The decision to keep secret the full correspondence between George W Bush and Tony Blair instead of allowing the Chilcot inquiry to publish it has been rightly pilloried as a self-serving, dishonest attempt by politicians and civil servants to conceal their role in a disastrous war in Iraq.
By focusing public attention on exchanges between Bush and Blair that are to remain secret, the agreement between Sir John Chilcot and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, gives the impression that there are bodies still buried and yet to be unearthed. This diverts attention from the fact that the most evil-smelling of these bodies have always been in plain sight. Who really thinks that Blair and his coterie were truthful in saying they believed that Saddam Hussein with his weapons of mass destruction was a threat so great that it could not be contained without military action?
The Chilcot inquiry has turned into a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan comedy about the British establishment, dysfunctional in everything except hiding its own mistakes. More is at stake here than simply the evasion of responsibility for launching a war that turned into a fiasco. The ludicrous length of the inquiry shows a belief on the part of British politicians and civil service mandarins that they have nothing to learn from mistakes made in Iraq.
We know they learned nothing because the reasons and rhetoric used to justify the British part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 were being trotted out again as British forces moved into Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2006. A pretence of humanitarian concern for the Libyan people was used in 2011 to explain Nato’s intervention to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, much as had happened in Iraq. Recall how a hypothetical massacre by Gaddafi’s forces at Benghazi was used as justification for Nato airstrikes. But when militiamen we had installed in power later carried out real massacres by firing anti-aircraft guns into crowds of protesters in Benghazi and Tripoli, there were only mouse-squeaks of concern from Washington and London.
To give the Chilcot inquiry contemporary relevance, it should extend its brief to cover British military interventions, both small and large scale, conducted subsequent to Iraq but along very much the same lines. Otherwise, the traditional British court of inquiry, so brazenly designed to get the establishment off the hook, will become one more colourful relic of Britain’s past, like Beefeaters or clog dancing.
The agreement of Sir John Chilcot and Sir Jeremy Heywood to censor the Bush-Blair papers comes just as President Obama was spelling out to cadets at West Point his thoughts about America’s role in the world. His speech, at least, had the advantage of looking with attempted realism at contemporary events, such as the civil war in Syria, which David Cameron and William Hague were so willing to join in lock-step with the US last year – until blocked by Parliament which had been soured by past disasters.
Obama has considered seriously how the world is changing, most especially in Syria, where he said that “as the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases”. He noted that a new strategy was needed because “today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized al-Qa’ida leadership. Instead it comes from decentralised al-Qa’ida affiliates.”
This should be of some concern to British political leaders and officialdom, since London is much closer to al-Qa’ida reborn than New York or Washington. A repeat of 7/7 is more likely than a repeat of 9/11, though both are possible. The net results of the wars that Britain has participated in either openly or covertly since 9/11 – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – has been hugely to strengthen al-Qa’ida-type movements. They now control or can freely operate in a vast area, larger in size than Great Britain, which stretches from the Tigris River to the Mediterranean.
British and American policy has been to pretend that we support the “moderate” military opposition, but this no longer exists inside Syria. The anti-Assad rebels are overwhelmingly dominated by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), formerly al-Qa’ida in Iraq, Jabhat al-Nusra, the official representative of what the Americans call al-Qa’ida central, and some other jihadi groups. Only one Syrian provincial city out of 14 has fallen to the opposition. This is Raqqa in the east of country, which is today held by Isis, who recently crucified some of their opponents in the main square.
Obama sees the problem, but his prescription of what to do is only going to exacerbate it. He will avoid direct US military action, but will outsource support for the rebels – now too toxic for the US to arm directly – to countries such as Turkey, across whose 510-mile-long border with Syria extreme jihadis pass without hindrance. The situation is not without precedent: after the overthrow in Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, the murderers of more than a million of their own people, by the Vietnamese army in 1979, the US, China and Britain backed Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, and recognised his government as Cambodia’s true representative at the UN. It was subsequently revealed that the British covertly gave military training to armed groups associated with the Khmer Rouge.
The jihadi insurgent movements in Syria are the Islamic version of the Khmer Rouge who, like their Cambodian predecessors, dominate the rebel-held enclaves. Moreover, Isis has seized much of western Iraq right up to the western outskirts of Baghdad. Iraqi security forces are capturing sophisticated weapons from Isis originally supplied by US and British allies to supposed moderate rebels in Syria.
The potential for disaster in Syria in 2014 is, in many ways, greater than in Iraq in 2003. In this growing crisis, the Chilcot inquiry comic opera is playing a small but ignoble role.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.