The new decade begins with plenty of unfinished business from the old. The Chilcot inquiry will resume on Tuesday, not in the same climate in which proceedings ended for the Christmas break on 17 December, but in the wake of fresh criticism of Tony Blair's conduct from an unexpected and significant figure: his immediate predecessor in office, Sir John Major. Former prime ministers rarely comment on a successor's handling of the job, so the timing of Sir John's remarks on yesterday's Today programme, ahead of five more weeks of public hearings from ministers, senior civil servants and military officers, should not be underestimated. We shall have to wait until after the general election to hear from Gordon Brown and others still in government, whose continuing operational command over British foreign policy precludes them from appearing, but others, such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw, are to be questioned imminently by Sir John Chilcot and his team.
For his part, Sir John is anxious to dispel any notion that his inquiry serves as a spectator sport. Winding up proceedings last month, he said: "The whole point of our approach is to get to the facts." But if not exactly spectator sport, the inquiry has presented a vivid spectacle of assorted mandarins, diplomats and military officers who, far from presenting a united front, have been at pains to illuminate the deep disquiet felt about the Iraq war and its aftermath that ran through much of the British establishment. "Disquiet" is an apt description, for few chose to make their reservations public at the time – or to resign in protest.
I didn't believe Tony Blair's claims about Iraqi WMD from the outset and was one of the first to go public with my doubts on BBC Radio 4 early in 2002. My gut instinct told me that both Bush and Blair in the aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan were at the very least exaggerating Saddam Hussein's capacities and were seeking a pretext for regime change. I did not like the Iraqi regime, but I made it my business to go to Iraq twice and to the United Nations in New York. As the months went by and the evidence remained unforthcoming, and the agenda of US neocons became clearer, I couldn't divorce the political imperative for regime change coming from Washington and London, as well as the strong-arming of dissent, from the lack of clear facts.
So I tried to speak to as many people associated with UN attempts to disarm Saddam in the years since his rout from Kuwait, as well as Middle East experts. Unconvinced by Tony Blair, I led the opposition to the build-up to war on Labour's official ruling body, the 30-strong National Executive Committee, which comprises the Prime Minister, leading members of the Cabinet, elected representatives from the Parliamentary Labour Party and European PLP, trade union representatives and half a dozen members from the constituencies. To my knowledge, none of us who disbelieved Tony Blair and George Bush over Iraqi WMD has been factored into the Chilcot Inquiry.
My own opposition to the Iraq war wasn't based on pacifism; Tribune, when I edited it, went out on a limb to support intervention to halt the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. We supported Robin Cook's mission to bring an end to the murderous butchery in Sierra Leone. But Iraq was different – not because Saddam wasn't a ruthless dictator (whom we had once helped to arm), but because Blair was adamant that Saddam was flouting UN resolutions and had WMD. He was equally adamant in telling us at the end of September 2002 that "regime change is not United States policy".
But I take Sir John Chilcot at face value, and have sent him what I believe to be probably the only record of the meetings at which Blair and various senior government ministers, including Straw, John Prescott, John Reid and Geoff Hoon, faced serious questions about, and direct opposition to, the road to war. We will have to wait another 30 years for the cabinet records, and it is doubtful whether a record of meetings from the PLP or European PLP was ever kept. These minutes, faithfully recorded by the current chair of the Labour Party NEC, Ann Black, provide a powerful snapshot of Blair and his ministers at three key meetings of what is supposed to be the "sovereign policy-making" body of the Labour Party from September 2002 to 25 March 2003, when Britain, along with America, was five days into "shock and awe".
While the Labour Party maintains a somewhat abridged and pruned version of events, Ann Black's record has never been disputed. On three separate occasions with the support of three other lonely souls – Black, Dennis Skinner and Christine Shawcroft – I attempted to force votes blocking British involvement in the Iraq venture unless it was explicitly backed by the UN and in accordance with international law. Defeated twice, and finally blocked by a "procedural motion" on the third, I walked out of that meeting – thankfully avoiding the ignominy of the late Eric Heffer, who once stormed out of an NEC meeting and straight into a broom cupboard.
Unlike the mandarins, ministers, diplomats and military chiefs, none of us could claim to have seen intelligence reports on supposed Iraqi WMD. In common with those who at PLP meetings wanted to support Blair but clamoured for facts to make their case to angry constituents, we finally got to read the "dodgy dossier", which among other lurid claims had Saddam's WMD menacing British bases in Cyprus.
Reporting from inside Iraq in 2002, and then on the eve of war in 2003 for the BBC and Daily Mirror, I interviewed Tariq Aziz. He was convinced that Iraq would not be attacked, citing the massive global anti-war demonstrations, and he reiterated that his country had no WMD. "Tell Mr Blair," said the veteran Foreign Minister, "that he can come to Iraq and send his own inspectors." Having spent days with other journalists being promised visits to sites identified by America and Britain as having WMD and being fobbed off with claims that they were "mushroom farms" or "baby milk factories", I thought Aziz's protestations sounded lame. But it was when I interviewed the former UN chief weapons inspector Scott Ritter that my own doubts about Blair's claims took root. Ritter, a lifelong US Republican, was clear. Although the UN Special Commission on disarming Iraq (Unscom) had been repeatedly frustrated, it had finally done its job. The nuclear programme was eliminated; if chemical weapons still existed there would be proof; Iraq was in compliance with Unscom over biological weapons.
