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BFCSA: Chilcot Report: The mind-boggling incompetence of Bush, Blair and Howard laid bare

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Chilcot Report: The mind-boggling incompetence of Bush, Blair and Howard laid bare

Sydney Morning Herald July 7, 2016 - 4:37AM

Paul McGeough Chief foreign correspondent


The three buccaneers took leave of their senses in invading Iraq – George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard.

The former British Prime Minister earns a rare place in history's crosshairs as one of just two on the planet who might have stopped crazy man Bush – the other being Bush's hapless Secretary of State, Colin Powell. By not restraining the US president, each was an enabler in Washington's worst-ever foreign policy blunder.

And the Australian PM? Howard's was a bit part, but it was important – as the patsy from Down Under, his eagerness to sign on made it possible for Bush to dress up his miscalculated need to go after Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as an imposing "Coalition of the Willing".

Now the arrogance – Donald Trump would call it stupidity – of this trio, in unleashing their mind-boggling incompetence on the world, is revealed in a damning critique by the Chilcot Report, which was released in London on Wednesday.

Chilcot can write as he does, because of the exhaustive, forensic nature of his seven years' work – and I can concur because for much of the last 15 years I have seen, first-hand, the brutal impact of their ignorance and indifference, in particular, on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan; and consequentially, on populations great and small, from the Mediterranean all the way to the Hindu Kush.

Chilcot's unambiguous findings include:

•There was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein

•A strategy of containment was preferable to military intervention

•There was no justified certainty to London's judgments on the severity of any threat imposed by Iraq's WMD

•Blair was warned explicitly, but chose to underestimate the consequences of the 2003 invasion

•Planning for managing post-Saddam Iraq was inadequate

In all of Chilcot's 12 volumes that comprise 2.6 million words, just a few hundred words in Blair's "I will be with you, whatever…" letter to Bush are as self-incriminating as they are revealing.

Written in July 2002, the missive reveals that Blair was not as green as he was cabbage-looking. At the same time, that mawkish opening line reveals a man more smitten by power and the lure of a yes-man role at Washington's table than at any European confab, where French and German opposition to the invasion might have challenged Blair's misplaced certainties.

Incredibly, in putting pen to paper, Blair was able to identify all that could go wrong – "Suppose it got militarily tricky…suppose Iraq suffered unexpected civilian casualties… suppose the Arab Street finally erupted… suppose the Iraqis feel ambivalent about being invaded and real Iraqis… decide to offer resistance… suppose… that any difficulties are magnified and seized on by hostile international opinion. …The possibility of unintended consequences will persist through and beyond the military phase."

The one misplaced "suppose" in Blair's letter was this: "suppose Saddam… let off WMD."

Blair further reveals his limited understanding of the region, with his cocky assertion that "[Saddam's] departure would free up the region" – how's that that working for you, Tony?

And then there's that reference to "real" Iraqis – accidental, surely? What did Blair mean – as opposed to the flaky flaks like the discredited Ahmed Chalabi, whom the Americans thought they could parachute in to run the place?

Blair's oft-stated defence that it was impossible to predict the post-invasion chaos in Iraq gets short shrift in Chilcot's withering judgment – "we do not agree that hindsight is required – the risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and al-Qaeda activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion.

Blair, worldly and all as he is, seemingly is unaware that all that he has said over the years is archived.

So how does he square his insistence this week that Saddam's removal is not the cause of today's terrorism in the Middle East and beyond; with his assessment, volunteered in a CNN interview last year, that the invasion helped give rise to the so-called Islamic State, a terrorist movement that is the current iteration of the Sunni resistance that rose against US-led forces in Iraq in 2003?

In riveting detail, Chilcot describes how Blair overestimated any influence he might have had on Bush – and his abject failure to restrain the president. Chilcot's subtext is clear – the only way to achieve that, might have been to have kept Bush at arm's length and for the British leader to have publicly taken his own people into his confidence publicly, more so than he shared his private confidences with Bush.

