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The Travails of the Young War Criminal

15 December 2009

The Travails of the Young War Criminal

By Gwynne Dyer

Alan Watkins is my favourite British journalist. Well into his 70s now, each week he still produces an elegant and knowing column, usually about British politics. And with a casual understatement that you might easily mistake for irony, he has for the past six years regularly referred to former prime minister Tony Blair as “the young war criminal.”

That may seem a bit harsh, for never has an alleged war criminal seemed more sincere, more open, even more innocent. As he said about his 2003 decision to involve Britain in the American invasion of Iraq in his resignation speech four years later: “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.” But EVERYBODY does what they think is right.

They may mean pragmatically right, or morally right, or even ideologically right, but one way or another people will find ways to justify their actions to themselves: even Pol Pot believed that his actions were justified. When people’s choices lead to the deaths of others, they must eventually be judged by more objective criteria than mere sincerity. That is now happening to Tony Blair.

Yet another public inquiry in Britain is now looking into the origins and consequences of Blair’s decision to attack Iraq, but it will not find him guilty of anything. It is what Conservative Party leader David Cameron called “an establishment stitch-up.”

It is headed by a retired senior civil servant, Sir John Chilcot, who sat on another inquiry in 2004 that found the intelligence used to justify the invasion “badly flawed” but somehow could not find anyone to blame for it. The other members of the Chilcot inquiry are a former ambassador, a baroness who was appointed to the House of Lords by the Blair government, and two historians, Sir Lawrence Freedman (who wrote speeches for Tony Blair) and Sir Martin Gilbert (who once compared him to Winston Churchill).

Yet the mere existence of the Chilcot inquiry has so shaken Blair that he has made an extraordinary admission. He admitted on 13 December that he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known at the time that the “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq was wrong.

“I would still have thought it was right to remove (Saddam Hussein),” he told BBC interviewer Fern Britton. “Obviously, you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.” He seemed completely unaware that he was throwing away the only justification for his actions that might stand up before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Now, I realise that you must be wondering why I am devoting all this space to a discredited ex-leader whose country once played a minor role in the invasion of a middle-sized Arab country. The war is mostly over now, the dead cannot be brought back to life, and we have lots of new things to worry about.

Former president George W. Bush, the main author of the Iraq war, will never face a commission of inquiry about his actions, and Blair will have an easy ride when he faces the British inquiry early next year. Each man is doomed to go on justifying his decisions forever, for any alternate course of action would be too painful. So what’s the point in our raking over their choices and motives now?

The point is that there is a law, and they deliberately broke it. Since 1945, it has been a crime to invade another country: that was the main charge brought against the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. The new rule was written into the United Nations Charter, principally at the behest of the United States, and there are virtually no exceptions to it.

You have the right to defend yourself if another country attacks you, but you are not allowed to attack another country on the grounds that it has a wicked ruler, or follows policies you disapprove of, or even because you think it might attack you one of these days. No unilateral military action is permitted, and even joint action against a genuinely threatening country is only permissible with the authorisation of the UN Security Council.

The United States is a very different country now than it was in 1945, and under the junior Bush administration it announced a “national security” doctrine that directly contradicts this international law, arrogating to the US government the right to attack any country it suspects of harbouring evil intentions towards the United States.

It’s just the sort of thing that Britain would have declared when it was top dog in the 19th century, had there been any international law against aggression back then. But this is the 21st century, and Britain is no longer top dog, and there is a law now. There is even an International Criminal Court to enforce the law, although it never takes action against the leaders of rich and powerful countries.

Tony Blair will never face the ICC, and even the Chilcot inquiry will be gentle with him. But he started a war on false pretenses – there were no WMD – and at least 100,000 people died. He has now admitted that he would have started it even if he knew that the WMD didn’t exist (as he probably did). He is a war criminal.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“It is..Churchill”; and “Former…now”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Futility of Inquiries

28 August 2003

The Futility of Inquiries

By Gwynne Dyer

“The government lied every time it skewed, misrepresented, used selectively and fabricated the Iraq story,” said Andrew Wilkie, a senior intelligence officer in Australia’s Office of National Assessment until he resigned last March in protest at the way the Australian government was distorting intelligence to justify its attack on Iraq. “Key intelligence assessment qualifications like ‘probably’, ‘could’ and ‘uncorroborated evidence suggests’ were frequently dropped,” he told a parliamentary inquiry in Canberra last week. “Much more useful words like ‘massive’ and ‘mammoth’ were included.”

