After this week’s publication of the long-awaited Chilcot report, I asked a friend in Baghdad, a young Shia who lives close to the site of last Sunday’s bomb attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, in which at least 250 people were killed, for her reaction to its findings.
This is what she said: ‘Saddam was an evil man. I hated him, I really hated him. I remember how excited I was when he was finally overthrown. But the mistakes that have been made after he was no longer in power were simply unforgivable. I absolve no one, we all messed up things. I would never say that I miss Saddam's days, those days were terrible. But post-2003 days have also been terrible. It is just a different kind of terrible.’
Beware the retired civil servant. He has nothing to gain, nothing to lose, and a lifetime’s experience of sifting evidence, assessing facts and drawing conclusions. So thank you, Sir John Chilcot, for restoring my faith in the power of facts.
We owe Sir John an apology, as well as our thanks. He was accused of unconscionable delay in producing his report, but in fact he used his seven years extremely well, and his fraught arguments with Downing Street over which secret government documents he would be allowed to publish have paid off. Out of the 2.6 million words of his report, six tell us all we need to know.
‘I will be with you, whatever.’
Once Tony Blair had given President Bush that pledge, in writing, in a document marked ‘Secret’ and ‘Personal’, there was to be no turning back. (Two his most senior advisers, Jonathan Powell and Sir David Manning, pleaded with him in vain to tone it down.) The hunt for weapons of mass destruction, the diplomatic manoeuvring for a second UN Security Council resolution, the insistence that war was not inevitable – it was all a sham. The die was cast: George Bush was committed to overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and Tony Blair, without the knowledge of his Cabinet, was committed to joining him.
The Chilcot report does not accuse Blair of lying – but he did lie. On 25 February 2003, for example, he told the House of Commons: ‘The intelligence is clear: [Saddam] continues to believe his WMD programme is essential both for internal repression and for external aggression.’
The intelligence was not clear, and Blair knew that it was not clear. It was inconclusive, incomplete and unreliable, but he chose to ignore the warnings and steam ahead. In the words of the Chilcot report: ‘The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.’
If you want to be charitable, you can argue that he was ill served by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, who allowed himself to be pushed into being more categorical about the available intelligence than was justified. But the responsibility was Blair’s: he said he had clear evidence that Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction, and the truth was that he did not.
Every MP who voted for the Iraq invasion – all 412 of them – must also bear their share of the responsibility. They heard Robin Cook’s explanation for why he did not accept Blair’s analysis of the available evidence, and they preferred to go along with Blair.
The Chilcot report did not say that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, although the consensus among leading international lawyers is that it was. According to Mark Ellis, director of the International Bar Association: ‘The UN charter prohibits the use or threat of force in international relations … The only exception to this mandate is through the authorisation of the UN security council or through the inherent right of self-defence. The overwhelming evidence is that neither of these exceptions existed and, consequently, the invasion of Iraq violated international law.’
But there is, as yet, no forum in which such breaches of international law can be tried, as the international criminal court does not have jurisdiction over ‘acts of aggression’. Blair will not, it seems, face trial, even if at the bar of public opinion there can be little doubt about what verdict would be reached.
One of the most important lessons to emerge from the Chilcot report is that Cabinet ministers, policy-makers and advisers need to be much firmer in their resolve to oppose policies that they believe to be ill-conceived or dangerous. If Jack Straw, for example, had followed Robin Cook and expressed his misgivings publicly, he could have prevented British participation in the invasion. Similarly, if senior military chiefs had gone public with their concerns about inadequate planning for the invasion aftermath, history might have been different.
But we need to acknowledge that George W Bush was set on getting rid of Saddam, with or without British support. We exaggerate our own importance if we think we could have stopped him. Blair calculated that by cosying up to Bush he could nudge him into a UN-authorised, multi-national military intervention, rather than going it alone. He failed, but once he had pledged his support – ‘with you, whatever’ – he was locked into a course of action from which there was no escape.
It was in Britain’s clear national interest, he claimed, to be seen as the US’s staunchest ally. Chilcot disagrees: ‘Over the past seven decades, the UK and US have adopted differing, and sometimes conflicting, positions on major issues, for example Suez, the Vietnam War, the Falklands, Grenada, Bosnia, the Arab/Israel dispute and, at times, Northern Ireland. Those differences did not fundamentally call into question the practice of close co-operation, to mutual advantage, on the overall relationship, including defence and intelligence.’
Blair is right to insist that jihadi terrorism does not spring only from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Few people now remember the attacks in Paris in 1995 by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, or the attack in 1997 in Luxor, Egypt, that killed 62 tourists, or the one in 1998 when 200 people were killed in attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But to have ignored the warnings of a rise in sectarianism and Sunni extremism if Saddam were forcibly removed from office and Iraq sank into anarchy was culpable folly.
His defence – perhaps ‘excuse’ would be a better word – is that he believed, and still believes, that he was right to do what he did. Jihadi bombers are bathed in the same self-delusion. If, once it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Blair had immediately resigned -- 'I made a judgement and it is now clear that my judgement was wrong’ – and if he had then devoted himself quietly to charitable work among the disadvantaged and dispossessed – perhaps history would have been kinder.
Instead, Blair must live with the knowledge that he has done more than anyone to destroy the Labour party. Having won three consecutive election victories – a remarkable feat – and having introduced a raft of anti-poverty measures, as well as playing a major role in ending the violence in northern Ireland, he has left behind an Iraq legacy so toxic that to be labelled ‘Blairite’ is a kiss of death. Labour’s Corbynite catastrophe is the result.
He also lives with the knowledge that because of the mistakes he made, 179 British service personnel lost their lives in Iraq. Their families have been well served by Chilcot, who has given official backing to all their suspicions about the way the war and its aftermath were planned and run.
Blair's refusal to admit error, coupled with his jet-setting lifestyle earning millions as a consultant to a variety of distasteful regimes, means that his epitaph will be a cruel one. And judging by his haunted, haggard look at last Wednesday’s surreal press conference, he knows it. What he does not know, and what he refuses to acknowledge, is what it is like to live in the Iraq that he and Bush have created.
The world is not a better place without Saddam, whatever he may claim. Nor is Iraq. It is, in the haunting phrase of my Baghdad friend, ‘just a different kind of terrible’.