I had a slightly surreal moment earlier this week. On the very same day that I heard President Obama declare an end to combat operations in Iraq, a bellicose Vice-President Biden assured the military that the 50,000 soldiers remaining in Iraq were 'as combat-ready as any in our military ... [and would] support partnered counterterrorism operations, and protect military and civilian personnel as well as our infrastructure' (what infrastructure? A withdrawal, one would think, would mean that the only infrastructure needing protection would be associated with the remaining troops...a circular argument...), and I also learned that my old college roommate is shortly shipping out to Iraq.
Later in the week, the British Prime Minister whose advisors doctored intelligence, and who himself misled his country about the reasons for the invasion, published his autobiography. Not even the most morbid of curiosity could make me open the memoirs of a man who betrayed his country's soldiers, the principles of his party, and the public trust, but I was reminded of the last time I'd seen him in the news, giving evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, one of the interminable investigations into British involvement in Iraq.
My thoughts from 29 January...
Watching Tony Blair in front of the Chilcot Inquiry was like watching a man who had come home to that arena which, in spite of the terrors it might hold from time to time for him, he loves best. His face was grey, his gestures (particularly the fumbling with his glasses) betrayed nervousness, but it was only a matter of time before the natural order of things was reversed, and the maestro, the man meant to be on the rack, was browbeating his questioners and managing the pace and flow of questioning. Even so, the gamut of emotions that Blair the Actor could allow himself to run was limited on this sombre occasion, one on which most of the onlookers and some of the participants (Baroness Prashar in particular) seemed aware that they were dealing with a particularly sordid specimen who, as Freedman pointed out when he noted the number of Iraqi deaths that occurred in given months, was directly responsible for civilian casualties on an enormous scale.
Or indirectly responsible. Or really, as we came to understand, not remotely responsible. 'The coalition forces weren't the ones doing the killing', Blair told us, suddenly blazing with passion. 'Terrorists...were doing it deliberately' to stop the progress that the coalition was trying to make. Somehow, post-invasion chaos, damage to infrastructure, loss of life, and lack of governing structure could be blamed on Iran and Al-Qaeda. This characteristic elision of time, space and the parties involved repeatedly allowed Blair to wriggle off the hook. And if his questioners (four knights and a peeress, all of whom, on the basis of their performance should be put out to the shire pastures to graze) more than once expressed frustration with his unwillingness to answer the questions being put to him, they were reprehensibly unwilling themselves to press him. They needed to hit back, to make clear, if for no other reason than that it be in the public record, that people were killing each other because of a condition created by an immoral, ill-conceived and dangerously mismanaged military action spearheaded by an ideologically-driven U.S. administration and its allies. It needed to be pointed out that Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, and that a bombing campaign meant to 'shock and awe' probably had something to do with the damage wrought in human and infrastructural terms on Iraq during the invasion.
We saw any number of evasive strategies that those who are familiar with Blair's performances will recognise. When Prashar pressed Blair on the degree of UN involvement, and the extent to which the U.S. was committed to this, he referenced documents and testimony which he could reasonably suppose she wouldn't have looked particularly closely at for this segment of questioning, disingenuously asking whether she would like time to look at them. Had Prashar called his bluff and scrutinised the given sources, she very likely would have found that the arguments Blair was making from them were torturously mangled versions of the truth, or spuriously derived. But by backing off and moving on, Prashar (and the other Inquiry members...this was a strategy used repeatedly by Blair) allowed him to stage-manage the questioning. Blair's ability to direct the line of questioning and to cut off certain lines of inquiry well before they ought to have been finished made the Inquiry members' lines of questioning look incoherent, their approach rather bumbling, and any conclusions or illuminating insights they drew uncontextualised and inconclusive.
When cornered over the readiness of kit for British soldiers before the war, Blair blatantly played the 'our boys' card, manoeuvring so that any criticism of him would come off as criticism of the troops...a road down which the Inquiry members were unwilling to travel, even in the service of truth and transparency. By sickeningly shrouding himself in the same Union Jack that drapes the coffins of returning soldiers, Blair followed the well-established example of Margaret Thatcher when questioned about the unnecessary sinking of the Belgrano, and the tack taken by both Gordon Brown and David Cameron when pressed on either Afghanistan or Iraq. And when he praised the 'outstanding work being done by our servicemen and women', Blair capitalised on what must be one of politicians' strangest euphemisms. Let us not forget that this 'work' involves killing other people, and being prepared, unquestioningly, to be killed yourself.
