Days before Tony Blair is due to testify before the Iraq Inquiry in London, Stefan Simanowitz comments on the performance of Alistair Campbell, one of Blair’s closest aides.
By the end of his six hour cross examination by the Iraq Inquiry panel in London, Tony Blair’s former director of communications and strategy, Alistair Campbell, must have felt as if he had been, in the immortal words of a veteran British politician, “savaged by a dead sheep”. Arriving at the Chilcot Inquiry, the bags under his eyes suggested that Tony Blair’s former communications and strategy director might have suffered a few sleepless nights. But by the end of his ’grilling’ by the ineffectual panel, he seemed relaxed and was clearly enjoying the opportunity of setting out his version of history unchallenged.
Officially launched on 30th July 2009, the Chilcot Inquiry is intended to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict. Its terms of reference are broad, covering the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, and considering all aspects of the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken. A series of public hearings have been underway for some months, with the five person panel chaired by Lord Chilcot, questioning key government and military officials from the time. Their final report, expected early 2011, will be debated in Parliament.
The Inquiry has faced criticism on various issues ranging from the composition of its committee, hand picked by Gordon Brown, and the fact that its remit was determined by the government rather than by Parliament. Others question how this Inquiry will avoid being seen as a whitewash in the way that previous inquiries have. There have already been four inquiries into aspects of the Iraq conflict: the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the joint Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee both looked into the intelligence used to justify war; the Hutton inquiry examined the circumstances surrounding the death of scientist Dr David Kelly and the claim by the government that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes; the Butler inquiry again looked at the intelligence which was used to justify the war.
Alistair Campbell, the government’s chief spin doctor from 1994 until 2003, was the Inquiry’s most notable witness to date and provided the perfect warm-up man for Tony Blair who is due to give evidence at the end of the month. Campbell’s performance was masterful, simultaneously playing down his role in the decision to go to war whilst at the same time making it clear that he was present at every step of the way. Whilst he may have been involved in all the meetings with cabinet, intelligence chiefs and US politicians he was only responsible for communications and not for policy. Whilst he may have put the sexed-up dossier together any changes made to it were entirely down to Sir John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and it was the media who were to blame for writing misleading headlines claiming that Iraqi chemical and biological weapons could reach a British base in Cyprus.
Tony Blair may have been forced to engage in an illegal war, but that was only after the French “pulled the plug” on a legal route by stating that they would not support a second UN resolution under any circumstances. Campbell’s repeated accusations that the French had been ultimately to blame for the failure of the UN path has been the British Government line ever since February 2003 when it became clear that a second UN resolution would not be passed. None of the panel pointed out to Campbell that other Security Council members would not have backed a second resolution and that the words of President Chirac had actually been that France would “vote no because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war”.
The panel also failed to address the key question, namely even if weapons of mass destruction did exist, where was the evidence of intent to use them? Where was the evidence of imminent attack? Arguing that the invasion of Iraq was based on the principle of ‘anticipatory self defence’ or ‘preventive war’ as Campbell implied, is to admit that the war was illegal. By allowing the concept that wars can be fought on the basis of what states might do rather than what they have done or are about to do, shatters the precepts of international law. A world where international legal principles no longer apply is a much more dangerous place.
Apart from Sir Roderic Lyne, the panel were abject in their failure to challenge Campbell. Presided over by an avuncular Lord Chilcot, Baroness Prashar stuck doggedly to her list of pre-prepared questions and Sir Martin Gilbert, who had once suggested that Blair and Bush would be viewed by history in a similar way to Churchill and Roosevelt, grinned at Campbell throughout. However, even if Campbell had been rigorously cross-examined, it is unlikely that the style or content of what he had to say would have differed greatly. Indeed, there was something refreshing in Campbell’s upfront bluntness and defiance.
Up until now the Iraq Inquiry has had to endure the unedifying spectacle of Tony Blair’s key civil servants queuing up to denounce their former boss. Whilst the principled few did resign, the vast majority of Whitehall mandarins chose career over scruples and were instrumental in implementing and spinning the country headline into war. Sir Ken MacDonald, Tony Blair’s former Director of Public Prosecutions recently said that it was the failure of “the governing class” to speak truth to power that allowed Tony Blair to lead the country to war without recognising that the governing class includes all those in government at the time. When it comes to Alistair Campbell’s testimony, there was no ’j’accuse’ and there was certainly no ’mea culpa’. Rather than seeing Britain’s involvement in the unlawful and misguided invasion of Iraq as one of the most shameful and damaging episodes in post-war British history, Campbell took a very different view. “I think that Britain as a country should feel incredibly proud” he said before sweeping out the room.