Monday, 27 January 2014

COMMENTARY: Blair’s Instincts on Iraq Were Woefully Wrong

One of the striking images in recent television drama history was arguably that of a fictionalised Tony Blair being arrested and flown off to the International Court of Justice to face the charge of being a war criminal.

Alistair Beaton’s satirical ‘The Trial of Tony Blair’ was a biting look at what could happen to the former prime minister whose legacy ultimately appears to be inextricably tied to his role as the key decision-maker in committing the British armed forces to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The fact that this decision was predicated on the highly publicised but false allegation that the regime of Saddam Hussein had a stockpile of Weapons of Mass Destruction and was an action undertaken in circumstances where many of the key players involved in formulating Resolution 1441 have gone on record to assert did not, to quote the then serving  British ambassador to the UN, contain  “automaticity" and "hidden triggers” which would lead to military action, have made Blair the seemingly enduring subject of public controversy and inquiry.

He has been subjected to the most devastating forms of moral obloquy emanating from religious clerics to anonymous Internet trolls.  Some of his public appearances have been subjected to the most extraordinary disruptions. In 2012 whilst giving a speech at the University of Hong Kong, he was threatened with arrest by a Briton who claimed that he was liable for “crimes against peace.” 

The same year, while giving evidence at a public inquiry, an intruder approached him and branded him a “war criminal”; adding the unproven allegation that Blair had received a multi-million pound bribe to make the decision to go to war.

More recently, while dining out with members of his family, he faced an attempted citizen’s arrest undertaken by an ordinary bartender, one Twiggy Garcia, who had been inspired by a website named

But has Blair been hard done by? Is it all overkill, and to quote a journalist recently writing for the London Evening Standard newspaper, “disproportionate”?  That opinion article was after all prompted by the aforementioned attempted citizen’s arrest.

It was an event which some may have found distasteful because Garcia’s actions, in their line of reasoning might be construed as the trivialisation of a serious matter, or, alternately, as the progression to the near extremities of an unjustified atmosphere, conducive to his seemingly perpetual demonization, which over the years has been built around the reputation of the former prime minister.

For instance, one of the most enduring of photo-shopped items to have made the rounds on Internet discussion forums, blogs and avatar images of choice has a joyful Blair taking a ‘selfie’ with an enormous conflagration representing the destruction wrought by the Iraq war in the background.

It has often seemed to have taken on the appearance of an all too easy-to-join bandwagon in which any nondescript individual can have his or her say, or even go further than mere words.

The soon to be released report based on an inquiry by Sir John Chilcot –five years in the making- promises to bring his decision yet again squarely into public focus.

The results may likely not satisfy those on either side of the argument, but it will be interesting to see were the discourse will head: Will the narrative ultimately be that of Blair the good; a useful ally of an American nation in pain over the infliction wrought by the falling of the twin towers or Blair the dupe; the useful idiot in an enterprise which was hatched years before by US policymakers?

For some, the ramifications of Blair’s decision to join in the attack on Iraq are to be considered to have been one of those difficult decisions to have been made by a statesman and about which opinion may remain divided but without rancour.

This view is justified specifically given the supposedly amorphous qualities of international law.

To others, Blair got off lightly from a colossal deed which sealed the fate of hundreds of thousands; perhaps millions. He has not been brought to account and is effectively a ‘fugitive’ from justice.

Mr. Garcia is not alone holding such sentiments. Indeed, he is in distinguished company.

After his retirement and been shorn of the straightjacket of the constitutional convention which demands a strict neutrality in regard to political issues, the late Lord Tom Bingham, once the senior law lord, criticised the decision to go to war in Iraq as having been “a serious violation of international law.”

As it happens, so too have eminent figures in the legal establishments of both the United Kingdom and the United States. Geoffrey Bindman Q.C., an expert in human rights law, and Professor Francis Boyle, an international law expert at the University of Chicago have gone on the record to say as much.

There have been a number of attempts geared towards making Blair legally accountable for his action. In 2002 for instance, efforts of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament through a judicial review to obtain a declaration that Resolution 1441 did not authorise military action against Iraq was rejected because the decision to take military action was “beyond the court’s purview”.

In other words, actions taken in defence of the realm are part of the Royal Prerogative and are thus non-justiciable. While inroads have been made in recent times to ensure that prerogative powers are in principle reviewable, the court was alluding to the fact that a number of powers exercised under this ancient mechanism are inherently political in nature and the judiciary would be compromised by intervening in matters of the like.

The legal action taken by CND, mounted before the actual decision was taken, serve to remind of the widespread concerns held about Blair’s urge to follow George Bush on this ill-fated foreign adventure.

Another application for judicial review based on human rights doctrine and the specific provision concerning the ‘right to life’ which is incorporated into United Kingdom legislation was also rejected four years later.

The applicants had asserted that the refusal to hold an independent inquiry into the deaths of British soldiers had breached a procedural obligation which itself followed on from the substantive breach in committing the British armed forces to an invasion and inevitable loss of life without taking reasonable steps to ensure that such invasion was lawful.

As has since been ascertained, Blair took the decision to go to war with a backdrop of the government’s legal advisor, Attorney-General  Peter Goldsmith’s opinion revolving form a firm ‘no’, to ‘doubts’ and to a ‘yes’.  To many, the journey to the final opinion smacked of political manipulation.