In the weeks running up to the invasion, I met with the former Czech foreign minister – and then president of the UN General Assembly – Jan Kavan in New York. Kavan was in regular contact with his old friend Robin Cook and was clear, as was Cook, that military action without a second UN resolution would be in contravention of international law – a fact finally publicly acknowledged when it was too late by Kofi Annan. That third motion I tabled on 25 March 2003 at Labour's NEC, in front of Blair, Prescott and Straw, was a joint effort by Kavan and me, with, I suspect, Cook's approval. The promised second UN Security Council resolution had failed, and the NEC motion demanded that "immediate advice" be sought from both the UN Secretary General and the president of the UN General Assembly "on what steps need to be taken by HM Government to ensure that Britain is once again in compliance with the United Nations Charter".
Blair – a former lawyer – had argued that "lawyers' opinions tend to reflect their own political perspectives, but the Government's own Attorney General [Lord Goldsmith] has ruled that this war is legal". He went on to say that "structural questions about the United Nations and the European Union are secondary to those around future relations with the United States. Partnership is infinitely preferable to the French desire for a rival pole of power, which could revive the dynamics of the Cold War." France had led opposition to the second UN Security Council resolution, and Straw added that "France simply can't cope with the fact that America is also intellectually and scientifically dominant".
Blair had desperately wanted that second resolution. Throughout all our meetings it was advanced by him as the reason for not binding his hands too early, as it was with the cabinet and the PLP. On 28 January 2003, after Dennis Skinner had told Blair "This will be the biggest mistake you'll ever make", and others had argued that the Europeans were demanding more time for Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors, Blair said: "The inspectors can only interview scientists in the presence of 'friends' from the Iraqi security service. Backing down over Iraq will make it more difficult to deal with North Korea next." But he remained optimistic about a second UN resolution, believing that this would win members over.
Back during the September 2002 Labour Party Conference, amid scenes of high tension and low farce, Blair had argued against my first resolution opposing military intervention unless it had the backing of the UN. According to the minutes, he "argued passionately for keeping the option of unilateral military action by the United States and Britain, in case other countries blocked the move in the UN Security Council". I was determined that the Labour conference would vote on the resolution, and if anyone doubted the significance that Blair saw in this, he said: "The NEC statement will be studied around the world and Saddam will exploit any signs of division."
An alternative set of words was eventually proposed by the leadership, which stated "that military action should only be taken in the last resort and within the context of international law and with the authority of the United Nations". There was a cigarette paper's worth of wriggle room between wresting power from the UN and allowing for more time to get the UN to come around. Even so, Blair's own words on "unilateral action" should have set alarm bells ringing. As that debate began, and a succession of hand-picked speakers, one of whom accused us of "being appeasers and guilty of making orphans of the sons and daughters of Cyprus servicemen", Charles Clarke confronted Christine Shawcroft and myself, and asked that we withdraw the motion altogether. We didn't, and lost.
So does all of this matter? The world has moved on. Iraq is no longer ruled by a despot, and there are regular elections and a free press. The denied motive of regime change has been practically fulfilled. Blair is no longer prime minister and, while the promised road map to peace in Israel/Palestine was stillborn, he continues to act as a peace envoy in the region. Minutes of long-forgotten NEC meetings in soulless seaside hotel rooms are probably far from his mind.
Yet Blair, the ex-lawyer, rested his arguments on legality, while apparently forestalling on purpose any attempts to get him to seek the advice of those responsible for upholding the rule of international law, especially once the prospect of a second UN resolution had receded. Sir John Chilcot might ask a simple question of him: "Is that because you knew the answer already?" And what of those cabinet ministers and opposition leaders who stood by him, some of whom now have reservations about what they did and said at the time, or those who put the "dodgy dossier" together or, worse still, knew what was going on, but chose to sit on their hands? Does all the blame for Britain's involvement in Iraq now simply rest on the shoulders of Tony Blair?
Presumably it does all still matter; otherwise there would not be an inquiry. It matters for other reasons, too. Thousands of Iraqis have died and suffered unimaginable hardships, and while Iraq may now be more stable, the bulk of its minorities, including many of the original inhabitants of Mesopotamia, the Assyrian Christians, have fled. Islamist extremism was fuelled by the war, and terrorism is more menacing because of it. Britain, sometimes seen as a force for good in the Muslim world, is now regarded in an altogether different light. This legacy may not be for Sir John Chilcot and his team to ponder, but in attempting to get to the facts, the deluge of government documents cannot be allowed to obfuscate the central truths and the obvious – very simple – questions.
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