Mired in debt of horrendous proportions, Britain is at risk of being judged uncreditworthy by international investors. At the same time, thanks to the endlessly contested manner in which its former Prime Minister Tony Blair embroiled it in a calamitous U.S.-led war of aggression against Iraq, Britain has incurred incalculable damage to its moral standing.
Blair and his successor as prime minister, Gordon Brown, assumed power in 1997 pledging that New Labor, the centrist political project of which they were prime movers, would restore Britain’s credibility as a leading nation.
Yet the prospect is looming that their legacy will be a nation with a debased currency and a ruined reputation. In his former role as chancellor of the exchequer, Brown presided over an economy whose vaunted success has proved to be a phantom. Blair, meanwhile, the self-styled man of principle who once rejoiced that war belonged to the past, has emerged not just as an insatiable warmonger but as a politician whose relationship with the truth is at best tenuous and at worst nonexistent.
It was the acknowledgment that the conduct of the Iraq war by the Blair government remains a source of nagging public disquiet that caused Brown to institute the Chilcot inquiry, before which Blair appeared last week, brazenly reaffirming that he has nothing to apologize for and even seizing the opportunity to strike the pose of a U.S. neoconservative Zionist who is itching to declare pre-emptive war on Iran.
The objective of the Chilcot inquiry is to examine how Britain came to be involved in the Iraq war and identify what lessons may be learned. The official hope is that it will achieve “closure” by demonstrating to the British public and the wider world, and not least to the grieving relatives of dead British servicemen, that, however unhappy its consequences, Britain undertook military action in good faith. What is now overwhelmingly apparent, following Blair’s testimony before the inquiry and the testimonies of fellow politicians, diplomats and civil servants, is that “closure” is not in prospect.
For many in the Arab world, its very personnel is bound to make it hard to respect the inquiry’s bona fides. The fact is that two of its five members, Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman, are Jews who supported the war. Yet the question of the propriety of including two such figures without any corresponding representation of the Arab point of view can hardly be raised in Britain without inviting the charge of anti-Semitism. The BBC reported that Sir Martin Gilbert told an online Israeli settlement radio station of his hurt at being named as a Jew by “anti-Semite” writing in British newspapers. Gilbert was referring among others to the former British diplomat, Sir Oliver Miles, whose manifest concern was not with Gilbert’s Jewishness but the counterproductive consequences of including Jewish supporters of the war in the panel of an inquiry that is surely meant to command international respect. Not that you would have understood Miles’ qualms from the BBC’s tendentious report.
What also compromises the panel is that it contains no lawyer of any kind, let alone an authority on international law. Yet if it seems designed to ensure that those who appear before it are not subjected to forensic interrogation, it has nonetheless further exposed the monstrous lack of “transparency” with which the Blair government led Britain into war in 2003. The former British prime minister signally failed to allay the suspicion that he agreed with U.S. President George W. Bush to topple Saddam Hussein a year before the war began, that he supported “regime change” regardless of whether it could be established that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Nor was he remotely convincing when he addressed the issue of why he declined to heed the advice of senior legal advisers to his government that the war was illegal without a second U.N. resolution.
Few believe that Blair was not involved in coercing Britain’s then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith who long shared the misgivings of those advisers about the war’s legality, into producing a terse final ruling that military action was legal after all. Goldsmith’s own explanation of his volte-face, that on a visit to Washington he met U.S. political and legal luminaries whose belief in the war’s lawfulness he could not but endorse, was as pathetic as it was insulting.
The Chilcot panel’s failure to question Blair closely about his handling of the legal aspect of the war was lamentable, especially when it so crucially affects Britain’s claim to be an ethical nation. Many will feel he ought to have been quizzed with particular rigor about the 13-page opinion on the legal questions raised by military action which Lord Goldsmith had originally intended to present to the British cabinet but which Blair’s Minister of Justice Jack Straw obliged him to withhold. It now seems beyond doubt that Cabinet debate about the war’s legality was kept to a bare minimum.
All the indications are that Blair led Britain to war not only without properly consulting his Cabinet about its legality but in the teeth of a consensus among legal experts, diplomats and military top brass that such pre-emptive action was a blatant violation of international law. In short, even as he preached democracy to the world, Blair was treating the checks and balances of his own country’s democratic system with supreme contempt.
Gordon Brown himself is to testify to the Chilcot inquiry in March, with a general election impending. The inquiry is unlikely to enhance his chances of retaining power, for it is hugely reinforcing the widespread sense that New Labor has been a fraudulent and pernicious enterprise. The truth is that in their lust to participate in U.S. global power and act like British imperial statesmen of the past, Brown and Blair have dramatically accelerated their country’s decline. The crisis of confidence they have precipitated in Britain’s moral and material credentials may be without precedent.
*Published in the Saudi based ARAB NEWS on Feb. 4, 2010.