And manipulation was indeed the order of the day.  In a leaked memo, the serving head of MI6, the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom, Sir Richard Dearlove advised Blair that President Bush had resolved to attack Iraq even though the case for the existence of weapons of mass destruction was “thin”. Such lack of evidence would provide no barrier, Blair was further apprised because, according to Dearlove, “intelligence and facts were being fixed (by the United States) around the policy.”

Blair himself stood up before Parliament to assert that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme was “up and running”; following this with the infamous utterance that these weapons could be deployed “within 45 minutes”.

Through false leads which spanned supposed Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium from the West African country of Niger to the use of flawed intelligence provided by assets such as the Iraqi defector code-named ‘Curveball’, the spectrum of evidence which Tony Blair relied on to make this far reaching decision of state has been discredited beyond doubt.

So much so that what is left for defenders such as the Evening Standard columnist Matthew d’Ancona, is to defend Blair’s decision on the grounds that his “instincts” were right and that contemporary events in Syria prove this.

It is, of course, an arguable point as to whether intuition can validly form the basis of what should be the sober means involved in the expression of statecraft. But even if one were not to relegate it to a level akin to that of basing decisions of state on a reliance on horoscopic astrology, Blair’s instincts, or more accurately, his acts of contrivance, were surely woefully wrong and misplaced.

The regime of Saddam Hussein was already severely weakened by a UN administered embargo and a strictly enforced ‘no-fly zone’. This embargo ensured the scarcity of medicines and the subsequent deaths of half a million Iraqi children.

Blair’s cooperation in the subsequent invasion has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands –if not millions- emanating from the initial military incursion, the occupation and subsequent guerrilla war fought against the coalition forces as well as the de facto civil war which has intermittently raged between the Sunni and Shia communities to varying degrees of intensity.

This fratricidal conflict was aided by a United States-constructed policy of initiating death squads in the tried and tested manner of its Vietnam War-era Phoenix Program and the miscellaneous programs run by various Central America governments in the 1970s and 1980s.

A simple deductive analysis based on logic and a mathematical body count demonstrate that Iraq was a more stable country under the Saddam regime and that there is a severe imbalance between the amount of lives lost post-invasion compared to that during the Saddam era, ‘blood-thirsty’ dictator though he may have been.

Another matter which may not addle the conscience of Blair and his defenders is the rise in births of babies afflicted by congenital conditions which is the outcome of the use of chemical agents in the munitions utilised in the war and occupation.

The Nuremberg Principles refer to the “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances” and “participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment” of any of the aforementioned acts.

The ascertainable facts which form the background to the war in Iraq arguably point to a prima facie case for Tony Blair to answer in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

It is simply not good enough to argue that Blair should not be put in the same category as a Wilhelm Keitel and an Alfred Jodl because they were part of the totalitarian Nazi regime and Blair from a nation with traditions steeped in liberal democracy.

A person who robs another while enrobed in fineries is no different from one dressed with an eye mask and stripped jersey. A rogue is a rogue.

The Gleiwitz Incident, the precursor to the German invasion of Poland was a less sophisticated manufacture of a justification to wage war than offered by the Blair and Bush administrations prior to the commencement of conflict with the Saddam-led Iraq. But in both situations, the start of hostilities was predicated on a ruse and represented in each respect an abrogation of the international agreements guiding the handling of either issue.

Blair’s retort to his would be arrestor was to invoke the current conflict in Syria:

“Shouldn’t you be more concerned about Syria?” he is said to have told Mr. Garcia.

The implication here by Blair and his supporters is that the consequences of inaction may just be as perilous as is the case with taking positive action. Such arguments may also be suggestive of a ‘White Man’s Burden’-form of obligation on the West and as well as an inevitable ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’-form of repercussion.

As it turns out that conflict is one which could not have reached the present levels of depravity without the active overseeing of the West of the efforts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Turkey to arm Sunni extremists in the ongoing attempt to overthrow the secular government of President Bashar Al-Assad.  

The actions of the West have stimulated the Syrian Civil War which is aided by at least one group that is the legacy of Blair’s war in Iraq; the Al Qaeda-affiliated ‘Islamic State in Iraq’ brigade.

Part of the legacy of the War in Iraq has been an inflammation of the Sunni-Shia schism and the increasing marginalisation of Christian populations in Iraq and now Syria.

The evolving standards by which statesmen are judged for their decisions as regards the promulgation of international wars as well as the conduct of internal ‘Dirty Wars’ make it clear that Tony Blair’s decision which led to the deaths and mutilations of countless civilians and of the loss of 179 British military personnel in Iraq should not be treated as an unremarkable foreign policy decision on which people can merely offer polite agreement or disagreement.

Though the futile gesture of performing a citizen’s arrest on Blair may have fallen short of what is perceived to have been the ‘breakthrough’ action all those years ago when a British bobby solemnly placed the former Chilean head of state Augusto Pinochet under arrest in London, there are those who remain hopeful that the likes of Tony Blair will someday be held to account for having participated in the engineering of a war under false pretences.

The weight of moral logic and the existing corpus of jurisprudence demand that no less is the case.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2014)

Adeyinka Makinde lectures in Public Law at a university in London.