Monday 16 September 2019

There's blood on his hands - but Blair wasn't alone

Chilcot makes it easy to blame Blair. But back in 2003 millions could see that the war was based on lies. Many just didn't want to see

Lies: More than 100,000 Irish people took to the streets in 2003 to protest against the impending war - but George W Bush spoke to the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern saying 'Ireland is a valued member of the coalition against global terror and we thank you' Photo: REUTERS / Paul McErlane
Lies: More than 100,000 Irish people took to the streets in 2003 to protest against the impending war - but George W Bush spoke to the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern saying 'Ireland is a valued member of the coalition against global terror and we thank you' Photo: REUTERS / Paul McErlane
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

About three million people marched in Rome that day, February 15, 2003. Half a million in Paris, another half a million in Berlin, more than a million in London. In Dublin, there were over 100,000 of us.

In all, it was bigger than any protest, ever. One estimate put the global total of those marching that day at about eight million. Over three months, spanning a period before and after the invasion, about 36 million people demonstrated against the war.

But, we were on the losing side and we knew it. No one doubted the war would go ahead. And the military strength of the USA was enough to smash all Iraqi resistance.

Last week, when the Chilcot report appeared, the media had its spin ready. Most British newspapers had front page headlines over photos of Tony Blair. "Blair's Private War"; "Shamed Blair"; "Blair is world's worst terrorist"; "Harsh verdict on Blair"; "A Monster of Delusion".

Some of us, even today, find it difficult to say Mr Blair's name without adding a string of profanities. He was a blood-stained egomaniac who gave cynical political cover to the US adventure. But it wasn't his war. Depicting the war as the decision of an individual leader, posing that decision as a "mistake", is as deceptive as the spin that preceded the invasion.

Blair and his partner-in-blood, George Bush, acted in concert with huge swathes of the establishment - at home, and in other countries, including ours.

There was no "mistake"; the "flawed intelligence" didn't lead them to war, it was a handy, threadbare excuse.

The reason tens of millions protested in 2003 was that the case for war was so obviously shabby. It's not as though those of us who marched had some special insight into the reality of Middle East relations. There were specialists among us, yes, who knew the terrible consequences likely to arise from the adventure. But the vast majority were ordinary people who knew a political mugging when they saw it.

Bush's mouthpiece, Colin Powell, held up a vial of anthrax at the UN - this was what the deadly chemical looked like, he told the world. And Saddam had tons of it.

Impressive, but the vial was what anthrax would have looked like, if Iraq had it, which it hadn't.

You had to be very naive to buy that nonsense, or very cynical.

Behind the scenes, Powell almost revolted against his task. "I'm not reading this, this is bullshit," he said, tossing sheets of paper into the air, according to US News and World Report. But he did the job.

In order to try out a mad and doomed plan to reshape the Middle East, Bush and Blair promoted a vicious local dictator - one of many - as the new Hitler. The bloody consequences will be with us for decades.

Those like Dennis Halliday and Robert Fisk - who knew the region and warned of what would happen - were dismissed. Opponents of war were portrayed as appeasers, apologists for Saddam, cowards and anti-American.

It suits the Times today to dub the bloodshed "Blair's Private War". In 2003, the paper backed the invasion, as did every single one of the other 174 "editorially independent" newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch.

It wasn't Blair's private war, it was a very public political split between those willing to go along with trumped-up imperial adventure and those who weren't.

It was depressing, in the days leading to the bloodshed, to know that despite the millions opposed to the warmongering, the killing would go ahead. A triumphant right wing was poised to gloat. Bush had said, "You're with us or against us". Those who opposed the war would not be forgiven.

The propaganda blitz, facilitated by a media that saw what it wanted to see, provided covering fire for the coming slaughter.

We saw the phenomenon of the "liberal hawks", prominent alleged liberals who flipped and backed the war. It was the safe tactical choice for those with markets to protect. To be on the losing side again, to be toppled from positions of respect and influence, would be costly, wearying and unthinkable. The likes of journalist Christopher Hitchens decided that yes, blitzing Baghdad was the way to go. He was up to attacking Mother Theresa. George Bush, not so much. As with individuals, so with governments. It was openly stated that the destruction would "shock and awe" Iraq. And there would be billions of dollars in profits to be made in the reconstruction of Iraq. These things were discussed in a matter-of-fact way.

Only companies from the countries that were part of the "coalition of the willing" would be allowed to tender for such reconstruction. Beyond that, opposition to a swaggering US might well lead to reconsideration of investment strategies.

This was a problem for our establishment.

The war was so blatantly illegal that offering soldiers was out of the question, even overt statements of support would upset too many. But we had to make it clear we were onside. So, our establishment did what it's really good at - it nodded and winked.

Oh, we just want peace, said Taoiseach Bertie Ahern - nod.

Days before the slaughter began, Ahern brought a bowl of shamrock to the White House - wink.

There, Bush told him, "Ireland is a valued member of the coalition against global terror and we thank you."

Our government was cool with that.

From January 2003, tens of thousands of US troops began to flow through Shannon Airport, using Ireland as a staging post for the invasion. Thirteen years later, the airport is still a US military resource.

In 2007, according to a secret US cable published by Wikileaks, our government informed the US ambassador that it was "quite convinced that at least three flights involving renditions had refuelled at Shannon" (renditions are the transport of kidnap victims to places of torture).

The government let the ambassador know it would pay a heavy political price if the public found out about any such flight. Was there a chance the Americans would allow us search a few planes at random, as that would "provide cover if a rendition flight ever surfaced"?

Ah, no, you're fine as you are. And, today, we continue to nod and to wink. And, now, to wag our fingers at that bloody Blair.

Sunday Independent

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