The Chilcot Inquiry was not intended to be a tribunal, nor a trial. It was designed to be more of a public linen washing, scouring the decisions which led British forces into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The British public didn’t expect this enterprise to produce anything revelatory. It was no dirty little secret that all five members of the Inquiry panel had served — or been politically promoted — by Tony Blair when he was Prime Minster. Indeed, when Blair testified, the panel was judged to have given him an easy time.
But there is always a chance that history can escape its self-appointed handlers and sometimes the Law of Unintended (or unforeseen) Consequences can spontaneously combust within the four corners of civility. Thus it will be written for posterity that Britain once declared a war in which its military top brass nearly declined to participate.
First, let us dispense with the testimony of Tony Blair. The astute and witty cultural commentator, A.A. Gill, said the former Prime Minster arrived at the Inquiry looking as if he had “had a severe facelift” with a his mouth “tugged into a morticized grin.” “Fear is nature’s cosmetic surgeon,” quipped Gill. But once the first soft ball questions were lobbed his way, Gill noticed that Blair morphed back (“like a CGI trick”) into his old aura of invincibility, a pose he maintained for the next six hours.
His testimony was predictable and unrepentant. He recalled that when he and G.W. Bush met, in Texas, in April 2002, they agreed that Saddam Hussein had to be confronted, but insisted they did not get into "specifics.”
"I think what he took from that (meeting at Crawford) was exactly what he should have taken, which was if it came to military action, because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we (the British) would be with him (Bush).”
When pressed on what good had come of invading Iraq, Blair said the country had achieved “some democracy,” and had some electricity, then noted an increase in the birth rate, combined with improved stats in infant mortality, would rapidly replace the percentage of the Iraqi population lost as a result of the war.
Although he was given several opportunities to blame Bush, Mr. Blair remained 180 degrees apart from Obama. His loyalty to Dubya could not be breached.
The same cannot be said of his own former cabinet. Clare Short, Blair’s International Development Minister, seized on the Inquiry opportunity to play the woman scorned. She told the press that Blair had lied in order to keep her from resigning over the war. He told her he had not received any private military briefings on the War and promised that the United Nations would oversee the reconstruction effort in Iraq. Two months later, realizing she had been “conned,” Short left the Blair government.
Perhaps feeling that Blair had also conned them at some level, the former Prime Minister was informed that the pleasure of his company would be required by the Chilcot panel again, in a few weeks, in both public and private sessions. During these appearances, Blair will be asked to discuss classified documents, intelligence briefings, and to share his private notes to President Bush before the war.
This brings us to the military side of the story and a rather stunning proposal which was undoubtedly influenced by the Chilcot Inquiry, but was the result of a separate study on creating a future defense strategy for England.
British troops had been on the ground for some time in Afghanistan when the decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq was made. The Inquiry panel learned that, initially, the top brass had been ordered — by the Blair administration — to avoid any visible signs of the build-up for war. Those in charge of the British military knew just how easy that would be since there was a definite shortage of the range of equipment and the amount of supplies which would be required in Iraq. Sir Jock Stirrup, Deputy Chief of Defense equipment at the time of the invasion, testified that Blair and his ministers were warned that equipment shortages posed “a serious risk” to the Armed Forces; nevertheless to war they went in March 2003.
Six months later, (then) Chancellor Gordon Brown dealt the military a crushing blow when he began making severe defense budget cuts. Sir Kevin Tebbit, a civil servant within the Ministry of Defense, said that plans for much needed helicopters, warships, tanks, spy planes, destroyers, frigates, artillery and minesweepers had to be slashed to meet Brown’s budget reduction targets.
The fierce budget battle, and the sense of betrayal it evoked, resulted in a shocking unprecedented threat. General Lord Walker of Aldringham, head of the Armed Forces at the time of the war, has told the Chilcot Inquiry that — exactly one year into the Iraq incursion — Britain’s entire military top brass threatened to quit in protest.
That is simply staggering and yet, to this day, (now) Prime Minster Gordon Brown contends this simply did not happen and was not true. “Not only did we prepare the Army, Navy and Air Forces with proper funding,” he continues to insist, “but we also funded every urgent operational requirement that was made.” Perhaps the reality chasm will be bridged when Gordon Brown is called to testify at the Inquiry in about a month. Will Brown tell the truth or will he give Blair a Judas kiss?
The Chilcot Inquiry panel has also heard that in 2006 defense chiefs warned the Blair Government that sending more troops to Afghanistan while forces were still in Iraq would lead to additional pain and grief and loss of support for the war effort. More troops were sent then and are still being sent now and the result may well be recorded in history as the final chapter in which the British Empire (on which the sun set long ago) goes into total eclipse.
On Feb 3rd, a Strategic Defense Review Report was published. It states the obvious. Following the general election this spring, when the Tory Party will be swept into power and back into Number Ten Downing Street, David Cameron “must be able to drive radical change” throughout every aspect of society. As for the military, the Report states that the lasting effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan require a fundamental rethink of the way the British Armed Forces are configured. To that end, it has been proposed that the Army, Navy and Air Force of Britain should be combined into a single force, modeled along the lines of the U.S. Marines. And finally, in order to ensure the ongoing defense of the Kingdom, the British should forge a strong mutual pact with a reliable ally — one not likely to get the country into another war anytime soon — specifically the French. Welcome to Her Majesty’s merged and downsized service.