LONG-OVERDUE countdown to Chilcot begins but does inquiry need to go further, asks Lesley Riddoch
Tony Blair shows he has lost none of his talent for the black art of getting retaliation in first. The man who took Britain into the Iraq War told CNN this weekend: “I apologise for the fact the intelligence we received was wrong. I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and... in our understanding of what would happen once you removed [Saddam Hussein’s] regime.”
The former prime minister accepted the war which killed half a million Iraqis through bombings, injuries and disease helped prompt the rise of ISIS but pointed out their base is Syria not Iraq and insisted he made the right overall decision: “I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.”
Nothing very new there but a near apology does tell us one thing: the long awaited Chilcot report is finally nearing publication. The former Northern Ireland Office permanent secretary has taken six long years to produce his account of the events that took Britain to war. The hollow joke is that no-one now remembers which war we are talking about – Iraq or the Crimea.
Nonetheless, a timetable is expected in the next ten days – prompted no doubt by the publication last weekend of a damning internal memo from Colin Powell dated March 2002 which shows that Tony Blair assured President Bush of support for the invasion during a private meeting at Bush’s ranch in Texas a full year before the war began.
Blair insists he took no decision until March 2003 and that’s central to his rejection of the claim that he knowingly misled the British people and committed Britain to war before getting the backing of Parliament or checking its legality.
Since the US Secretary of State’s memo only confirms others that have circulated for a decade, it seems inconceivable Chilcot will not tackle this incendiary issue.
Yet last summer he suggested the public will only get “the gist” of high-ranking conversations after American and British civil servants insisted the information disclosed must be only edited highlights which “do not reflect President Bush’s views”.
Will Chilcot now go further?
More than 4,000 coalition troops were killed during the invasion, amongst them Rose Gentle’s 19-year-old son Gordon from Glasgow, and those families want 25 notes between Blair and Bush and 130 records of conversations between the two men published in full. Sir John Major backed that call last year, arguing: “Firstly, [non publication] will leave suspicions unresolved and [they] will fester and maybe worsen. Secondly, withholding them is very embarrassing for Mr Blair [who] brought in the Freedom of Information Act.” And thirdly, the whole epic saga is heartbreaking for long suffering mothers like Rose Gentle, who fear “we’ll never get at the truth now”.
It will be scandalous if that is what finally comes to pass.
Tony Blair already knows the accusations he is likely to face since the inquiry chair let all key participants respond to criticism before publication. Chilcot’s expected to criticise the use of intelligence that suggested Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and to claim the British and Americans failed to make adequate preparations for the invasion’s aftermath.
As a member of the 2004 Butler inquiry, he raised concerns about the intelligence used to justify invasion and the way senior officials and Downing Street stripped out caveats from intelligence assessments.
The report will doubtless keep politicians, diplomats and lawyers busy for weeks and months, but the public needs to know once and for all whether Blair was indeed George Dubya’s poodle, whether Blair knew the war would be judged illegal, whether military and political chiefs had any grounds for believing Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or whether war had already been sanctioned regardless.
We need to know because in many ways the war is still with us.
According to an American academic: “War exacts a toll on the invaders as well as the invaded.” Very true.
It’s hard to remember now, but before Iraq British citizens could walk relatively freely in the world. Now our Embassies can be easily spotted – the ones that most closely resemble Fort Knox. Our airports employ more security staff than pilots and holidaymakers must virtually undress before being pronounced safe to travel.
Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games spent more on security than hospitality and the Scottish Parliament had no cash for dualling the A9 but managed to find £8.5 million to improve security with a new entrance, scanning machines and retractable bollards.
Thanks to the Iraq War, security is everywhere. So is suspicion.
The dodgy dossier put paid to blind faith in British governments. Now the public greets every cast-iron government guarantee with mistrust and contempt. And it’s mutual. The authorities regard us with fear and suspicion. All of this has weakened democracy, changed our way of life and cost billions. This is the enduring legacy of the Iraq War.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of this before deciding if Chilcot’s report is good enough. We must know exactly why, where, when and how Blair agreed to send British servicemen and women to war in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. We need to know if Blair ever checked the legality of his actions. We need to know to put the cancer of that war behind us. And sooner or later we will.
Journalists will keep pressing for full disclosure using freedom of information legislation because another Whitehall whitewash is simply unacceptable.
Former SNP leader Alex Salmond has long campaigned to make Tony Blair stand trial for war crimes. Opinion polls suggest a majority of Scots back that position. Now the current Labour leader does too.
During his leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn said the 2003 conflict was an “illegal war” and individuals who “made the decisions that went with it” should face justice.
According to the Daily Telegraph, Salmond spent £14,000 of taxpayers’ money trying to impeach Blair. The estimated cost of the Chilcot enquiry is £10 million. Of course, Tony Blair could yet surprise everyone, earn a tiny shred of respect and volunteer his side of those vital exchanges with George Dubya.
I’m not holding my breath. It might be easier finding out how much Blair has earned on the international speaking circuit since he left everyone else to clear up his mess.