Tony Blair Says Sorry (again)

The Chilcot Inquiry report really does look as though it’s only weeks away from publication,  and Blair already out apologising for Iraq once again.  Blair last did this back in October last year,  when it also looked as though Chilcot was coming, and he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

‘I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I also apologise, by the way, for some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime. But I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.’

This is an example of the ‘mistakes were made’ category of political apology, which the New York Times once described as a ‘classic Washington linguistic construct,  used by Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, among many others. According to the Times: ‘The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.’

This kind of apology allows those who make it to lie without actually lying, or share responsibility so amorphously that no one is actually responsible.  It can also serve to make those who make it seem better than they actually are, so that their ‘mistakes’ seem to be the product of overzealousness and good intentions.

Few people do this more easily than Blair, who cannot conceive of himself as anything less than a great man doing great things – even when the things he does turn out to be not that great after all.   So no one can be surprised that he’s at it again, telling an audience at a Prospect event yesterday:

‘For sure we underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region and would take advantage of change once you topple the regime. That is the lesson. The lesson is not complicated. The lesson is simple. It is that when you remove a dictatorship out come these forces of destabilisation whether it is al-Qaida on the Sunni side or Iran on the Shia side.’

There are so many lies in this seemingly humble statement of contrition that it’s difficult to know where to begin.   Firstly there are the references to the dark forces of evil that messed up what would otherwise have been a perfect success and a jolly good cricket tour.  Then there is that use of the first person plural, which suggests that everyone, and therefore no one shared the misconceptions that Blair appears to be taking responsibility for.

In these circumstances,  it’s worth recalling that there were plenty of people who did not ‘underestimate’ what would happen in Iraq, and who tried desperately to warn Blair of what would happen.   In his history of the Iraq war, Jonathan Steele describes how six academic experts on Iraq, the Middle East and international security were invited to Downing Street to give their views to the man himself.    According to Professor Charles Tripp, the author of a major history of Iraq: ‘ We all pretty much said the same thing.  Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don’t imagine that you’ll be welcomed.’

Tripp later recalled how Blair responded with the less-than-insightful observation of Saddam Hussein ‘ But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?’  Tripp later declared himself ‘ a bit nonplussed.  It didn’t seem to be very relevant’ and tried to explain to Blair that Saddam was ‘constrained by various factors.’

These arguments slid effortlessly off a man who Tripp described as ‘ a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour’ and who another academic described as ‘ someone with a very shallow mind, who’s not interested in issues other than the personalities ot the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc’.

Toby Dodge, another Iraq specialist, also remembered how he tried to challenge the ‘rhetoric from Washington’ which depicted Saddam’s regime as ‘separate from Iraqi society’.   Dodge later recalled: ‘ What we wanted to get across was that over 35 years the regime had embedded itself in Iraqi society, broken it down and totally transformed it.  We would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds.’

Blair received the same warnings from other quarters.  In 2004 52 retired British diplomats, many of whom with years of experience in the Middle East,  took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to Blair in 2004 condemning Britain’s failure to analyse what would happen to Iraq in the event of occupation, declaring:

‘All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case.   To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.’

So it is simply not true to claim that Blair ‘underestimated’ the ‘forces at work in the region’. The truth is that  he believed what he wanted to believe and only ever listened to advice that supported his own case.   To say that such behavior is not statesmanlike doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Blair acted like this because he was – and is – a dangerous and reckless ideologue who only listens to what powerful people tell him.   His apology is just another lie and an obfuscation of the truth.

Blair is not entirely wrong though.  He is not the only person responsible for the catastrophe of Iraq.   There were other ‘ideologues’ and ‘utterly ignorant’ people who Charles Tripp later condemned  the ‘ideologues’ for ‘playing out their games of democracy, diplomacy, of liberalisation’ in Iraq.  Tripp also lamented the UK’s ‘criminal part’ in the war and occupation, declaring ‘ We didn’t say how we would ensure the Iraqis’ security, how we would give these people jobs, these poor people who have been struggling under the weight of something we partly created and to whom we owe a responsibility.’

No we didn’t, and it remains to be seen whether the Chilcot report will address this ‘criminal part’ or whether it will be content with the ‘mistakes were made’ version of history that Blair is currently spinning.  But one thing is certain; Tony Blair will never acknowledge his role in an epic crime and historical tragedy whose consequences are still unfolding, and every apology that he ever gives will just be one more variant on the same lie.

 

Bang, Bang Maxwell’s Silver Hammer

Many years ago, back in 1971, the publishing magnate Robert Maxwell was forced to resign his position on the board of directors of the Oxford-based publishing company Pergamon Press, following suggestions of malfeasance in connection with his role during an attempted strategic takeover of the company.  A Department of Trade and Industry inquiry into the buyout of Pergamon declared Maxwell ‘unfit to hold the stewardship of a public company.’

