Well, sadly, I couldn’t take my laptop into the auditorium, so it’s all written notes. You might as well head over to the Guardian Iraq Inquiry website for the live blog there. It’s the best one out there. So before I start watching the talking heads give their analysis, or, even worse, that of other Labour Party hacks (Margaret Beckett is droning on right now on Sky–anyone who lives in the UK will know what a dreaded prospect that is) here are some observations.
It was a bit surreal, in fact–the Alternative Viewing Facility turns out to be the large auditorium in the Queen Elizabeth II Center where the inquiry is being held. There must have been 800 people in there, not many of them likely to have been on Blair’s side. All very well behaved, I must say–and a really broad age range, Clearly a lot of people had taken time off from work, as I had. This was important. It’s like being in the Iraq marches in 2002 and 2003–there was a need to bear witness, and this was one of those occasions that required it. Chilcot, to his credit, understands this, I think. It goes without saying that neither Tony Blair nor the current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown (who testifies next month) wanted this inquiry. There were lots of demonstrators outside, of course, but there seemed to be even more police.
So what did we learn? Aside from the fact that Blair remains self-righteous and sanctimonius, supremely confident in the correctness of his own judgment, and incapable of learning from experience. So anyone expecting anything close to regrets or an apology was probably disappointed, but ultimately not surprised. It’s actually quite scary how much Blair resembles Bush in temperament–they each have a very simple view of the world, and are not afraid to act upon it. And Blair does have a simple view of the world, although he does have the ability to present it with enough dross hanging off of it that people can be taken in–as many Labour voters and politicians will attest. So today, we got the simple story for why things went wrong–Al Quaida and Iran, both mentioned a dozen times at least.
So in terms of the committee, I thought that Lyne was actually the most impressive, although kudos to Baroness Prashar for not letting Blair interrupt her, and for shutting him up when it needed to be done. Much of the questioning over the legality of the war, and how that decision was reached, took place this morning, but Lyne did an admirable job of summarizing the state of play up to Lord Goldsmith’s change of mind the week before the invasion. And he led Blair into a trap so elegant Blair didn’t even see it coming, and even now may not realize how badly he has been compromised on this issue. For what Lyne made very clear was that the legal opinion that Goldsmith came up with was one that allowed Blair to make the decision to take Britain to war unilaterally–just when Blair needed it–in spite of Blair’s throwaway comment that if the opinion had been the reverse, of course everything would have stopped, and there would have been no invasion. Right. Because what Goldsmith came up with was an opinion that stated that, contrary to the Foreign and Colonial Office’s view that a decision that Saddam was in breech of Security Council Resolution 1441 could only be determined by the Security Council, meant rather that this decision could be taken by individual countries. Which, conveniently, was the view of the legal eagles in the Bush administration. Lyne also kept returning to the point that this was an opinion that was not then, nor is it now, accepted by practically anyone in the international law community. This, of course, does not bother Blair in the least. Pretty neat, actually–Goldsmith provided Blair with his own legal defense. That’s what a good lawyer will do for you.
In spite of repeated assurances by the broadcast media this evening that Blair performed wonderfully, I don’t think he did. He looked stressed, and while his answers were occasionally fluid and practiced, assured even, often he was groping. Like when Lyne, and Baroness Prashar, and even Chilcot, made it clear that they were not about to accept the notion that the post-invasion problems associated with the occupation were caused solely by Al Quaida and Iran. What no one could have expected, Blair kept stating, was that Iran would get involved in trying to screw up the reconstruction. No one could have possibly predicted, etc. This was greeted by skeptical questions about whether or not there had been a serious risk assessment of the whole process. Oh, there was, Blair assured us, many of them. Well, why didn’t they anticipate this, commissioners wondered? Well, because Al Quaida and Iran etc. Nor were they impressed with Blair’s occasional non-answers, such as to the question of wouldn’t it have been a good idea if the US had notified Britain of Paul Bremner’s decision to shut down the Baathist party and disband the army before the fact–a decision that created a whole boatload of problems for the occupying forces, and which placed Britain, which had a certain legal responsibility as joint occupier or Iraq, in a quandary. Or Abu Graibh. Or any of the other interesting developments of April 2004. Blair kept trying to take things to now, and how much better it all is these days, but the committee wasn’t having much of this.
Blair was sort of useless on major stuff, not telling us anything he hasn’t already said many times before. But there were moments when a larger truth emerged, such as his basic non-response to being ignored on major US Iraq policy decisions, like disbanding the Iraqi army, or Abu Graibh. And this leads to one of Blair’s major flaws–his obsequiousness to the US. Because one of the things that has emerged forcefully in testimony the past several weeks has been Blair’s concern about–indeed, devotion to–the alliance with the US. We’ve written about it before, and how this entanglement has meant considerable grief to the UK at times, without much in return. But this doesn’t seem to bother Blair. Members of the committee, I suspect, were probably as surprised as the rest of this at Blair’s blithe unconcern with not being informed about major US decision making. For example, it’s pretty clear now–and has been for a number of years–that a considerable amount of the Iraq disaster can be laid squarely at the feet of the lack of interest in–in fact, complete unconcern with–planning for much of anything beyond the invasion by the Bush administration. This thought never appears to cross Blair’s mind, for whom the problems with the occupation are purely the result of Al Quaida and Iran. But it’s also indicative of another of Blair’s major flaws–his cowardice. Blair undoubtedly sees himself engaged in some sort of heroic struggle with the forces of darkness. The reality is that he couldn’t stand up to Bush–and will be dogged by this for the rest of his life, which perhaps explains his escape into the strange reality he inhabits.
I was a bit surprised at the lack of discussion of regime change, about which nothing was said during the afternoon session, presumably because Blair backed off his earlier comments on this issue. That was about the only thing he backed off on, though. He has no regrets, not one. He would do it all again. Because Blair’s world is binary. Hence his repeated insistence that if he hadn’t gone to war, Saddam would undoubtedly be pursuing WMD and competing with Iran on the nuclear front. Blair’s worldview allows no other options–ether invade Iraq to remove Saddam, or face a future where our very fates are hostage to Saddam’s madman whims. That there might be other alternatives does not even cross his mind. And this was the case in 2003, clearly–either invade Iraq, or Saddam would win and the US and UK would lose. That there might have been other alternatives is never given a second thought. Reality, for Blair, is never troubling, because it’s always binary–the notion that there might be subtlety, nuance or complications is never tolerated. It’s just not possible that the world is complicated–for every problem, there’s a simple Blair solution. Too bad he hasn’t figured out the mideast yet. But I’m sure the clients of JP Morgan and that hedge fund, and his students at Yale, are thrilled to receive this deeply informed wisdom from time to time. Because the world is actually a simple, uncomplicated place, and there’s always a simple Blairite explanation for why things don’t quite work out as planned.
Which is why, at the end when he gave his defense of his actions without a shadow of a doubt, you could tell that he believed every word of it. This is a man who genuinely believes that the world is a better place because he went to war. This is one genuinely scary guy.