Wednesday 23 December 2009

Waiting For Blair

With the Iraq Inquiry closed until the New Year, its first four weeks of hearings having revealed little that we didn’t already know, we wait in anticipation for what the Inquiry chair Sir John Chilcott calls “the most senior decision-makers” – more than any other, the former prime minister Tony Blair. Nevertheless, I fear disappointment - that the Inquiry members will find themselves so bogged down with dossiers, legal advice and UN resolutions that they fail to vigorously challenge Blair on his latest justification for the invasion of Iraq.

Blair’s television interview on 13 December was more illuminating about the government’s motivations in the approach to the invasion than any of the civil servants who have testified at the Inquiry to date. His admission that Britain would have supported military action to remove Saddam Hussein regardless of the existence of weapons of mass destruction, because he was a “threat to the region,” has drawn what probably constitutes a sharp rebuke from the normally mild-mannered former head of UN weapons inspection Hans Blix, who has said that Blair has given a "strong impression of a lack of sincerity".

Quite so, although Blair’s inherent insincerity is also far from a surprise to most of us. What is interesting, however, is that Blair has finally admitted that British and US decision-making was neither defensive nor moral, as he has previously asserted, but purely strategic. It wasn’t for the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, or to bring democracy in Iraq and it most certainly wasn’t because of the ludicrous attempts to link Iraq with Al-Qaida. The invasion was to protect Western strategic interests in the region – by which I think we can assume Israel would be highest on this list. No wonder no-one trusts Blair as a mediator in the Palestine conflict.

Just how much of a real threat Saddam posed in 2002, after years of crippling economic sanctions and in light of how close weapon inspectors were to showing after 700 inspections that there were no WMDs, is highly debatable. However, purely for argument’s sake, even if a desire for ‘regime change’ was in some way a legitimate strategic aim, it still doesn’t explain the need for an invasion and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The UN Charter’s article 33 placed an explicit requirement on Britain and the US to “seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement... or other peaceful means of their own choice”. And as we now know, on the eve of war, Saddam was desperate to enter into negotiations and Bush and Blair could have achieved everything they demanded from him without a shot being fired.

We know that throughout 2002, Bush was claiming repeatedly that no decision had been made about the merits of invasion and that “should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation, the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war” (there’s a useful summary of these statements on Think Progress). Blair said much the same in November 2002, suggesting that Saddam Hussein had to cooperate with the UN "but the choice is his - he can disarm peacefully, or be disarmed by force."

But we also know that these statements about the prospects for diplomacy were lies and that information was deliberately withheld from the public, emerging only in leaks long after the invasion had begun. In November 2003, the New York Times and Newsweek reported attempts by the Iraqis prior to the invasion to establish back-channel negotiations. These eventually led to promises to hold internationally-monitored elections within two years and even, astonishingly, to allow 2,000 FBI agents to enter Iraq and look wherever they wanted for banned weapons. According to Vincent Cannistraro, the CIA's former head of counter-terrorism, these proposals reached the White House but were "turned down by the President and Vice-President". Later still, in 2007, other reports circulated of an offer by Saddam to go into exile. This too was rebuffed. Despite increasingly desperate attempts by the Iraqi government to find diplomatic solutions to prevent war, the US and its allies appear to have gone out of their way to ensure war was inevitable, even though they obviously had Saddam over a barrel.

Anti-war activists have long been clear that the Bush administration rejected a negotiated agreement in Iraq, regardless of any concessions that were offered, because it was determined to secure unrestricted control over Iraq’s vast oil wealth and to pursue a foreign policy of global domination by means of military power. But if the Iraq Inquiry intends to maintain any credibility, it needs to probe Blair on his explanation for the failure of negotiations that would, by February 2003, have effectively meant ‘regime change’ without the bloodshed that followed.

If Blair cannot answer – and I find it hard to imagine how he can – then he stands branded as a war criminal not because of any disputed Security Council resolution or Attorney General’s interpretation of international law, but because he was an active participant in breaching the post Second World War settlement designed to end aggressive wars that is embodied in the UN Charter.

I supposed if a politician with an eye for his place in history plans to blatantly ignore international treaties, ignoring the really big ones is one way to write oneself into the history books.

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