Tony Blair’s testimony before the Iraq war inquiry

I watched British ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s six-hour testimony before the Iraq inquiry in London today (January 29, 2010). It was a stubborn performance in his own defense and that of his close friend and ally, former US President George W Bush. Here are ten points made by Blair that struck me particularly:

  1. Blair said he had told Bush from the start that if the United States went to war in Iraq he would be with him.
  2. He did what was right in joining the invasion and would do it again.  
  3. George W Bush decided UN backing for the invasion was not necessary.
  4. Russia and France, in Blair’s view, changed their position which prevented the second United Nations resolution authorizing force.
  5. The British cabinet did not want to be part of the legal debate on the Iraq invasion – The inquiry panel thought it should have been.
  6. Blair asserted that a humanitarian crisis after the invasion of Iraq was avoided – The evidence is contrary and overwhelming.
  7. He claimed that Iran today posed a greater threat than in 2003. He indicated that a similar military action might now be necessary against Iran.
  8. Claimed that extensive preparations had been made for the aftermath of the invasion, until al Qaeda and Iran began to play the role they did.
  9. What became clear in time [in answering questions about multi-layered conflict, including civil war] was not a lack of resources but a lack of security.
  10. At the end, the Iraq inquiry Chairman, Sir John Chilcot, asked Blair whether he had any regrets for the very high cost of invading Iraq, including deaths of British troops and Iraqi civilians. Blair had no regrets.

The inquiry chairman hinted that Blair might be called again before the panel. As the day’s proceedings ended, the former prime minister was booed from the public gallery and there were shouts of ‘come on’, ‘liar’ and ‘murderer’. Outside, there were demonstrations throughout the day.

There are those who feel Blair’s cross-examination should have been tougher. My view is that the panel’s questioning was pointed, persistent and tough.

It revealed the mindset that remains unaltered nearly seven years after he and George W Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, with disastrous consequences.

How the British Attorney General changed his legal advice on Iraq war

A day after the two most senior legal experts [Sir Michael Wood and Elizabeth Wilmshurst] at the British Foreign Office told the Iraq inquiry their advice that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal was ignored by Tony Blair’s government, Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith faced the inquiry panel on Wednesday (January 27).  

The main points of Goldsmith’s evidence under close cross-examination:

  • He admitted to changing his earlier opinion that an invasion without a specific United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force would be illegal, party due to American and British diplomatic accounts of private UN negotiations.  
  • Until the first week of February 2003, about six weeks before Iraq was invaded, Goldsmith had repeatedly warned the Prime Minister’s Office that a second UN resolution was necessary.
  • But after a visit to the United States, where he met officials including Secretary of States Condoleezza Rice, Goldsmith said he was convinced that experienced US lawyers would not have ‘stumbled into’ giving France a chance to veto a new resolution on military action.
  • He had to decide which side he would prefer to be on.
  • Goldsmith said it was ‘impossible’ for him at the time to ask the French what their legal interpretation [of going to war] was.
  • One inquiry panel member, Roderick Lyne, challenged Goldsmith to explain the ‘gap’ between French and Russian public statements and ‘second-hand’ descriptions of their ‘private’ positions [as shown by American officials].
  • It was pointed out on BBC Newsnight that exchanges on the question of legality remained confined to Lord Goldsmith and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office.

Britain and the United States went to the UN Security Council a second time to get authorization for war. Russia and France would have vetoed it had it been put to vote; in the end, there was not even a majority of Security Council members for it.

As authorization could not be obtained, the conclusion must be that the Security Council did not give approval for military action in Iraq. Therefore, the invasion in March 2003 had no legal basis.

British government legal experts break ranks with Tony Blair on Iraq war

Seventy-two hours before Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair appears at the Iraq inquiry in London, pressure is piling up on Blair and his close advisers who took the decision to join President George W Bush in launching the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

On Tuesday (January 26, 2010) the senior government lawyer at the time, Sir Michal Wood, told the inquiry in a written statement that the invasion of Iraq had “no legal basis in international law”. Sir Michael was the highest-ranking legal adviser at the British Foreign Office when Iraq was invaded.

In his statement, he said he disagreed with the advice of the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith.

Sir Michael considered the use of military force in March 2003 to be ‘contrary to international law’, but said that Jack Straw, then foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s government, rejected the advice. Instead, Mr Straw told the US Vice President Dick Cheney that Britain would ‘prefer’ a second UN resolution, but it would be ‘OK’ if they tried and failed [in getting the resolution passed in the Security Council].

Sir Michael disclosed: “He [foreign secretary] took the view that I was being very dogmatic and that international law was pretty vague and that he wasn’t used to people taking such a firm position. When he [Straw] had been at the Home Office, he had often been advised things were unlawful but he had gone ahead anyway and won in the courts.”

Sir Michael told the Iraq inquiry that this was probably the first and only occasion that a minister rejected his legal advice in this way.

