(DAWN, Karachi) — NO, he wasn’t facing the final curtain, but Tony Blair did, after a fashion, state his case, of which he claimed to be certain. Yes, he did it his way (or, to be more precise, George W. Bush’s way); and yes, often enough he bit off more than he could chew, and when there was doubt he ate it up and spit it out. But more, much more than this, he enjoys a bit of an advantage over Ol’ Blue Eyes.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few,” sang Frank Sinatra, “but then again, too few to mention.” Not Tony, though. He mentioned none because he hasn’t had any. Not a single one. Not the slightest twinge over the several hundred thousand Iraqi deaths in the past seven years. Not a skerrick of remorse over the young British lives on the altar of his nation’s “special relationship” with the United States. Not a hint of contrition over invigorating Islamist terrorism. In the event, Blair’s description of Saddam Hussein as “a monster” brings the words “pot” and “kettle” to mind.
Blair’s six-hour appearance before it last Friday has been the highlight thus far of the Chilcot inquiry, which began sittings last November in an ostensible effort to determine precisely why Britain went to war against Iraq. Although Sir John Chilcot has suggested that the legality of the war was within the inquiry’s purview, his panel’s competence in this context has been called into question, given that there isn’t a single lawyer or judge among its members.
Barring the odd tidbit, the hearings thus far have yielded nothing of substance. The testimonies of any number of mandarins and ministers were hardly a requirement for recalling the reasons behind the Blair administration’s eagerness to claim a leading role in the aggression against Iraq.
The former PM claimed on Friday that it was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that changed his mindset (which would be revelatory only if it was intended as a subtle confession that he was driven bonkers), but it’s useful to remember Downing Street’s instructions to its ambassador in Washington nearly nine months earlier, right after Bush replaced Bill Clinton at the White House. He was told in the crudest terms to clamber into the incoming administration’s derriere and firmly ensconce himself as deep inside as possible.
This degree of servility suggests the British government would have followed wherever Bush led; its unique vantage point within the American administration’s digestive tract hardly allowed for any alternatives. So once it became clear that the neocons who surrounded Bush had primed him for a crusade against Saddam, nothing was going to keep Blair out of the looming misadventure.
He appears to have had as foggy a notion as the Americans about what it would entail beyond a devastating military assault, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was creating the impression that Saddam was sitting on an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – remember them? – that posed a threat to, well, if not exactly to western civilization, then vaguely to “us”. Hence the pressure on both sides of the Atlantic to come with “intelligence” that fit the narrative.
In Blair’s considered view, 9/11 made it imperative to disarm Saddam (he never explicitly made this not particularly logical connection in 2002-03, although the Bushies did – leading more than two-thirds of Americans to believe, if only briefly, that Saddam was directly responsible for the destruction of the twin towers), and that disarmament was inseparable from regime change.
Hence the dodgy dossier that claimed Iraq could deploy its deadliest weapons in 45 minutes. Blair and his equally odious former press secretary, Alistair Campbell, now seek to create the impression that the media paid more attention to this spurious claim than it warranted, but it served its nefarious purpose at the time precisely as the spin doctors intended.
“Unfortunately,” the barefaced Blair told Chilcot, it turned out after the occupation that “what we thought was the problem wasn’t the problem”. That’s right, “unfortunately” there turned out to be no WMD. He didn’t, however, repeat what he said in a BBC interview last December: that he would have had no qualms about the invasion of Iraq even if he knew the country had no WMD.
Nearly thirty years ago, there used to be an anti-nuclear poster in Britain that depicted Ronald Reagan as Rhett Butler and Margaret Thatcher as Scarlett O’Hara. “She promised to follow him to the end of the world,” the caption read (or words to that effect). “He promised to arrange it.” Who could then have known that the description would more accurately fit the relationship between a Labour prime minister and a Republican president even more delusional than the doddering Ronnie? Besides, at least Mrs Thatcher was well aware that the “old dear” had “nothing between his ears”, and she wasn’t shy of berating him when he went too far, for instance by invading Grenada.
One of the Blair government’s excuses for its immoderate attachment to the Bush administration was that its diplomatic leverage would thereby be enhanced. The Chilcot testimony of an ex-ambassador suggests the reverse effect was achieved: once Washington realised that London’s allegiance was unquestioning and unequivocal, it wasted no time on paying attention to British opinions.
If there’s one thing Blair’s appearance before the Chilcot inquiry has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, it’s that he’s certainly grown no wiser since leaving office. Perhaps he’s too busy indulging his passion for accumulating corporate lucre to bother with such mundane things as self-improvement. But his much too frequent invocation of Iran as an example of where lessons from Iraq – WMD and all – may well come in handy can only lead one to conclude that the world’s a marginally safer place since he shifted out of Downing Street. After all he’s done, he deserved more than an inquiry. He ought to have been put on trial, with all those who acquiesced in his intransigence keeping him company in the dock.