Steve Richards: Egypt is a reminder of the errors that drove the Iraq war

Blair was convinced that war is justified to liberate people. The uprising in Egypt demonstrates that attempts at regime change can take many forms

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While regime change from within is sought in Egypt, the more sedate investigation into the lessons of the Iraq war draw to a close at Westminster. This week, the Chilcot inquiry completes its questioning of witnesses. Soon it will make a judgement on a venture aimed at bringing about regime change in the Middle East through a military campaign conducted from without.

The questioning, especially during the later stages, gives a clue as to where the inquiry's concerns lie. In his second appearance, Tony Blair was asked repeatedly about the extent to which his cabinet was consulted in advance of the war. At one point during the second Blair session, one of the inquisitors returned from a break with a rare flourish to say he had checked the records and there had been no discussion in the cabinet about Iraq between April and September 2002. "Does that include the summer recess?" Blair asked hopefully, rather like Basil Fawlty wondering whether everything else about his hotel was alright after the inspector had read out a long list of appalling defects.

Subsequently, the inquiry questioned the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell, at length about why he felt consultation with the cabinet was so limited. Chilcot is ready to condemn Blair over the process of decision-making rather than the decisions themselves.

Here we go again. The committee's concerns are the same as those outlined in Lord Butler's earlier report. Hidden away in the Butler report were damning judgements on Blair's route to war, but it became most famous for its trivial condemnation of "sofa government", the mandarin's obsession and a red herring.

The verdict of the current inquiry is in danger of being equally irrelevant, judgements on a strange, unique and domestic political dynamic in which Blair dominated his cabinet, but was insecure about his relationship with the media, a Republican President in the US, and parts of the British electorate. The reality is that his cabinet chose to be docile in relation to Iraq. As Blair pointed out during his second visit to the inquiry, the notion that ministers did not know military action was an option, and an increasingly probable one, is absurd. They were fully aware of what was happening, as we all were. If ministers had wanted to block Britain's path to war, they could have done so, although such a collective insurrection would have led to the resignation of Blair and perhaps the collapse of government, a reason for their unquestioning passivity.

One of the most revealing documents in relation to the failure of cabinet government has been unexamined by the inquiry. David Blunkett's published diaries reveal the mindset of cabinet ministers during this extraordinary phase in the life of a nervy, insecure government. In the very early stages of the build-up to war, Blunkett reports a cabinet discussion in which he and several others expressed probing doubts. That was more or less it. After preliminary scepticism, they became unquestioning loyalists, to such an extent that when Robin Cook made his famous resignation speech, Blunkett reports ministers discussing their reluctance to be in the Commons to witness the unwelcome act of defiance. There was no cabinet government because after 18 years of opposition, the pathetically grateful cabinet chose to be docile and let the leader that won them landslide elections set the course.

There were some exceptions. Jack Straw insisted that Parliament had a vote and explored to the last an alternative to war. But, on the whole, the cabinet chose to be weak. Liberal Democrats in the Coalition take note; it is easy to become grateful for power as an end in itself and cease to scrutinise policy if that makes power more precariously uncomfortable.

In its preoccupation with process, the Chilcot inquiry is in danger of being diverted by an unusual political context. Other Prime Ministers led stronger ministerial teams than Blair's and could not have dominated them even if they had wanted to. This includes Margaret Thatcher. She did not choose to listen to the likes of Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe. She had no choice but to do so. The same applies to the unfairly derided Labour cabinets in the 1970s. Jim Callaghan could not have behaved with a Blair-like indifference to his cabinet even if he had wanted to. The ministers were too strong and had well-developed convictions. It is not for Chilcot to decide whether a cabinet is assertive or not.

The inquiry has focused less on Blair's shaky rationale for war in the first place. Before the war, he repeatedly argued that Iraqis would welcome their "liberation". Often since, he has cited the famous Chicago speech in which he put the case for such military-led liberations when other options had been exhausted. The carefully worded speech could have been used to justify a decision against military action in Iraq, so must be treated with caution but, on the whole, he was and is convinced that war is justified in order to liberate people and give them democracy.

The subsequent deadly chaos in Iraq and the corrupt administration in Kabul, along with the ongoing military venture in Afghanistan, show the limits of this vision. The uprising in Egypt demonstrates that attempts at regime change can take many forms. The outcome is far from clear and over time might prove more volatile than the current situation. The choreography is chaotically and dangerously impure. The US and, to some extent, the UK have made an uneasy tonal response, tentatively expressing support at first for Mubarak and now calling for "orderly transition" – a shift that reflects the impact of secular protest against dictatorship.

In opposition, David Cameron made a powerful speech arguing that Western powers cannot impose democracy by dropping bombs on countries. I have no idea whether he believed this at the time, or believes it still now. But he got close to the real lesson of Iraq. It has nothing to do with cabinet government but a failure to realise the dangers of the imperialists' swagger. In a different context, the lesson applies again. What is happening in Egypt is of dramatically uncertain outcome, but in their diplomatic moves Western powers should keep their distance and avoid dropping bombs – even of a metaphorical kind.



s.richards@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/steverichards14

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