There are so many things wrong with the Chilcot Inquiry–the British government’s official investigation of “the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken”–that it’s hard to know where to begin: none of the witnesses are under oath, Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s promise that “no British document” would be withheld has been repeatedly broken, all the questioners are far too deferential and (though much of the controversy has centered on whether the invasion of Iraq was a violation of international law) none of them are lawyers. After watching Tony Blair bob and weave his way through more than six hours of mostly feeble cross-examination in January, the chronically independent Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews complained of “a tribunal without teeth providing trial without tribulation.”
And yet an American still gazes on the spectacle with envy. To see Blair in the dock, visibly shaking with nerves, or the former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, a week earlier, was to realize just how unlikely it is that George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld will ever have to face even such an unsatisfactory reckoning. (On the eve of Blair’s testimony British law professor Philippe Sands warned the BBC that Blair could also face arrest in any of the fifty countries where the “crime of aggression” is incorporated in the penal code. Blair might want to take legal advice before bringing his after-dinner speaker’s act to, say, Azerbaijan. Or perhaps the Israelis could detain him and then swap Blair for one of their many politicians who reportedly risk Pinochet-style arrest in Britain.)
For those of us who remember the 2005 election campaign, when the prime minister seemed to go out of his way to appear in front of hostile audiences, Blair’s adroit performance offered few surprises. Even his failure–despite repeated invitations from Sir John Chilcot, the retired civil service mandarin in charge of the inquiry–to offer any expression of regret, or sympathy for the families of British troops killed in Iraq, could be seen as evidence of Blair’s genuine belief that he was right to “be with America” in Iraq. In Blair’s world, it was his personal revelation after the attacks on the World Trade Center that “the calculus of risk” had changed that led Britain to war, not Bush’s Oedipal compulsion to take up his father’s unfinished business with Saddam Hussein, or the American right’s aggressive desire to remake the world in our image. As for those nonexistent Iraqi WMDs, Blair claimed “no one disputed that Saddam had WMDs”–a delusion easily punctured by reference to chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix. No postwar revelation could shake Blair’s view that the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, instead of letting Blix finish his work, was a consequence of French and Russian intransigence rather than Pentagon planning.
Which suggests that one invaluable lesson of the Chilcot Inquiry is the terrible cost to any country–not just in terms of its soldiers’ lives but in terms of its leaders’ sanity–that defines the national interest as standing shoulder to shoulder with Washington. Self-respect won’t allow Blair to admit the truth: he took Britain into Iraq because without American patronage and protection it would be just another country that used to have an empire, like Italy or Spain–or Turkey.
We’ve also been reminded of how often contempt for international law begins at home. Jack Straw, who ordered Pinochet’s release from custody in 2000, dismissed Foreign Office lawyers’ advice that invading Iraq would be illegal with the retort that he’d “often been advised things were unlawful and gone ahead anyway and won in the courts” when he was home secretary.
Perhaps most alarming, Blair not only insists that he was right to go to war in Iraq–whatever the obstacles posed by international law, doubters in his own party or those ingrates in Tehran (“We thought they would be more amenable”)–but is clearly gearing himself up to sell a new confrontation with Iran. The fact that Blair mentioned Iran fifty-eight times during his testimony ought to make Chilcot of urgent interest to Americans. Two days later Washington leaked plans of an enhanced missile shield in the Persian Gulf, a move that, as Fox News helpfully observed, “ups [the] ante with Iran.”
Since we’re not allowed our own national inquest into the Iraq quagmire, perhaps President Obama and his advisers could consult the Chilcot transcripts. They’ll read the story of a young, charismatic leader who desperately wanted to make the world a better place–and of how his hopes and reputation were devoured by a war he could have avoided. History doesn’t have to repeat itself–and when it does, not every tragedy gets replayed as farce.