military historian Max Hastings wrote in the Daily Mail that “Tony Blair has taken a brave decision, that the only hope of influencing American behavior is to share in American actions.”
All this displayed the kind of personal and national vanity that afflicts prime ministers, stemming from Churchill’s “special relationship” and Harold Macmillan’s even more pernicious image of “Greeks to their Romans.” These have been the grand illusions of British policy ever since: the belief that the two countries have a “special” affinity, and that the worldly-wise English can tutor and restrain the energetic but backward Americans. Successive prime ministers have failed to grasp the simple truths that the Americans neither want nor need such guidance, that the United States is a sovereign country whose interests and objectives may or may not coincide with British interests and objectives, and that like any other great power in history, it will pursue them with small regard for the interests of its supposed friends as well as its avowed enemies.
Before long Hastings saw the error of his ways, renouncing the war and denouncing Blair. As much to the point he has recently, and very truly, written that “the notion of a ‘special relationship’ was invented for reasons of political expediency by Winston Churchill, who then became the first of many prime ministers to discover it to be a myth.” It was just as much a myth for Blair, who “overestimated his ability to influence US decisions on Iraq,” Chilcot says, adding that Anglo-American friendship can “bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interest or judgments differ.”
One might add that, among every other perverse consequence, Iraq actually damaged Anglo-American relations, by lowering the British military in American esteem. The US Army were deeply unimpressed by their allies’ performance, with one general saying that the final ignominious British withdrawal from Basra could only be seen as a defeat.
That leaves Blair. His public attempt to answer Chilcot on the day the report appeared was excruciating, haggard, and incoherent; he seems dimly aware that his repute has collapsed and that he is more despised and ill-regarded than any other modern prime minister. Any public intervention by him now can only have the opposite effect, as in the summer of last year when, every time he begged Labour members not to vote for the aging leftist Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, he further ensured Corbyn’s triumph. Not that there is any need to feel pity for him: he feels quite enough himself, bemoaning “the demonic rabble tearing at my limbs,” which words may make others think of those Iraqi men, women, and children who suffered because of him.
His life now is hugely lucrative but hideous to behold, as he roams the world like the Flying Dutchman, with an estimated £25 million’s worth of properties, with a large fortune, including benefits from a Wall Street bank and a Swiss finance company, sundry Gulf sheiks and the president-for-life of Kazakhstan. He doubtless justifies to himself his work for Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose regime has been strongly condemned by human rights organizations, in the same strange antinomian way he justified the manner in which he took us into the Iraq war: whatever he does must be virtuous because he does it.
Long after those distant years of triumph, the truth about Blair finally becomes clear. He believed himself to be a great leader and redeemer; some of the weirder passages in his memoir—“I felt a growing inner sense of belief, almost of destiny…I was alone”—suggest an almost clinically delusional personality; and of course he did something shameful or even wicked in Iraq. And yet in the end Tony Blair isn’t a messiah or a madman or a monster. He’s a complete and utter mediocrity. He might have made an adequate prime minister in ordinary days, but in our strange and testing times he was hopelessly out of his depth. Now we are left with the consequences.