Given the fact that we are talking about a man who subsequently went on to loot the pension funds of his company to pay off debts at the Mirror Group, hindsight might credit the DTI with some considerable prescience. Nevertheless this was not how things seemed at the time.   The litigious Maxwell took the DTI to court, and in 1971, Justice Forbes ruled that the DTI inspectors ‘had moved from an inquisitorial role to an accusatory one and virtually committed the business murder of Mr Maxwell’.

As a result Maxwell’s reputation survived the inquiry.  He regained his seat on the board and went onto to engage in the sleazy financial practices that subsequently made him famous. This obscure investigation into a scientific and medical publishing company nevertheless gave rise to a new legal process known as ‘Maxwellisation’, in which the objects of public inquiries were given advance notice of any criticisms directed against them, in order to forestall the possibility of Maxwellesque legal action,  and allow named individuals to respond privately before such criticisms were made public.

In the last  twelve months the British public has become depressingly familiar with the concept of Maxwellisation, as a result of the Chilcot Inquiry’s extraordinarily protracted attempt to conclude its six-year inquiry into the Iraq war.   Until last year, we were led to believe that the main reason for the delay in the publication of the report was the Inquiry’s attempt to wrest key documents from the British civil service.   Recently, it was revealed that Sir John Chilcot and his team have been engaged in a process of Maxwellisation with some of the individuals criticized in the report, and that some of these individuals have brought their lawyers in.

This is – or ought to be -something to make collective jaws drop.   Remember that the Chilcot Inquiry was not a judicial investigation.  It had no power to subpoena individuals or documents.   If people didn’t want to appear before it they didn’t have to.  If certain departments didn’t want to hand over documents, all the Inquiry could do was haggle and say please.

Whatever the conclusions of the report, no one will face any legal charges as a result of them.  Only their reputations will be at stake. Yet the individuals who have been Maxwellised are allowed to respond to the report’s conclusions with lawyers, and the Inquiry will change its conclusions as a result.   And even more incredibly, according to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, the public will never know which individuals have been Maxwellised, or the original criticisms that were directed against them, or the modifications that may have been made to these criticisms as a result of intervention by their lawyers!

There might be an argument for a process like this in inquiries into business practices that don’t involve explicitly criminal behavior – even if such inquiries are directed at a sleazy and disreputable figure like Robert Maxwell.  But illegal wars of aggression are quite another matter. The issues involved here go way beyond the issue of individual reputation, or the supposed need to protect civil servants and governments from future scrutiny that has been cited as a justification for Maxwellisation in this case.

There is no greater betrayal of public trust than for a government to wage war on false or manipulated pretenses, and no greater violation of democratic accountability and transparency.  If a government can do such a thing, and get away with it, then it can get away with anything, and the Maxwellisation of the Chilcot Inquiry is a grotesque and feeble travesty that makes it very likely that those responsible for the Iraq War will get away with it and will be allowed to shape public understanding of what took place in accordance with their own priorities.

There have been suggestions in the British press in recent weeks that Maxwellisation was primarily aimed at Tony Blair.   Today the Guardian revealed that the Inquiry has broadened its criticisms to include individuals outside Blair’s inner circle such as Clare Short, Jack Straw and Richard Dearlove.   The notion that these individuals are outside Blair’s inner circle is certainly questionable, but the Guardian report nevertheless suggestions that Blair’s Maxwellisation has already begun to produce results, declaring:

‘While Blair will bear the brunt of the report’s criticism, one source said it would suit the former prime minister to see a wide range of targets blamed when it is published.’

This is not exactly surprising.   Blair, like the Bush/Cheney clique, has always tried to take the line that ‘everyone is responsible therefore no one is guilty’ as a justification for the war, and the widening of the Inquiry’s criticisms would certainly help promote this narrative.  And of course these new criticisms must also be subjected to Maxwell’s silver hammer, since:

‘The wide circle of people facing criticism is cited as one of the reasons for the delay. As part of the process, every individual to be criticised is sent draft passages giving them an opportunity to comment. Some of those who have received drafts have expressed surprise, having regarded themselves as peripheral to the events leading up to the invasion.’

All of which will lead to more delays.  After all:

‘Chilcot wants to ensure that those criticised are given every opportunity to rebut the criticism. He does not want to give them an excuse to take legal action or attack the inquiry after the final report has been published.’

This is not exactly a ringing and courageous declaration of independence.   An Inquiry worth anything would not be concerned about legal action because it would have evidence to support its conclusions.   It would not be afraid of being attacked by the people that it has criticized because that is what happens when you criticize powerful people.

