By electing left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the membership of the British Labour Party has finally repudiated its former leader, Tony Blair. The event that contributed most to the party’s loss of faith in Blair was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially the lies Blair told to justify that war.
Those lies are going to be the focus of attention once again when the official Chilcot inquiry into the war finally reports. On 15 September, families of British soldiers who died in the invasion and occupation of Iraq demanded that the Chilcot report be published by the end of the year. (Some observers have warned that hurrying the publication of the report may damage the process, as the Chilcot investigators have only just learned of some important memos. De-classifying these documents could take many months.)
The Chilcot report will have some value in that it will de-classify a number of previously-secret documents (including communications between Blair and then-president George W Bush). However, we can be pretty sure that the inquiry (made up of Privy Councillors, establishment insiders) will not ask some of the more difficult questions. We can be confident, in fact, that it will reinforce official propaganda and mystification around the Iraq war.
Noam Chomsky has warned of the establishment critics who practise what he terms ‘feigned dissent’. Such mainstream critics oppose state or corporate policies on tactical grounds, while sharing unstated but crucial assumptions with their ‘opponents’. In the case of the Iraq war in 2003, one common way of practising ‘feigned dissent’ was to take the position that ‘war was not justified because weapons of mass destruction (WMD) did not exist in Iraq’.
This stand implied that it would be legitimate to invade an official enemy simply because it possessed WMD. This use of force is not accepted in the international laws of war, or in any treaties on chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry.
According to mainstream ‘anti-war’ opinion, the main charge against George W Bush and Tony Blair was that they twisted the evidence about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and went to war on a lie. There is much more that can be said on this score, points which are left out of the standard mainstream critique, and which we can be sure will not figure in the Chilcot report.
It is, for example, clearly the case that the U.S. government deliberately set out to undermine and destroy the international weapons inspectors when they became an obstacle to war – and that the British government colluded with this process.
When Hans Blix, head of the UNMOVIC weapons inspection agency, started giving more positive reports on the Iraqi government’s co-operation on disarmament, the U.S. started briefing against the inspectors.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in January 2003: ‘The question isn’t how much longer do you need for inspections to work. Inspections will not work.’
Powell told the U.N. Security Council in February 2003: ‘The issue before us is not how much time we are willing to give the inspectors to be frustrated by Iraqi obstruction but how much longer are we willing to put up with Iraq’s non-compliance before we, as a council, we, as the United Nations, say, “Enough. Enough.”‘
Britain played its role in this rubbishing of the inspectors. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in February 2003: ‘Instead of open admissions and transparency, we have a charade, where a veneer of superficial co-operation masks wilful concealment…. there is only one possible conclusion: Iraq is in further material breach’ of its disarmament obligations.
On 7 March 2003, Blix reported that Iraq, far from being in ‘non-compliance’, was co-operating in a number of ways. Among other things, 34 medium-range al-Samoud missiles had just been destroyed, along with two warheads, a launcher and five missile engines. Blix described this to the Security Council as ‘a substantial measure of disarmament – indeed, the first since the middle of the 1990s’. The UNMOVIC chief said that Iraq’s ‘numerous initiatives’ could be seen as ‘active’ or even ‘proactive’.
Colin Powell described these actions instead as ‘the appearance of disarmament, the semblance of co-operation’, ‘paltry gestures and paper promises’. Blair said: ‘We always thought this was likely to be part of the drip feed of concessions. This is how Saddam plays the concession game.’
The more Iraq co-operated, the more successful the inspectors were, the more hostile the U.S. and Britain were to the inspectors.
Crucially, contrary to Powell’s assertions, giving the inspectors time to inspect was, indeed, the question before the Security Council.
Back in 1999, when the U.N. Security Council set up UNMOVIC in Resolution 1284, it decided that the weapons inspectors should carry out a concentrated period of inspections. UNMOVIC and the nuclear inspectorate, the IAEA, were asked by that resolution to draw up ‘a work programme for the discharge of their mandates’, once they had re-established themselves in Iraq. (UN weapons inspectors had been withdrawn by the US in 1998, then refused re-admission after it was discovered that the CIA operators had infiltrated the inspection teams in order to help target facilities in air strikes.)
This work programme, according to UNSCR 1284, should spell out ‘the key remaining disarmament tasks to be completed by Iraq’, and each task should be ‘clearly defined and precise’.
The work programme was the single most important document the inspectors were asked to draw up. Implementing the programme would prove, as conclusively as humanly possible, whether or not Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Alternatively, if the work programme was disrupted or halted by the Iraqis, it would unambiguously prove that the Iraqis were refusing to co-operate with inspections.
Despite the fact that it was one of the authors of UNSCR 1284, the United States government in 2003 was determined to prevent the inspectors getting to work on the work programme. UNMOVIC finally circulated its Draft Work Programme to members of the U.N. Security Council on 17 March 2003. Formal presentation was to follow on 19 March, when the Security Council could have finally approved the work programme. This approval would have heralded a new and decisive phase of inspections – a period of ‘months’, not weeks or years, Hans Blix said on 7 March 2003.
If UNMOVIC had been allowed to secure this approval, it would have been politically impossible for the U.S. and Britain to have launched their war for months, possibly derailing war completely.
Instead, at 8pm on the evening of 17 March, just hours after UNMOVIC handed in the Draft Work Programme, Bush went on television to issue an ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – and to order the weapons inspectors and other foreign nationals out of the country.
The ‘clearly defined and precise’ key disarmament tasks had just been drafted. The exam board (the U.N. Security Council) had just received the proposed examination paper. The U.S., with crucial help from Britain, chose this moment to lock out the exam board, dismiss the invigilators, and drive a tank through the exam hall – while declaring that the student had failed.
We can be pretty sure this is not a story that Chilcot is going to tell.
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