There was – to use a truly vile expression of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara yesterday – a "binary distinction".
There was the blood that flowed over my shoes in the emergency room of a Baghdad hospital in March of 2003, the humans shrieking with phosphorous burns, the old man with the blood trickling down a handkerchief from his empty eye socket, the piles of decomposing corpses in the Baghdad mortuary, the screams – oh yes, the shrieks and the pleadings and the animal squeals of the wounded and the dying. And then there was Lord Blair yesterday, sitting in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in his oh-so-clean business suit and his oh-so-clean red tie and his oh-so-clean white shirt and his oh-so-clean conscience. My God, that was a "binary distinction" all right. The difference between the hell of pain and the hell of blissful mendacity.
You needed to be in the Middle East to feel that strongly about it. Lord Blair was physically only 2,000 miles away from me. Psychologically, he was in another galaxy, still composing and recomposing the historical record.
Take al-Qa'ida. We all knew about this particular institution. It had, as Lord Blair kept reminding us yesterday, "changed everything" with 9/11. It was one of the reasons why the British and Americans invaded Iraq. Because Saddam had links with al-Qa'ida, so said the Americans,and might give them weapons of mass destruction, so said Lord Blair. But when it turned out that the links were as non-existent as the weapons, Lord Blair was surprised to find al-Qa'ida turning up in post-invasion Iraq. "People did not think that al-Qa'ida and Iran would play the role that they did."
Lord Blair went to war because of al-Qa'ida but thought al-Qa'ida would let him win in Iraq. So it was all al-Qa'ida's fault. WE didn't kill 100,000 Iraqis (I noticed he used the lowest available figure). It was THEM, the terrorists, al-Qa'ida, insurgents, Iranians, "sectarians", the bad guys.
He played the same dishonest little trick over the Israel-Palestinian war. "It's a constant problem for Israel," he informed us. "They use great force in retaliation. Before you've gone two weeks, they're the people that started it all."
But no, they're not, Lord Blair. No one disputed that Hamas rockets preceded Israel's Gaza war a year ago. What Israel was accused of was causing grotesquely disproportionate Palestinian casualties. But of course, that's not what Blair said. Because he works in Jerusalem – where he cannot offend either side – and as Middle East envoy, it was his job to prevent this mass slaughter. Which he failed to do as signally as he failed to stop the slaughter in Iraq.
It's a cold winter in the Middle East now, but yesterday I had to loosen my shirt collar from time to time. It seemed Blair was as successful in Iraq as he was in Gaza a year ago. Everything is getting better. Life in Iraq is better – better than it was in 2007, 2003, 2002 and for that matter, 2001. I got it. Before his invasion, it was all Saddam's fault. After his invasion it was all al-Qa'ida's and Iran's fault. And presumably we are now going to invade Iran?
At one point, the wretched man boasted of Britain's historical legacy in setting up an Iraqi government in the 1920s, deleting any mention of the massive insurgency against the British in Baghdad and Fallujah and Najaf in 1922 which might – just might – have forewarned him of the post-2003 anarchy.
From time to time, there was a slip; or at least, something the inquiry – it is in fact, an inquest – missed. Trying to tell us that no decisions were taken at the infamous meeting with George Bush at Crawford, Lord Blair suddenly blurted out (indeed, appeared to want to blurt out) that he thought there had been "conversations with Israelis". What? Israelis? At the critical Crawford meeting? Israel was the only nation – apart from the US and Britain – that totally supported ther war, indeed encouraged it.
A Jerusalem friend looked up his archives for me and there's an Israeli foreign ministry "source" at the time saying that an Iraq invasion "will certainly take people away from the Israel-Palestine file". The inquiry never picked up this intriguing clue.
But by the end, as Lawrence Freedman read through the casualty lists for each year, and I remember I saw some of them with my own eyes – the tragedy of Iraq seeped into the room.
Adam Price MP got it right. "We'll never get an apology from this man," he said. We can't, of course. Because Lord Blair was talking about judgement, about being "frank", "absolutely and completely" honest and "absolutely clear". We had "to stick in there and see it out". So that's what all the dead and the wounded and the bombs and the shredded bodies and the rape and Abu Ghraib torture was all about.
Yet such a tiny room to hear it all in. No wonder they couldn't cram in all the mourning Brits. Almost 200 dead British soldiers couldn't be catered for. And how, I wondered, would they have crammed the souls of 100,000 dead Iraqis into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre?
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