Sir Michael’s deputy at the Foreign Office was Elizabeth Wilmshurst. She followed him to the Iraq inquiry. She disclosed that the opinion of the entire legal team was unanimous that an invasion of Iraq would be illegal [without specific UN approval for the use of force]. She said the view among civil service officials was that an invasion without such legal basis would be a ‘nightmare scenario’.

Wilmshurst said that she regarded the invasion of Iraq illegal and therefore did not feel able to continue in her post. Wilmshurst decided to leave government. Explaining her decision, she said she would have been required to ‘support and maintain the Government’s position’ in international forums. The rules of international law on the use of force by States are at the heart of international law.

Wilmshurst said: “Collective security, as opposed to unilateral military action, was a central purpose of the Charter of the United Nations. Acting contrary to the Charter, as I perceived the Government to be doing, would have the consequence of damaging the United Kingdom’s reputation as a State committed to the rule of law in international relations and to the United Nations.”

The Iraq inquiry in the United Kingdom continues in the wake of the recent Dutch inquiry, which concluded that the Netherland’s political support for the 2003 invasion had no legal basis. That, and the weight of evidence emerging in London, would, in my view, make it very difficult for the UK inquiry to come out with a conclusion without an acknowledgement of that being the case.

The Iraq inquiry in Britain is to continue beyond May 2010, by when a general election is due. The consequences of the decision to go to war in Iraq will undoubtedly be a significant topic of the political debate in the run up to the election.

In Iraq itself, a suicide car bomber killed at least 18 people and injured around 80 others at a government forensics laboratory in Baghdad on Tuesday. The latest attack came as funerals were taking place of victims of the previous day’s bomb attacks, killing more than 35 people. The BBC correspondent in the Iraqi capital, Jim Muir, says these attacks are clearly coordinated and appear to be aimed at undermining security as Iraq prepares for a general election in March.

Osama bin Laden ‘emerges’ again

It has taken more then three weeks for a taped message purported to be from Osama bin Laden to emerge after the young Nigerian underwear bomber Omar Faroukh Abdulmuttallab tried to blow up a Delta Airlines plane as it prepared to land at Detroit. Several things are worth considering about the content, timing and motives of the latest audio message broadcast on Al Jazeera.

The message warns President Barack Obama of further attacks unless America finds a solution to the Palestinian crisis. In a soft, chilling manner that has become the trademark of Osama bin Laden, he warns: “The message I want to convey to you through the plane of the hero Omar Farouk [Abdulmuttallab] reaffirms a previous message that the heroes of 9/11 conveyed to you. America will never dream of living in peace unless we live it in Palestine. It is unfair that you enjoy a safe life while our brothers in Gaza suffer greatly.

“Therefore, with God’s will, our attacks on you will continue as long as you continue to support Israel.”

According to Al Jazeera, the message was thought to have been recorded just after the Christmas Day attempt of bombing, but released now. Why now? There are several explanations. Bin Laden is widely thought to be living somewhere in the north-west of Pakistan, heavily guarded and in conditions of great secrecy. He is a sick man and by various accounts needs kidney dialysis from time to time. Some even say he is dead. My suspicion is that it is unlikely he is no longer alive.

Recording a message and smuggling the tape out to Al-Jazeera takes time, especially when the hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban leaders is intense and American drone attacks are more frequent.

Equally important is the timing of this message. President Obama has suffered a number of major domestic and foreign policy setbacks in recent weeks. The enormity of his difficulties has become obvious in the last few days. The Democratic Party’s shock defeat in the Massachusetts Senate race has been a watershed in the young Obama administration.

Its effects for his plans for health reform, restructuring of the economic and banking system and tackling the unemployment problem are very serious. The Democratic Party is in disarray; the rump Republican opposition left in the Senate and the House of Representatives after the November 2008 general election is on an obstructive path, showing a surprising degree of cohesion and spirit.

Obama’s ambitious foreign policy agenda is also in disarray. His efforts to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace process have quickly reached a dead end, largely because of the Israeli government’s refusal to cooperate with his wish to see the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories halted. The Palestinian leadership finds it extremely difficult to come to the negotiating table before it happens and the current Israeli right-wing government will not bend.

Obama’s Af-Pak policy that appeared to be a sensible approach at the start has caused more problems than its promise to find solutions. America’s desire to build an ever closer strategic alliance with India, aimed at expanding lucrative trade and finding a counter to China, has instead run counter to Washington’s relations with Pakistan. For the first time, Pakistan’s public opinion as well as its military and political establishment are openly hostile to Washington’s plans.

The mood of the Afghan parliament is increasingly rebellious. It has twice rejected President Karzai’s cabinet nominees. The refusal to approve a large number of nominees is not merely a snub to President Karzai, a US-installed leader in Kabul. It is a message to the occupying powers, primarily America, deploying nearly 40000 additional troops in Afghanistan. After the presidential election fiasco of 2009, there was a real possibility of greater fraud and disruption by violence in the parliamentary elections in May 2010. More Western soldiers would have died. And the new parliament may well have been even more rebellious.