Another strategy which served Blair well during his testimony was pretending to agree. When leaned on by Prashar, perhaps the firmest questioner of the day, he would reply, 'Exactly', and then go on to contradict her point, and to make sweeping and inaccurate generalisations, points backed up by not an iota of logic...all of which would go unnoticed (or at least unremarked upon) by the panel. It was this ability to bury key (and illogical) arguments in brisk and authoritative asides, which served Blair excellently as a politician.
The irrationality of many of his arguments was on full display today. Those who have heard him make the case for war, and defend his drawing of Britain into an ideological war pushed by morally bankrupt neoconservatives in the United States, will be familiar with his 'hand on heart I did the right thing' mantra. So much of his defence in particular is built upon his actually having acted in good faith. Even, we are told, if mistakes were made, he was never disingenuous...they were simply the product of unanticipated events. Then came the moment when Prashar asked about why there were no visible military preparations until the last minute. This question is central given the pressure on the Inquiry to look into whether troops were properly equipped (stemming in part from the desire of David Cameron to force Gordon Brown into an admission before the election that he had denied funding requested by the military). Such preparations would have been natural, Prashar suggested, given that Blair believed Saddam to be an imminent military threat, given that military action was always one option from the start, and that logistically six months' preparation were necessary for action to be undertaken. Blair's reply was that there were no visible preparations 'because we didn't want people to think that war was inevitable'. So we are enjoined to take Blair at his word, to understand that trust is paramount in politics (and a proper substitute for oversight), and yet the reality was that preparations were put on hold, young men and women (many of whom would die violent and unnecessary deaths in Iraq) were deprived of equipment and training, and the public was misled for a political calculation (one all the more base given that other testimony to the Inquiry has suggested that Blair was committed to supporting Bush in taking military action from a very early stage).
Other contradictions emerged. Blair was ever keen to point out that though divided, there were a substantial number of countries committed to war alongside the U.S. and Britain. This was a broad coalition, we heard, not two rogue imperialist stages subverting internationalism. And yet he referenced that ever-present strain of British exceptionalism: 'We were the key ally...we believed in it' (when defending Britain's status as a joint-occupier).
Sir John Chilcot and Sir Martin Gilbert (an historian! and biographer of another warrior Prime Minister, Winston Churchill) were probably the least effective of the quinquevirate. Even if, as seems to be the case, the panel members are unwarmed by any moral or judicative fires, their line of questioning was laughable at times, and calculated to give Blair an advantage. General questions about how he envisioned the conflict, opportunities to reflect on his decision-making departed from the remit of the Inquiry to investigate, and allowed the Vicar of St Albion to take to the pulpit, proclaiming his good intentions and righteousness. The flaccidity of his arguments momentarily brought him down to earth when after asserting that it was 'right' to escalate the war in Afghanistan, it emerged that this righteousness was defined by what the MOD saw as feasible and expedient.
This constant collapsing of a perversion of high moral purpose with bureaucratic practicalities allowed Blair to proclaim his righteousness whilst incessantly asserting that real responsibility ultimately lay elsewhere. He was, we heard, always open to being deflected from war. Indeed, he would have welcomed such a deflection had it been practical. But this disingenuousness, even if it went unnoted by the panel, emerged in full flower during his closing statement when he restated the case for war yet again, arguing that Saddam 'was a monster, [that] he threatened not just the region but the world [and that] it was better to deal with this threat [...] The world is safer as a result'. Nothing to do with Saddam's ability to hit Britain with WMDs in 45 minutes, and no mention of the subsequent bombings of Madrid or London.
Most disturbing, alongside his total lack of contrition, was Blair's continued defence of a kind of Manichean worldview and policy. 'The Western world, if I may put it that way, needs to get its head around this [...] we should be prepared to take these people [terrorists] on'. Blair believes passionately that there is something like Western Civilisation, that it is a good thing, and that correspondingly, there are people who are culturally (and therefore qualitatively) different who must be brought round by force to our way of thinking. He is one of a group of people who is invested in the notion of a civilisational clash, and if he doesn't to my knowledge ever use the term 'Islamofascism', the implications are not far off from those who do.
In questioning Blair, the Iraq Inquiry mired itself in details without stepping back to take in the wider ramifications of the conflict. This was not its remit, so perhaps the Inquiry as it consists of five uninspired individuals is not to blame. But the real accounting for the human, political and moral wreckage that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq has yet to occur. There are all too few individuals in any proximity to power in either the U.S. or Britain who are interested in taking a long hard look at the extent to which instability, violence and unrepresentative government are the product of continuing U.S. and British foreign policy, of which Iraq is merely exemplary. This should change, and quickly, for the costs have been and remain tragically high, and are unsustainable on too many levels.