Chilcot’s pathetic reluctance to take these risks suggests a very different attitude, that might be more appropriate for examining a poor England Ashes tour or a village fete that failed to sell enough muffins and tea cakes.  The more the dismal process goes on, the more it screams one word: whitewash.

But whatever happens, according to the Guardian:

‘The final report will not include the number of people who have been sent drafts containing criticism. The public may not know to what extent Chilcot has toned down his criticism in response to objections.’

So at the end of it all, we won’t know who was criticized, or what they said in response, or how the Inquiry responded to what they said.  And all this thanks to a sleazy tycoon who showed that litigious rich men can get away with much more than anyone else.

Isn’t British democracy grand?

Chilcotmania!

Many years ago I remember going to my local record shop almost every week to find out if they had received Television’s first album yet.  I started going months before it actually came out after reading Nick Kent’s great review in the NME.  I was hooked on that album even before I heard it, to the point when the sales assistant was undoubtedly tired of hearing the same question ‘ Has Marquee Moon arrived yet?’

I wasn’t the only one asking it.   In the culture industry, the fact that such and such an artist takes a long time to produce a new novel or album can sometimes work to the commercial advantage of the person or group concerned.   Terence Malick makes films so infrequently that when they do come out they are invariably greeted with a special reverence that few directors can aspire to. The fact that Donna Tartt has published her novels an average of ten years apart has done her no harm at all.   And Harper Lee’s follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird is already a bestseller before it’s even been published.

In all these cases, the long wait has served to create a sense of anticipation, expectation and curiosity that can easily be enhanced by a skilled sales team.  The long gaps between the publication of Tartt’s books has given their author a unique mystique, suggesting a patient and painstaking creative process that demands special attention.  In Lee’s case, the fact that the sequel to one of the most popular books ever written is already number one in Amazon’s charts is partly due to the fact that a sequel was not expected.

The extraordinary delay in the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War has aroused very different responses.  When the Inquiry was first convened in 2009, it was expected to publish its findings before the 2010 general election.  Instead Sir John Chilcot and his team completed their hearings in February 2011.   At various times since then we have heard that its report was written and ready for publication.   In January 2014, the British press was reporting that the 1,000,000+word report was ready for publication later that year.

Earlier this year there were rumours that the report would be published before the election, and then in April BBC Newsnight suggested that it would be published after the election.   And now we have been told that the report is unlikely to be published until next year ‘at least’. If this was a Donna Tartt or Harper Lee novel, their publishers would be racking up advance sales and the books pages would be offering regular breathless updates.

Yet neither the government nor the main opposition has appeared particularly concerned by the delay, and the public has also remained generally indifferent to it.  The lack of interest from the political establishment is only to be expected.   Labour is unlikely to benefit politically from publication, and nor is the Tory government, which would have done exactly the same thing in Iraq, and whose rush to war in Libya and Syria showed no more concern with the historical ‘lessons’ that the Inquiry was intended to learn than its opponents.

Nevertheless the public ought to be concerned, because the delay says so much about the way this country is governed and the truncated and managed democracy that we inhabit.   The delay appears to be primarily due to two factors a) The reluctance of the civil service to allow the publication of key documents that the Inquiry needs to make its case, and b) the so-called ‘Maxwellisation’ process, which enables individuals criticized by the Inquiry to see its findings before they are made public so that it can refute them.

We can’t know whether the 30-odd individuals in category b have brought any influence to bear on the civil service to prevent the publication of documents that might be used against them.  One of them is Tony Blair, whose spokesmen have denied any such charges.  No one will be surprised by such denials, but whether they are true or not, the civil service should not be allowed to have the final say on which documents get published or not.

After all the Inquiry, for all its limited remit, was established in order to investigate one of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions ever taken by a British government.  And its inability or unwillingness to publish its findings speaks volumes about the ability of powerful governmental institutions and individuals to protect themselves from the scrutiny of the public that they are supposedly accountable to.

As is often the case in the UK, very little has been done to avoid this outcome.  The Inquiry was not given powers to sub-poena the documents that it wanted to look at, and was obliged instead to haggle and negotiate with civil servants who have been able to invoke national security and reasons of state to justify non-publication.  And the ‘Maxwellization’ process has clearly paved the way for endless prevarication that would have resulted in the collapse of the judicial process if it was applied to ordinary justice.

The Inquiry itself had no legal powers, yet in December last year the Times was reporting that the ‘Maxwellized’ individuals were bringing in lawyers in response to the criticisms made against them.  Exactly why they they can use the law to defend themselves in private while the Inquiry can’t use it to get full access to the documents it needs – let alone subject them to the same kind of cross-examination that would have occurred during the hearings if a judge was involved – remains a mystery to me.  But then again, not so much.

