He was defiant and unrepentant – he even made a few people sob in disgust – but there he was on Friday, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, sitting for a six-hour public inquest on his role in taking England down the bloody path to war seven years ago this March.
Pity is, the chances of getting George W. Bush to take a similar hot seat here in the United States seem only slightly better than seeing Martians land a flying saucer on the National Mall.
The Iraq Inquiry is Britain’s latest of four investigations into the fateful 2003 decision to go to war. It may be the most wide-ranging yet, as its mission is to explore the "lessons learned" from the run-up to the invasion through the aftermath and subsequent occupation. The investigation, also known as "The Chilcot Inquiry" after chairman Sir John Chilcot, began hearing publicly from witnesses in November, with Blair (the 69th witness), the biggest cheese on the platter.
Unfortunately, what he offered Friday was no less stinky than in previous inquiries.
In other words, Blair did not wander from his inveterate conviction that deposing Saddam Hussein without UN approval was the responsible thing to do because Saddam was a bad man who violated all previous UN resolutions and the world is now a better place without him. Before leaving, Blair said he had "no regrets" but took "responsibility." He dismissed earlier testimony by former members of his government that the invasion was illegal. He talked up the nuclear threat even as he acknowledged that the intelligence that Saddam had acquired weapons of mass destruction was wrong.
Blair even suggested he would do it again. He was heckled a bit as he left the London hearing room, and the weeping of loved ones left behind by dead British soldiers must have felt inescapable, even to "Teflon Tony."
"He is, some might argue, delusional," Mehdi Hasan, senior political editor for The Statesman, wrote to me in an e-mail. "And seven years on from Iraq, and nearly three years on from leaving office, he seems to have become even more hawkish, with constant and often distracting references to the supposed ‘threat’ from Iran today."
So ended what many had hoped would be a game-changing day in the reckoning of Tony Blair. Though that didn’t quite happen, more than anything, his appearance did cap a week of fascinating testimony regarding the legality of the invasion, and Blair’s star power allowed it all to run its course in the fickle 24-hour news cycle. Word is, Blair may be asked to return to address some seemingly contradictory information offered by his former aides.
There was Sir Michael Wood, who before the war served as the Foreign Service Office’s senior legal adviser. He told the panel last week that he repeatedly warned that going to war without UN approval would constitute "a crime of aggression" in international law. A series of documents relating to these exchanges was released to the Chilcot panel and revealed that entreaties to his boss, then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, were soundly rebuffed. Allegedly, all the lawyers in Wood’s office felt the same way – that going to war would be a legal disaster.
Elizabeth Wilmshurst, Wood’s deputy who resigned on the eve of the March 2003 invasion in protest, told the Chilcot panel last week that she believed the war was "illegal" and that the prospect of going to war without a UN resolution was considered a "nightmare scenario" throughout the Foreign Office. "All the lawyers … were of the same view."
Meanwhile, Lord Peter Goldsmith, attorney general under Blair, was forced last week to explain why up until a month before the invasion, he too had questioned the legality of going to war without a second UN resolution. Documents suggest he didn’t altogether buy the "self-defense" argument being made by Blair and his aides. But suddenly, he had changed his mind in favor of the more aggressive track (some speculate he was manhandled by Bush’s people on an eleventh-hour trip, and then put under "thumbscrews" by Blair and Straw).
In addition, the Chilcot panel heard damning testimony in January from military officials who have suggested that political considerations got in the way of proper military preparations – including delays in equipment like body armor – and that then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, now prime minister, had demanded a cut in the defense budget at the time, hindering the supply of much-needed helicopters to the battlefield. The Brits have lost 179 soldiers in Iraq; critics say better equipment could have saved some of them. Gordon is expected to testify in the next two months, ahead of the national elections.
A lot of exciting developments, it would seem, but for many, the reckoning has yet to come. There is still hope, says filmmaker and critic Armondo Iannucci:
"Despite the disastrous failings of intelligence, the obvious lack of preparedness and the horrendous whiff of deceit, no one so far has apologized or got sacked. Heads did not roll; they got knighted. Now, it seems, Chilcot is coming closer to fingering culprits, in full view of the media and the curious and occasionally aggrieved public."
Don’t know much about any of this? Not surprising, because the American mainstream media has practically blacked-out the story on this side of the pond. It’s amazing, after seven years and a growing reservoir of evidence that the Bush administration deliberately manipulated intelligence and the emotions of the American public to invade Iraq – for which it had no comprehensive plan to stabilize or reconstruct – the corporate press is still doing its best impression of the debauched idiots in The Hangover:
Stu: "Why don’t we remember a G**damn thing from last night?"
Phil: "Obviously because we had a great f**king time."