These, and not the want of funds needed to hold elections, were more pressing reasons for the postponement of the parliamentary elections until September 2010. There must be doubt whether they will take place then. A lot depends on whether the additional troops manage to supress the growing rebellion across Afghanistan.

The underlying message of the ruling political-military elite of Pakistan is that if the United States chooses India as its senior partner in South Asia, there will be a price to pay in terms of lost cooperation with Pakistan. That prospect involves greater risk.

Osama bin Laden’s message is deliberately timed with all these unwelcome developments for the Obama presidency and days before the London conference on January 28. Bin Laden’s goal is to cause maximum confusion and panic when there already is great uncertainty. He has once again picked up the Palestinian issue, which is at the heart of the ‘web of crises’ afflicting the entire Muslim world and communities beyond. Right from its birth, the Palestinian crisis, and the presence of American troops on Muslim soil, have been the two most potent items on al Qaeda’s agenda.

The United States cannot afford to relax its efforts to make progress on the Palestinian problem without there being consequences. Similarly, Obama cannot afford to keep American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq indefinitely if he is to give the peace offer he made to Muslims in Cairo in June 2009 a chance.

What is US Defense Secretary up to?

The United States Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, is making waves in South Asia. Gates speculated in India yesterday (January 20) that al Qaeda could spark another Indo-Pakistan war and appeared to encourage the Indians by declaring that next time there was a terrorist attack in India, her patience would be limited.

The defense secretary is in Pakistan today. As he arrived in Islamabad, news was out that he planned to tell the Pakistanis to broaden their military operations against the militants. The Pakistani military’s response was ‘No’. Pakistan’s army spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told the BBC that the country’s armed forces were already stretched and there would be no more operations in 2010.

Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government followed the army’s lead. Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Gailani told the Senate the military option was not the only solution to extremism and terrorism as 90 percent success was possible through economic development.

The scenario at the center of Defense Secretary Gates’s speculation potentially involves the following:

  • Militant groups may well want an India-Pakistan confrontation in the east. It would release pressure on them in the north-western frontier region. Pakistan’s army has already launched a number of operations in 2009, causing a serious problem of internally displaced people.
  • The warning Gates issued in Delhi that next time India’s patience would be limited was bound to be viewed as provocative in Pakistan. Surely, it is for the Indian leadership to decide, not for the United States’s.
  • In case of a confrontation visualized by the American defense secretary, the situation has the nasty potential that the fingers of both countries’ leaders could be near the nuclear button. India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons.
  • Aside from the threat of a nuclear showdown, the Taliban and their affiliates would be fighting together with Pakistani troops against India in the event of an Indo-Pakistan conflict.  
  • So what is Gates up to?  

Massachusetts delivers shock to Obama

In one of the biggest electoral upsets of all time in the United States, and a huge shock to President Obama, Republican Scott Brown has won the Massachusetts Senate seat held by Edward Kennedy for 47 years until his death last year and his brother John Kennedy from 1953 until he became president after his 1960 victory.

Brown secured 51.9 percent of the vote against 47.1 percent for Democrat Martha Coakley. Given the context, this is a substantial margin.

Marking the first anniversary of President Obama in office, the race became the focus of national attention. The result will be viewed as a sharp rebuke to him. Obama had staked his personal reputation by going to Massachusetts to campaign for Coakley just two days before.

Scott Brown’s victory restores filibuster power to the Republican opposition with 41 votes in the Senate, preventing Obama’s healthcare plan from moving forward. Edward M Kennedy had described health care as ‘the cause of my life’.

Even before the result came in, Democrats had begun to ponder what to do about health reform. The Washington Post warned that the upset could lead to the collapse of a plan that looked close to becoming law only a few weeks ago.

The Massachusetts defeat has far-reaching implications for the Democratic Party. Unemployment in the United States is a source of increasing frustration and resentment. With mid-term elections for the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate due in November, the Massachusetts victory has emboldened the Republican Party. Obama faces even greater challenges for his plans on a range of domestic issues.

On foreign policy, Obama’s June 2009 offer of improvement in relations with the Muslim world has hit a dead end. Relations with Iran have deteriorated sharply. A lot of the goodwill across the Middle East has been squandered because of the administration’s ceaseless emphasis on war and its failure to make any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president is uncharacteristically quiet while his secretaries of state and defense, and senior military commanders, continue the talk of war on a number of fronts, with Obama’s occasional reminder that he is the commander-in-chief of the world’s greatest power. And Guantanamo has not been closed despite Obama’s pledge to close it at the end of his first year in the White House.

As if that was not enough. On January 20, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, visiting India, indulged himself in quite irresponsible speculation that al Qaeda could try to provoke a new war between Pakistan and India. His remarks are unlikely to please his Indian hosts.

Democrats, after sweeping victories in the presidential and Congressional elections in November 2008, have no one else to blame but their own disunity and lack of real purpose. In her concession speech, an emotional Coakley said anybody on the campaign trail would have seen that folks ‘are angry and concerned about health-care issue and they are angry about our two wars’.