Friday, February 5, 2010


Tony Blair is a great showman - the most talented actor-politician of modern times, with the exception of Bill Clinton.
All his skills of presentation and manipulation were on display on Friday when he appeared before the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war.
Tanned and wearing make-up, his hair thinner and much greyer than during his last days as Prime Minister, he performed brilliantly.
But it was a performance all the same.
He was in control, as fluent and articulate as when he was making the case for war in 2002.
He seemed to have the five committee members just where he wanted them - feebly starstruck, helpless to challenge or wound.
Blair spoke with the zeal of a man who believed that he had done the right thing. "Saddam was a monster," he said. "A threat to the world."
At the end of the long day's questioning, Blair was asked by Sir John Chilcot, the Whitehall mandarin heading up the inquiry, whether he had any regrets.
Any person of compassion would have said that he regretted the deaths of the 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq as well as more than 100,000 Iraqis.
But Blair turned his answer into another extended riff of self-justification.
We have learned important lessons about nation-building, he said, as well as about the threat posed by Iran and al-Qaeda.
Sir John pushed him again: "So no regrets?" No, Blair said.
Chilcot is the fourth inquiry into the Iraq war. That there have been so many, each exploring much the same territory, is testament to the war's bitter legacy.
For the Americans, the war was never about whether or not Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction.
It was about "regime change", clear and simple.
It was about the taking out of an enemy of the US and of the US's strategic Middle East ally, Israel - an enemy that also happened to be an oil-rich state.
The al-Qaeda attacks of September 11 2001 on New York's Twin Towers had created the conditions in which the Americans could complete the unfinished business of the first Gulf War of 1991 and topple the despised Saddam. Post-war British foreign policy has been predicated upon our being America's number one ally.
But Blair was not compelled to support the Bush regime so unequivocally.
After all, in the 60s Labour premier Harold Wilson rightly refused to send British troops to fight in Vietnam, as Australia did.
No, Blair chose the course of war because in his view "it was the right thing to do", and because he believed himself to be on a kind of divine mission.
Remember how at the Labour Party conference of 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks, he had spoken of how the time was right to reorder the world.
"This is a moment to seize," he said. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux.
"Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder the world around us..."
Our soldiers are still dying in distant lands because of Blair's messianic dream of reordering the world through bloodshed rather than seeking the disarmament of Iraq through consensus and the United Nations.
Blair will go to his grave believing that history will judge him kindly. "I'm ready to meet my Maker and answer for those who have died as a result of my decisions," he has said.
But he will never escape censure on this Earth. He exaggerated the threat that Saddam posed to the UK.
His actions brought Islamic terrorism to our streets.
He took Britain into its worst foreign policy disaster since the then Suez crisis in 1956.
And the war resulted in a breakdown of trust between the people and the politicians - between those who govern and the rest of us.
That is a terrible legacy.
How badly will Labour be hurt by Chilcot? I don't think it will make very much difference to their present position or to Gordon Brown.
For a start, the party has learned the lessons of Iraq and, under Foreign Secretary David Miliband, has a new multilateral foreign policy.
In the end, the Iraq war was, above all else, Blair's war.
Brown as Chancellor might have signed the cheques to fund it, but ultimately Blair is culpable.
I'm sure his Maker is looking forward to that conversation.

By Jason Cowley, Editor of New Statesman

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