Reading the recently-published memoirs of George W Bush and Tony Blair is a strange experience – seeing recent history refracted through the eyes of our war leaders, and seeing more deeply into the former US president and British prime minister. The books present justifications for their crimes against humanity; and for the invasion of Iraq in particular.
Bush’s Decision Points was published at the beginning of November, two months after Blair’s A Journey. (Their shared publisher Random House no doubt sought to avoid one autobiography overshadowing the other – and to avoid invidious comparisons between the two books.) Both books are avowedly personal, and decidedly colloquial. Blair writes: “Polls are an absolute nightmare.” Bush records telling a recalcitrant Republican during the 2008 financial crisis: “the whole economy is on the line. The son of a bitch is going to go down if we don’t step in.”
Decision Points is an excellent example of political ventriloquism, with Bush’s ghostwriter Christopher Michel providing solid prose, compelling storytelling, excellent structure, and thorough research as well as occasional authentic Bushspeak (though no Bushisms). Michel, 28, was Bush’s favourite speech-writer, working in the White House from 2003 until the end of the presidency in 2009, and his professionalism shines through.
In contrast, Tony Blair wrote A Journey himself, longhand, and it shows. The writing has been widely condemned as “execrable”. As Andrew Rawnsley wrote in the Observer: “No cliche is avoided. Loins are girded, leashes are strained at, die are cast, lights appear at the end of tunnels and wounds are rubbed with salt.”
With a professional writer and an experienced editor on board, Bush’s book is both more readable and less revealing. Decision Points carefully constructs the image of a humble man. A Journey, on the other hand, exposes Blair as extraordinarily arrogant. He begins with the breathtaking statement that: “I wanted this book to be different from the traditional political memoir. Most such memoirs are, I have found, rather easy to put down.” In his attempt to be gripping, Blair tries in his own way to be candid. For example, see his thoughts on Lady Diana Spencer (“the people’s princess”): “We were both in our ways manipulative people, perceiving quickly the emotions of others and able instinctively to play with them”.
One side-effect of writing A Journey himself is that Blair creates curious inconsistencies which one would expect an editor to have caught.
As we observed when A Journey appeared in September (PN 2526), the book gives three contradictory accounts of the departure of UN weapons inspectors from Iraq in December 1998. Blair says variously that “Saddam had thrown out the weapons inspectors”; “the inspection team had left in protest” at Iraq’s obstructiveness; and, finally, that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein “effectively threw inspectors out of Iraq” in 1998.
Under questioning by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight on 6 February 2003, Blair was forced to withdraw his claim that the inspectors had been “put out of Iraq” in December 1998, and concede that: “They were withdrawn”.
Bush is more consistent in Decision Points, saying that Saddam Hussein “forced the UN weapons inspectors to leave the country”: “he booted inspectors out of the country”.
In fact, the chief UN weapons inspector, Richard Butler, revealed that he withdrew his team on 15 December 1998 not in protest at Iraqi obstruction, but because of a warning to be “prudent” with his staff from the US ambassador to the UN Peter Burleigh. The warning indicated imminent US-UK airstrikes.
After the airstrikes, it was revealed that US intelligence had penetrated the inspection agency UNSCOM and planted spying devices in Iraq inside UNSCOM monitoring equipment (see UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter’s Endgame). Iraq refused to re-admit the inspectors and UNSCOM died.
Richard Butler wrote later of the agency he had run: “If one uses the test of looking rationally at outcomes, without ascribing motives, it could be argued that the death of UNSCOM also became US policy because that is what has happened.” Equally, it can be argued that US policy in 2003 also aimed at the destruction of the UN weapons inspection agency that replaced UNSCOM.
There is a very telling moment in Peter Stothard’s behind-the-scenes account of the run-up to the 2003 invasion (Stothard was given unprecedented access to Blair for 30 Days, the title of his book). At a cabinet meeting on 15 March: “Gordon Brown, sitting judge-like on his Chancellor’s bench, is the only figure from the war team who can highlight the chief flaw in the policy as it is seen from the streets. ‘What people ask me is, why is there not just a little more delay?’ ”
Blair has no answer. He “snaps impatiently”: “The reason is that you just go back to [UN security council resolution] 1441: time, time and more time.”