At the time, Blair's critics denounced him as "Washington's poodle" – Chilcot seemingly agrees, citing lessons for Britain, including "all aspects" of military intervention "need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigor;" and once made, decisions "need to be implemented fully".

Suggesting it would have been more heroic for Blair to disagree with Bush, Chilcot dryly observes that history reveals the genuine strength of the US-British relationship and the absence of any need for "unconditional support where our interests or judgments differ." 

Giving Blair a history lesson, Chilcot points out that the UK had differed with the US on Suez, Vietnam, the Falklands, Granada, Bosnia, the Arab/Israel crisis and Northern Ireland – all with no lasting impact on the partnership.

Enumerating all the actions that Blair ought to have taken, Chilcot stopped short of an accusation that as prime minister, Blair had no balls. Couching his real meaning more delicately, he says that Britain took "false comfort" in the strength of the trans-Atlantic relationship, but found itself ignored repeatedly – and did little or nothing about it.

Despite all Blair's fawning, Bush treated him with contempt – London was given no role in the Coalition Provisional Authority, which initially ran post-invasion Iraq; and its request that Washington sign a memorandum of understanding on how the occupation was to be conducted was fobbed off.

Chilcot reveals too, the shallowness and fearfulness that underpinned Blair's diplomacy, with a statement of the obvious – "The opposition of France and Germany to the war in Iraq does not appear to have had a lasting impact on the relationships of those countries with the US, despite the bitterness at the time."

Defenders of the Iraq invasion invoke all kinds of justifications – and some have a certain logic.

But here's the thing – if those justifications were the benchmark for must-do, morally or humanitarian-based interventions around the globe, we could be invading a different country each month. Chilcot make the point that were that the rationale to be applied, the assessment at the time of British intelligence was that Iran, North Korea and Libya were greater threats than Iraq, in terms of the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

The truth is that this trio wanted to invade Iraq because they thought it would be easy. It was never a sensible response to the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington, but they figured it would teach the rest of an uppity world a lesson on the extent of American power – instead we were shown the limits of American power.

Chilcot's report resonates hugely today – as the world grapples with the inordinate terror threat of the so-called Islamic State, the report is a reminder that it was the invasion of Iraq that spawned IS; and as Americans consider their vote in the upcoming presidential election, Chilcot's chilling analysis might move some to consider if they can vote for Hillary Clinton, who so enthusiastically backed the absurd Bush-Blair adventure in Mesopotamia.

And outrage upon outrage, while the British have had the good sense to investigate and, hopefully, to learn from their mistakes; Americans will have none of that loser-ish introspection.

They invest an unrelenting investigative effort into the Hillary Clinton emails and the Benghazi debacle, in which just four Americans died, but they leave untouched, their two wars of invasion in which, cheered on and abetted by Tony Blair and John Howard, two populations swapped the chaos and injustice they knew to be their lot in life for the an alternate chaos and injustice that was all the more shocking because, the buccaneers had promised dignity, prosperity and democracy.

But in Iraq alone, where there is quibbling on any precise figure, the average of seven scientific and/or body-count tallies of the dead in the wake of the invasion, is more than 382,000. The region and the world are at the mercy of a terrorist movement that for ghoulishness attempts to outstrip al-Qaeda, whose 9/11 attacks begat the invasion of Iraq.

Thousands of US and other coalition soldiers died in combat in Iraq – but no Australians. I've often wondered if an understanding was reached with the Americans – in return for Canberra's early commitment to the invasion, Australian forces would be kept out of harm's way as they were for much of the conflict by being tucked away, deep in Iraq's southwest.

But in that, perhaps I'm guilty of a condition of which Blair complained in his Wednesday press conference. Blair's point was to lament a modern "addiction" to believing the worst of everyone – it seemed not to have occurred to the former prime minister that conduct such as his feeds the addiction.


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