When the press isn’t treating us all like morning-after marshmallows who would prefer a cold-compress of Sarah Palin and updates of The View on the head to a clinical X-ray of how the Bush White House marched our nation into a trillion-dollar war of choice, it takes on a gratingly condescending tone. In fact, the media view jibes quite well with the standard Republican spin: that any criticism or inquiry into party-supported policies from 2001 to 2009 is "looking backward" or "rehashing the past," or worse, "we’ve been there, done that," when really, no, there hasn’t been any "been there, done that," not anything compared to what’s going on in London right now.
Now, no one is saying the British inquiry will provide the catharsis, much less the accountability, everyone is craving. Not even the most hopeful of British commentators expected Blair (pronounced "Bliar" by the protesters outside) to experience a come-to-Jesus (Allah?) moment, or reliable Blair loyalists like Alastair Campbell or Peter Goldsmith to suddenly turn coat. The Iraq Inquiry can’t bring dead soldiers back. It can’t even hold anyone to account in any legal sense – unless you count the court of public opinion.
It is inherently flawed, say tougher critics.
"The Chilcot panel is simply not up to this task," complained Hasan. "It has failed to hold several witnesses to account – chief among them, Mr. Blair. The questioning lacks forensic precision, lacks rigor, and lacks follow-ups."
But let’s talk about why the inquiry is positive. First, it’s good to see people angry again. And asking questions. And declassifying letters and reports. Since the Downing Street Memo was leaked in 2005, there has been a stream of revelations about deals "signed in blood" between Bush and Blair and the lengths both administrations went to make sure everyone drank the Kool-Aid of preventive war. Now, despite efforts by the pusillanimous political elite here in the U.S. to sleep it off, the Brits recognize that history is recording now, and instead of letting previous, more narrow inquiries be the last word, they are resigned to "rehashing" the past until they get things right – for the sake of the future.
Wrote the Telegraph editors this weekend:
"Indeed, it matters little that Mr. Blair will never be persuaded he was mistaken. That is not the task of the Chilcot Inquiry, as its chairman was at pains to emphasize at the outset. It is not to make findings of guilt, as many of Mr. Blair’s detractors would like; it is to learn the lessons of what, if anything, went wrong so that a future government will avoid making the same errors. To that end, this has been a seminal week for the governance of the nation."
Close your eyes and imagine for a second Paul Wolfowitz, followed by Douglas Feith, Scooter Libby, Bill Luti, Stephen Hadley, David Wurmser, Richard Perle, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove all compelled to sit through a public grilling (at a garishly lit, cramped conference table in front of eager ticket-holders) about their roles in Iraq War planning. Then, for the pièce de résistance, imagine Dick Cheney and George W., six hours a piece, cameras rolling.
Bring in former Secretary of State Colin Powell and ask him about that two and a half hours he allegedly tried to persuade George W. Bush not to invade Iraq. Ask Powell about "Curveball," and how the evidence behind the so-called mobile weapons lab he talked-up in his infamous speech before the UN in 2003 was based on one allegedly alcoholic ham & egger Iraqi defector named Rafid Ahmed Alwan.
Bring in former CIA chief George Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin (whom President Obama ironically just put in charge of investigating the intelligence failures behind the foiled Christmas Day bombing), who assured Powell the claims about Saddam’s WMDs in that speech were sound. We know now that Curveball was a fraud, and scads of people in the CIA were warning about it before the speech. Tenet and McLaughlin have testified in previous interviews and best-selling memoirs that they never got the memos.
I say bring them back in and ask better questions.
But Curveball is just one character in a subplot threading its way through a much more complicated libretto, one of an administration unrelenting in its quest for regime-change in Iraq. The so-called Silberman-Robb Commission, much like the Brits’ earlier Butler Review, found that the pre-war intelligence was almost entirely wrong, but its narrow scope would not allow investigators to question whether political forces cherry-picked and manipulated the intelligence to make an exaggerated, misleading case for war.
A second investigation, "phase two" of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s look into prewar intelligence ("phase one" determined the intelligence was wrong), was supposed to determine whether the administration deliberately "sexed-up" the intelligence to sell the war. The Democrats and Republicans on the committee came to different conclusions about their own findings – released a few months before the 2008 presidential election – rendering it all pretty inconclusive, at least for public consumption, and it quickly melted away into the magma of the heated campaign.
Which let Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Feith, et al. off the hook, again. Today Feith and Tenet are writing books, and Cheney and Rove are flying around the country, questioning whether Obama is too "wobbly." Sadly, time is running out to finish what Silberman-Robb and other inquiries had just begun to uncover. We’re already seeing the repercussions of our negligence, the lessons already lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, and in the seemingly unavoidable confrontation with Iran.
"I’m not surprised that the United States has failed to hold a wider inquiry," Hasan wrote to me, "especially given the fact that the current Democratic president doesn’t want to pick a fight with Republicans over the past and has pledged to look forward, and not back. I honestly can’t imagine any scenario under which George W. Bush comes out of retirement from his home to testify. … In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with Bob Woodward’s books."
That should be enough "hair of the dog" to shake anyone out of a stupor.