The same process is underway in Britain, where two weeks ago the Hutton inquiry began taking public evidence about whether the British government deliberately ‘sexed up’ intelligence reports about the threat posed by Iraq in order to bamboozle the British public into backing an attack on Iraq. It’s a much bigger deal in London, because the trigger for the British inquiry was the suicide of a senior government expert on Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, Dr. David Kelly, who had been linked to leaks to the BBC.

Prime Minister Tony Blair denied any government meddling in the intelligence process in his testimony to the Hutton inquiry on Thursday, saying that it would have “merited my resignation” if he had lied to the British public about the threat posed by Saddam’s alleged WMD, but insisting that the available intelligence backed it up. A torrent of testimony and an avalanche of official e-mails submitted to the inquiry show that it did not back it up, really, but Blair still walked away from the witness box seemingly unscathed.

Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard won’t even have to appear in person before his country’s parliamentary inquiry, and it won’t be able to pin anything specific on him either. In response to Andrew Wilkie’s accusations, he simply said: “If he has got evidence of that, let him produce it. Otherwise, stop slandering decent people.” As if there might be a document somewhere in which Howard instructed his minions to ‘sex up’ the intelligence in order to trick the Australian public into going along with his war. Things don’t really work like that.

Of the three countries that sent actual combat troops to invade Iraq last March (not counting the marching band from Ruritania and the typing pool from Lower Slobbovia), both Australia and Britain are conducting public inquiries into the government’s alleged subversion of the intelligence process to justify that deed, whereas the United States is not. Many Americans lament this fact, imagining that a proper Congressional inquiry would make the Bush administration come clean about the imaginary WMD and the supposed links between Iraq and al-Qaeda that were used to sell the war to the American public. They are dreaming.

Lots of interesting details are coming out at the Hutton inquiry, of course. We learn that Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, commenting on the ‘Iraq dossier’ being prepared by the government last September, wrote that “the document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam….We will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat.”

That was just what Mr Blair did claim in his famous September dossier, referring to Iraqi WMD that could “be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.” This was a key factor in persuading many Labour MPs to back Blair in going to war, but it came out in the inquiry that these alleged WMD were just short-range shells and rockets that couldn’t even reach Iraq’s neighbours. No risk of the great British public realising that, however: Blair’s comment in the draft version of the foreword saying “The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK (he could not)” was removed from the published version.

Even the short-range shells and rockets were a fiction, and many in the British intelligence world suspected it at the time — like Dr. Kelly, who thought that there was only a 30 percent chance that Iraq had resumed production of WMD after 1991, and Air Marshal Sir John Walker, a former chief of Defence Intelligence, who said in a confidential note to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last month that the claims about Iraqi WMD were “not the reason to go to war, but the excuse to go to war.”

All fascinating stuff, but will it make any difference to outcomes? Not likely: around half of the British public now believes it was lied to in the run-up to the war, but around the same proportion believed it at the time and the war happened anyway.

About a third of Australians think their government lied to them, which is also largely unchanged over the past ten months. And in America, despite all the recent revelations in the media about how the administration massaged the evidence, around half the population still goes on believing Mr Bush’s brazen assertion — or rather innuendo, for he never quite says it straight — that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda.

Inquiries and revelations about the past will not change these beliefs much. A large part of the public simply doesn’t care if their country launched an illegal war of aggression on faked evidence, so long as the price for doing so stays low. So what might decisively turn public opinion in the ‘coalition countries’ against the occupation of Iraq? Oh, the usual: the cost and the casualties.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Australia’s…that”;and “Even…war”)

Weapons of Mass Disappearance

1 June 2003

The ‘Weapons of Mass Disappearance’

By Gwynne Dyer

 “We know where [the weapons] are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, north and south somewhat.” — US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, 30 March 2003

“It is…possible that they decided that they would destroy them prior to a conflict.” — Donald Rumsfeld, 27 May 2003

Sure, Don, that’s probably what happened: ‘They’re going to attack us, boys. Quick, destroy all our weapons.’ The issue of the missing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that were used to justify the invasion of Iraq is not going to go away, even though all the American and British leaders who hammered away on this issue before the war now just sound irritated when you bring it up.

