The Blair Years Part Four
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday, November 10 2016
The Moral Imperialist Messiah
When Blair visited Pristina in 2010, he appeared onstage with nine boys who were named after him. Tonibler Sahiti’s mother said: “I hope to God that he grows up to be like Tony Blair or just a fraction like him.” The NATO intervention in Kosovo, which owed much to Blair’s advocacy, is often seen as protecting Kosovo Albanians from genocide. However, SNP leader Alex Salmond called it “an unpardonable folly”. General Mike Jackson exhorted the troops, “with God on our side” “to protect the Albanian good guys from the murdering Serbs”. Days after Blair’s visit to Pristina, Albanian thugs began murdering Serbs.
Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull sees the apparent success in Kosovo as the beginning of Blair’s Messiah complex. “He is saving the world from evil”. While intervening in Kosovo, Blair declared during a speech in Chicago, (partly drafted by Lawrence Freedman, who was later a member of the Chilcot Inquiry) his “Doctrine of the International Community”. Blair advocated the use of foreign troops to protect a civilian population. This doctrine could have been used to intervene in Sri Lanka.
The civil war in Sierra Leone began on 23 March 1991 when the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) attempted to overthrow the elected government. Families were gunned down in the street, children and adults had their limbs hacked and women were raped.
Unarmed UN observers, including a small number of officers from the British Army and Royal Marines, were expected to monitor the Lomé Peace Accord signed in July 1999. The RUF did not honour the peace agreement, kidnapped UN personnel and seemed set to take over the whole country. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he expected the UK as the former colonial power, to intervene in Sierra Leone directly, rather than relying on the international community.
Blair described the Sierra Leone operation as one of the things of which he is most proud. Most of the inhabitants of Sierra Leone welcomed it. The motivation was altruistic and there was no strategic or commercial interest in the adventure. The proportionality of 5,000 troops and naval force being sent to deal with a small group of brutal drug dealers was not questioned at the time. Unfortunately, the Sierra Leone adventure was cited by Blair in his rationale for later deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Immediately after 9/11, Blair was very supportive of GW Bush. Although anxious to prevent the US taking precipitate and inappropriate action, Blair was also puzzled and frustrated by Bush’s initial invisibility and lack of response. Those in the know thought the 9/11 perpetrators might be hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban. At the first meeting of intelligence chiefs in the den at Number 10, Blair had looked a little ‘fuzzy’ at the mention of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. One official said, “I don’t think Blair knew much about al-Qaeda at this point. It was clear to me that he had not taken in earlier warnings”.
On October 7, 2001, the US, supported by allies, began an invasion of Afghanistan. A small contingent of British SAS soldiers supported American special forces who were guiding the US air force’s bombing raids. The Pentagon initially rejected Blair’s offer to send 6,000 troops. Tom Bower comments “Blair’s commitment was driven entirely by an untested philosophy, and he could not provide a definition of ‘victory’ that would end the war.” Six weeks after the bombing had begun, the Taliban were driven out of Kabul but they were not finished.
At the 2001 Labour Party Conference, Blair gave an impassioned speech in which he stated his case for moral imperialism and made a firm commitment to fighting alongside the US, whatever the cost. One Cabinet member described it as “the inaugural speech of the President of the World”. Andrew Rawnsley commented: “There was a disjunction between his admission that they couldn’t get the trains to run on time at home and his vaulting claim that they could heal the world of conflict, poverty and disease.”
Waiting for Chilcot
The entire 12-volume, 2.6million-word Chilcot Report into the invasion of Iraq is available online. I recommend readers to look at the report’s executive summary.
It was widely expected that the report would be a whitewash and the long delay (the process took seven years) in publishing the report caused suspicions. Previous inquiries related to Iraq – Hutton in 2003 and Butler in 2004 (of which Chilcot had been a member) – had been disappointing.
The five appointees who were tasked with disentangling events since 1998 did not inspire confidence. Tom Bower described one of them, Baroness Usha Prashar, as “an untalented quangoist, [who] fulfilled the requirement of diversity.” I worked with her when she was a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee in 1983 and do not recall ever hearing her contribute to a SSAC discussion. On the Chilcot panel she asked Blair questions about post-war Iraq but failed to follow up on his evasions, inaccuracies and contradictions.
Nevertheless, the Chilcot report was not a whitewash. It found that military action was not the last resort and that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence. The severity of the threat posed by Iraq, particularly the existence of weapons of mass destruction, was grossly overstated, and presented with a certainty that was not justified. Furthermore, the UK, which did not achieve its stated objectives in Iraq, did not prepare or plan for a post-Saddam Iraq.
Gerard Russell is an author and a former British and UN diplomat who spent 14 years representing Britain in the Middle East and served as a political officer in Afghanistan. He speaks fluent Arabic and Dari and assisted Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. He recently commented on the Chilcot Report in the New York Review of Books: “Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.” Russell concludes:” … occupying and trying to run a foreign country is a doomed endeavour.”
How not to Fight a War
David Manning, who was the British Ambassador to the US from 2003 to 2007, described to the Chilcot committee “a ring of secrecy” that Blair constructed. Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull realised that Blair and his chief of staff’s passion for speed and secrecy “was not a bad habit he and Powell had slipped into, but how they wanted to operate from the start”.
Turnbull was excluded from any discussions about Iraq as was Kevin Tebbitt the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. David Omand, the former head of GCHQ, who had been specifically appointed as the coordinator of security and intelligence in the Cabinet Office could not get Blair to talk, or listen, to him. In his book, Broken Vows, Tom Bower commented: “By excluding the MoD – and Tebbit’s background included seventeen years in the Foreign Office, then [Director of] GCHQ –Blair denied himself direct advice about the movement of manpower and the supply of equipment before and after the invasion.”
According to Andrew Turnbull, Blair was “less and less interested in hearing contrary opinions.” Cabinet meetings were desultory. During twenty-five meetings about the war, no official was summoned to write the minutes, and the papers submitted by the Cabinet Office outlining the options were not read. Blair did not enjoy a good relationship with senior military men upon whom he relied to implement his plans for Iraq. Michael Boyce, was succeeded as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in 2003 by Michael Walker. When military leaders asked for more manpower or equipment he said, “Go and ask Gordon”. Walker tried to get more helicopters but found Blair “inattentive”.
War with Brown
Officials were astonished that Blair “spent more time and effort managing the relationship with his Chancellor than on any other issue”. More on Gordon Brown next week.