All this ought to be a national scandal, yet so far there has been no serious political pressure to change this situation.  Unlike Donna Tartt or Harper Lee, there is no sense of anticipation or expectation, and little likelihood that the Chilcot Report will hit the bestseller charts.

On the contrary, the longer the delay, the more likely it is that the politicians who never really wanted an inquiry in the first place will be able to consign it to historical irrelevance, and the British public will have forgotten what the Inquiry was ever supposed to have achieved, and the individuals and institutions that contrived to manufacture the Iraq catastrophe will continue to build new careers with their reputations unscathed, and the British state will continue to function, just as as it has always done, with its dirty linen locked away in a box labelled ‘national security’ which noone will be able to see until it no longer matters.

 

Try to be civil, Chilcot

One of my favourite moments in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness occurs when the narrator Marlow is interrupted by an irritated listener who tells him ‘Try to be civil Marlow.’ It’s a very English request, as Conrad well knew.  I mean here is Marlow, recounting a story of the horrific violence and cruelty, madness and delusion of Leopold’s Congo Free State, and one of his listeners insists, like a good Edwardian gentleman,  that he should be ‘civil’ because he loses his cool and compares his audience to a collection of circus performers doing their jobs.

I was reminded of that exchange by the furore over Sir John Chilcot’s announcement that his much-awaited report on the Iraq war will not be published before the general election. That war was begun by men who thought very much like Kurtz, for whom each trading station that he established along the Congo River was ‘like a beacon on the road towards better, things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing’.

As Conrad’s readers will know, these expectations dissolved into the ruthless cruelty, exploitation and murder that makes the Congo Free State one of the epic crimes of colonial history.   The Iraq war reveals a similarly grievous discrepancy between what was predicted and what actually happened, but the full ramifications of that bloodstained debacle have never really been absorbed and assimilated by British society, and it is becoming increasingly doubtful whether they ever will be.

We have seen in recent years that the British ruling elite is very keen to scrutinize everyone else, and is constantly looking for new justifications for widen its powers of scrutiny over the public, but its members don’t like to be criticized or scrutinized themselves.  Fortunately, it has a system that doesn’t really like to criticize or scrutinize them either.

The sexual abuse and possibly murder of young children by MPs and government ministers?  Sorry, old boy, seem to have lost the files.  Start a war on faked pretences that leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths, military humiliation, the collapse of an entire society, and unleashes a raging wave of civil war and other forms of mayhem that have continue to pour out beyond Iraq’s borders ever since?   I know.   We’ll set up an inquiry intended to ‘learn lessons’ from that experience in case we want to do it again, and we’ll be ever so careful not to ‘apportion blame’.

Having made that decision we’ll then ensure that our inquiry is made up of trusted mandarins, including a former speech writer for one of the architects of that war.   We’ll invite them all in one by one for a polite little chat, and we’ll not say anything to upset them. Like Marlow, we’ll keep it civil.  And when the conversations are over, we’ll have a cup of tea and put our report together and  ask our interviewees ever so politely if they wouldn’t mind just a teeny weeny bit if we publish documents that we regard as crucial to the ‘lessons’ the public must learn.

If they refuse, we’ll say ‘fine’ and agree to publish the ‘gist’ or redacted versions of the documents we want, because we don’t want to upset anybody and we must be civil. Now if it so happens that we really cannot avoid making a few critical observations about some of the people and institutions responsible for the ‘mistakes’ of the Iraq war, we’ll agree to ‘Maxwellize’ the whole process, and give them as much time as they need to rebut or come back our conclusions BEFORE WE EVEN PUBLISH THEM.

Because, after all, old chap, the people we are criticizing, like Robert Maxwell, are powerful people, and they can’t be treated as if they were just anybody? And we must be civil, and so we’ll allow someone like Sir Jeremy Heywood, civil servant and cabinet secretary and former cabinet secretary under Tony Blair while the war was being planned, to decide what documents our inquiry can or can’t publish.

And then why not create a special ‘channel of communications’ between senior aides of Cameron and Miliband to explore potential ‘common ground’ over the report’s publication, just to make sure that we can manage the whole thing to everyone’s best advantage?

Because we don’t want to upset people, and we want to be civil even if, as Marlow observes ‘ We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!  But darkness was here yesterday.’

It was, but it seems that we don’t want to think about it too much in case it upsets us.   And so we prefer to wait for Sir John to publish what he likes, whenever he likes.

And if anybody gets a little hot under the collar about this, just remind them, as Marlow’s listener reminded him, to try to be civil.