“It’s not crucially important,” said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on 14 May, but it is. And although the political uproar over the lies and distortions that were used to manoeuvre the public into supporting the was is much greater in Britain at the moment, with allegations that Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office ‘sexed up’ the intelligence reports on Iraq and deliberately misled parliament, the furore will grow in the United States as well. Probably just in time for the presidential election campaign.

Insiders always understood that the WMD issue was a red herring. Nobody really believed that Iraq had nuclear weapons, and its alleged chemical and biological weapons, if they existed, were the sort of thing that every country with pretensions as a power has been messing around with for generations. Iraq had no way to deliver them over long ranges even if it had them, and the terrorist issue was irrelevant. There were no known ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and besides, if terrorists wanted such weapons, they could just cook them up themselves. It isn’t hard.

The WMD story was needed to scare the US public into supporting the invasion, but also to give Britain some legal cover for taking part in the war. Americans were not much concerned about the legality of invading Iraq, but it was crucial for Blair to have UN cover in order to retain the support of his own Labour Party — and the war would only be legal under United Nations rules if Iraq were violating the UN resolutions that ordered Saddam Hussein to get rid of his WMD.

Indeed, the Bush administration only went to the UN at all because it needed Britain as an ally. American public opinion was very doubtful about the need for a war and needed to be shown that at least one of its traditional allies shared Mr Bush’s views.

When the Security Council, unconvinced of the urgency of attacking Iraq to ‘disarm’ it, refused to support an invasion, Blair took Britain to war alongside the United States anyway, but it left him horribly vulnerable, particularly within his own Labour Party. Over a quarter of the Labour members of parliament voted against an attack on Iraq, and as many more only backed it because of Blair’s blood-curdling accounts of Iraqi WMD “ready to launch within 45 minutes”.

So now, seven weeks after the war’s end, with no WMD found in Iraq and British intelligence sources protesting to the media about Blair’s misuse of their reports, his position has become very difficult — but his worst problem is what they are saying in Washington. Consider US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz’s cynical remarks in the forthcoming issue of ‘Vanity Fair’: “…for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.”

It makes perfect sense for the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration who cooked up the war on Iraq to admit now that it wasn’t really about WMD. Their real purpose, after all, was to scare all of America’s rivals and enemies into submission by demonstrating US military power and making it clear that no considerations of international law would stand in Washington’s way. But they are putting Blair into a dreadful corner, and storing up trouble for Bush as well.

A great many Labour MPs deeply resent having been lied to by their own party and government, and neither they nor the British press will let the matter drop. For the moment, there is much less outcry in the US, but the smarter Democrats are just biding their time. Right now questioning the wisdom of the war would still leave them open to the charge of being unpatriotic, but as Iraqi resistance and American casualties grow — five US soldiers killed and thirteen injured last week — that calculation will change.

By next winter, Mr Bush will be facing harsh questions about why it was necessary to invade Iraq. With the US economy unlikely to recover dramatically in the next year, that could spell electoral disaster unless he wraps himself in the flag again, so another war before November, 2004 and a ‘khaki election’ are not out of the question. The likeliest target would be Syria, which could be conquered quickly and cheaply, rather than Iran or North Korea — but whichever it is, he should not expect to have Britain along next time. Tony Blair has not enough credit left.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Insiders…hard”; and”Indeed…views”)

The Missing WMD

1 May 2003

The Missing WMD

By Gwynne Dyer

The favourite fantasy headline of British comedian Spike Milligan was: ‘Archduke Franz Ferdinand Found Alive! First World War a Mistake!’

