John Gray: The tremors from 11 September are still claiming their victims

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's appearance before the Hutton inquiry is only the latest - and certainly not the last - of a series of events set in motion on 11 September 2001. The terrorist attacks that took place on that day empowered the neo-conservative cabal in Washington and made war in Iraq possible. By propagating the notion that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the attacks, the neo-cons were able to manoeuvre the US into war - but they had no plan for Iraq in the aftermath of the American-led invasion and failed to foresee the country's slide into anarchy, or the intensifying guerrilla resistance against the occupying forces. As a result the US is mired in an ugly war it cannot win.

By following the American President in this ill-fated adventure, Blair has displayed a lack of judgement that could yet cost him his premiership. The Prime Minister backed America's war in Iraq because he feared a unilateral American attack on Iraq could be severely destabilising to transatlantic relations and inflict lasting damage on the UN. It seems clear that it was some such calculation that led Blair to support George Bush.

Weapons of mass destruction were a pretext from the start. As the US Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, has stated, the WMD issue was chosen as casus belli "for bureaucratic reasons" - because no one could disagree with it. The true reasons for the war were different. The neo-conservative faction in the administration had long wanted the US to get out of Saudi Arabia, a country it viewed as inherently unstable and complicit in terrorism. Withdrawing from Saudi Arabia meant securing US energy supplies elsewhere - and where else than Iraq, which contains the world's second largest pool of cheap oil? That demanded regime change, but toppling Saddam had another attraction for the neo-cons. It would - they imagined - create the momentum for a "democratic revolution" in the Middle East, tilting the regional balance of power in favour of the US and its allies.

This geopolitical rationale for the war had long been a subject of discussion in neo-con think-tanks. Even before 11 September, Bush had signalled the importance of US oil supplies by designating energy policy a matter of national security. With their heavily ideological world view, the neo-cons were regarded with some suspicion by much of the American right. Despite indefatigable efforts, they did not muster a great deal of support for their frankly adventurist policies in the Middle East - until 11 September.

For the neo-cons 11 September was a gift from the gods. They were able to identify Iraq - a country that had drifted off the American public's radar - as a major threat to national security, and so make the case for war far more effectively. No solid evidence has ever been found linking Saddam with the terrorist attacks, but by insinuating that such a connection existed, the neo-cons mobilised something like a national consensus behind the drive to war. Without this grand initial deception it could never have been launched.

Blair seems to have viewed Bush's decision to go to war as an expression of the American national will, but in fact it was resisted in nearly every branch of the US government. Many in the State Department, the CIA and among the professional soldiers in the Pentagon had deep reservations, but these sceptics lacked the tenacity of purpose and missionary zeal of the neo-con ideologues, who exploited 11 September ruthlessly. This was a struggle that could have only one outcome.

The neo-cons outmanoeuvred them, but it is the opponents of the war who have been vindicated by events. They pointed out that fighting terrorism requires a special kind of police work, sustained over long periods, not a quick, hi-tech war of the sort Donald Rumsfeld promised in Iraq. As the outrages in Bali and India have shown, they were right to argue such a war would distract attention from the real terrorist threat.

In some ways critics of the war underestimated its risks. The danger of toppling Saddam was always that the destruction of the secular Baathist regime would enfranchise Islamist forces in the country. If, as has been reported, the devastating attack on the UN in Baghdad was the work of a suicide bomber, this worst-case scenario is now a reality.

Iraq today is not the fledgling democracy promised by supporters of the war, but a collapsed state. The war has mutated into a guerrilla conflict of the most intractable kind. As the situation worsens, it is conceivable that the Bush administration will be forced to swallow its pride and turn to the UN for assistance. Yet it is far from clear that UN forces would be able to pacify Iraq. Entering the country in the wake of an invasion, they would risk being seen as an extension of the occupying forces. If - as seems likely - the US were to insist on an American as commander, UN troops could come to be seen as mere proxies for American power.

Blair supported the war in the belief that American power is invincible, but the likelihood must be that after an increasingly nasty struggle the Americans will be forced to withdraw from Iraq. Such a dramatic shift in policy would be deeply humiliating, but with the national consensus in favour of war crumbling and Bush's prospects of re-election in jeopardy, it is no longer inconceivable.

The received view is that Blair will soldier on to the next election, but conventional wisdom may be too close to power and fail to see how fast it is unravelling. Though it remains unlikely that the Hutton inquiry will uncover anything that damages Blair fatally, its long-term impact can only be to make the Prime Minister's position less tenable. What the inquiry has shown is that evidence was sought to justify a decision that had already been made to go to war.

Alastair Campbell's resignation may have been designed to take the heat off the Prime Minister but its timing is not terribly propitious. The effect of the Hutton inquiry is not so much that the issue of trust looms ever larger - though it certainly does - but to plant a growing suspicion about Blair's judgement. In the minds of the swing voters that have always been New Labour's power base, competence matters as much as morality. How competent is a prime minister who takes Britain into a ruinous war launched on the basis of a deception? The question is not about public trust in the Prime Minister, but when the penny will drop that his credibility has now been destroyed. The repercussions of 11 September have not ended.

John Gray is the author of 'Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern' (Faber and Faber)