Not years, but months
As Blair well knew, this was a gross distortion. Just over a week earlier, on 7 March 2003, the new chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, had told the UN security council that verifying Iraq’s statements, analysing the available documents, and interviewing the relevant people (assuming “pro-active” co-operation from Iraq) “would not take years, nor weeks, but months”.
Not “time, time and more time”, just months.
The inspectors, with the support of countries such as Russia, did all they could to accelerate the start of this final inspection process. Their “draft work programme”, which would have initiated a final and decisive period of inspections, was scheduled to be circulated to members of the security council on 17 March.
The US also seems to have accelerated its war plans, bringing its final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein forward to... 17 March.
On 15 March, the inspectors were told once again that it would be “prudent” to leave Iraq. For the second time in five years they were evicted from Iraq by the United States, just as they were about to begin the decisive phase of their work.
The inspectors had come into the picture in a curious way. Blair met his inner circle of ministers and officials on 23 July 2002 to discuss the hardening attitudes towards Iraq in the Bush administration.
The head of MI6, Richard Dearlove, reported: “Military action was now seen as inevitable” in Washington. Foreign secretary Jack Straw said, according to a record of the meeting: “We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.”
The attorney general Lord Goldsmith warned that the only possible legal justification for war would be “UNSC authorisation”, and relying on the existing UN security council resolutions “would be difficult”.
Blair responded enthusiastically to the inspection/ultimatum idea: “The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.... If the political context were right, people would support regime change.” (We know all of this because of the famous top-secret “Downing Street memo” of the meeting, published in the Sunday Times on 1 May 2005.)
The weapons inspectors were brought into the picture in order to help build support for war, not as an alternative to war. This destructive attitude to the inspectors was clear long before the Downing Street memo was leaked. On 7 March 2003, as we have seen, Hans Blix said he was about to enter the final months of inspections. Two days later, Blair’s official spokesperson said: “We believe the Blix process is now complete.”
Erasing the inspectors
What do Blair and Bush say about the inspection process in their memoirs? Bush ignores the UN weapons inspectors almost entirely, concentrating on the politics and the practicalities of the lead-up to war. The inspection option is dismissed in one sentence: “Some believed we could contain Saddam by keeping the inspectors in Iraq. But I didn’t see how. If we were to tell Saddam he had another chance – after declaring this was his last chance – we would shatter our credibility and embolden him.”
Actually, the final UN weapons inspections Blix was about to initiate were not “another chance”; they were the same “last chance” that Bush and Blair said they had offered to Saddam.
Furthermore, the inspectors were, in March 2003, actually disarming Saddam, not emboldening him. “Highly doubtful”
As for Blair, he likes the 27 January 2003 weapons inspectors’ report to the security council (which was hard on Iraq). He likes the report so much he quotes it for five long pages.
The 14 February report, which acknowledged increasing Iraqi cooperation, receives a paragraph. Hans Blix’s 7 March report to the security council, which recorded unprecedented Iraqi cooperation, is dealt with in a handful of lines. Blair does not refer to the evidence of cooperation (including the destruction of 34 al-Samoud missiles) or quote Blix’s statement that the remaining inspection process would take only “months”.
Blair’s final word on the inspection process is that “though both we and Blix wanted more time [in mid-March 2003], it is highly doubtful that it would have yielded anything other than the (wrong) conclusion that because Saddam had no active WMD programme, therefore he was not a threat.”
So it was right to terminate the inspections in mid-March 2003, when new and decisive inspections were about to begin, and Iraq was demonstrating increased cooperation, because it is “highly doubtful” that continued inspections would have been successful (in Blair’s terms).
“Highly doubtful.” That is all the rationale, in the end, that Blair can summon up for breaking the inspectors and making war in mid-March 2003.
Both of these memoirs demonstrate the arrogance of power, the deliberate ignoring of undesirable aspects of reality. The arrogance of these two men destroyed the weapons inspections which were a nonviolent method of resolving the Iraq crisis, and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Their arrogance and their aggression cost George W Bush and Tony Blair much of the political capital they had accumulated and will stain their reputations forever.
A Journey indicates that Blair is still troubled by what he has done – or by the fact that he has had to pay a price for his actions. Bush, on the other hand, appears to serenely believe that he was doing God’s work.