We are unlikely to see a similar headline in any American paper soon, but in the rest of the world the continued failure of the US and British occupation forces in Iraq to find any of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that were the alleged reason for their invasion is both a diplomatic disaster and a joke in very bad taste.

Tony Blair ran into both phenomena and came away severely shaken when he visited Moscow last Tuesday. The British prime minister thought he had a good personal relationship with the Russian president, but Vladimir Putin is a former intelligence officer, and like his American and British counterparts he was outraged at the way the US and British governments misrepresented the intelligence they got from their own agencies in order to justify their war. Unlike the people at the Central Intelligence Agency and MI5, however, Putin was free to speak — and did he ever.

Putin openly mocked Blair for the failure of the ‘coalition’ to find any of the fabled WMD even weeks after the end of the war: “Where are those arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, if indeed they ever existed? Perhaps Saddam is still hiding in an underground bunker somewhere, sitting on cases of weapons of mass destruction, and is preparing to blow the whole thing up and destroy the lives of thousands of Iraqis.” The Russian journalists at the press conference roared with laughter — maybe it loses something in translation — but Blair looked distinctly grim. He is going to have lots more practice at that.

Two months ago, Blair talked a reluctant parliament into supporting the attack on Iraq by warning of Iraqi WMD ready to strike on 45 minutes’ notice, and President George W. Bush warned of “mushroom clouds” if the US didn’t invade Iraq. It was all so desperately urgent, so hair-trigger dangerous, that Washington and London couldn’t wait for the United Nations arms inspectors to finish their job; they had to bypass the UN and invade right away. So many thousands of Iraqis (2,500 civilians and perhaps 10,000 soldiers) were killed, 137 US and British soldiers died, looters destroyed most of Iraq’s cultural heritage while ‘coalition’ troops stood idly by — and nobody has found any WMD.

The rest of the world never really believed the White House’s justification for war anyway. As UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said in late April, Washington and London built their case for going to war on “very, very shaky” evidence, including documents that subsequently turned out to have been faked — and with the war now over, Washington isn’t even bothering to insist that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States any more. “We were not lying,” a Bush administration official told ABC News on 28 April. “But it was just a matter of emphasis.”

The real reason for the war, according to the ABC report, was that the administration “wanted to make a statement” (presumably about what happens to countries that defy US power). Iraq was not invaded because it threatened America, but because “Saddam had all the requirements to make him, from (the administration’s) standpoint, the perfect target.” The assumption, at the White House and the Pentagon, was that everybody else could be bullied into forgetting the lies about WMD and accepting the fact of American control of Iraq.

They probably could be if the occupation turned out to be a brilliant success that produced a happy, prosperous, united and independent Iraq, but that does not seem likely. Instead, it is going sour very fast, with US troops shooting civilian demonstrators, the Shia majority seeking an Islamic state, and the beginnings of a guerilla resistance to the foreign occupiers. Even if the US were willing to let the United Nations have a role in occupied Iraq, the desire of other powers to get involved in any way in this proto-Vietnam is waning from day to day.

Washington continues to insist that the UN weapons inspectors will not be allowed back in, which means that the rest of the world is unlikely to believe the US and British forces even if they do claim to have found something. And frankly, hardly anyone in Britain believes in Iraqi WMD any more either — not even former cabinet ministers.

On 22 April, former foreign secretary Robin Cook said he doubted that there was a single person in the intelligence services who believed that a weapon of mass destruction in working order would be found in Iraq, and accused the White House of trying to bridge the credibility gap by “re-inventing the term ‘weapon of mass destruction’ to cover any artillery shell with a chemical content, or any biological toxin, even if it had not been fitted to a weapon.” Even on that preposterous definition, they have not found any WMD in Iraq yet — and as former British defence secretary Doug Henderson said on 18 April: “If by the turn of the year there is no WMD then the basis on which this (war) was executed was illegal.”

The post-9/11 patriotic chill still prevents any senior American politician from questioning the existence of Iraqi WMD in public, but this issue is not going to go away. As the situation in Iraq deteriorates and the American body count rises, questions about how America got talked into this mess will keep coming back, and sooner or later they will have to be answered.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Washington…illegal”)