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regime change

Tony Blair <em>Picture: Remy Steinegger</em>

Tony Blair Picture: Remy Steinegger

Tony Blair – how can we get rid of the man? – is on the warpath again. Plugging his book (which has been around but which I won’t name) in a BBC interview, he outlined “our” plans for the Middle East, explaining how “we” must ensure that the Arab Spring blossoms into Western-style democracy and religious freedom across the region.

Singling out Egypt as a potential blueprint, the born-again former PM acknowledged that this will be no easy task, given that most Arab countries have little experience of democracy or religious tolerance and are plagued by tribalism. So far so good, and fair enough.

But how do “we” shape the Middle East into the kind of region “we” want it to be? “We” didn’t manage very well when “we” invaded Iraq, where violence persists more than eight years on, though that reality has long faded from newspaper headlines.

That wouldn’t stop Blair, though, would it? He seems to be enjoying the daily bombardment of Libya, confident that regime change will be effected there in due course. What happens after that? He didn’t say. He obviously doesn’t know, though he is the EU Middle East envoy – a very big job indeed, as the BBC points out, without wondering why he has the job in the first place.

I suppose Blair wants us to read his book, but life is too short for that, surely. I wonder what it has to say about David Kelly? Blair had nothing to say today.

Closer to home, yet even closer to Heaven than Blair, the Archbishop of Canterbury drew embarrassed, defensive comments from the Tories and Lib Dems after he excoriated them in the New Statesman for ploughing ahead with an agenda no one voted for. He is right, of course, but with the coalition government all over the place on health and justice and the bankers and just about everything else, Sky News thought it pertinent to remind viewers that the New Statesman virtually speaks for the Labour party (what, as the Spectator speaks for the Tories? Tell us something we don’t know).

Boris Johnson, spluttering away as usual on Sky, suggested the Arch Bish (I kid you not) potter along to a community garden somewhere in London to take a look for himself how the Big Society is actually working. I couldn’t help imagining Boris as a vicar himself, dog collar and all, wandering around a church fête. sampling the cakes and sipping tea – surely a job more suited to him than his current one.

Imagine him at the pulpit: he’d certainly get the congregation up, he’d have them in stitches, but as a politician he’s a twit. They seem to know how to produce them at Eton.

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Gordon_Brown_PhotoGordon Brown today gave the Chilcot Inquiry his own reason why Britain went to war in Iraq – and it was not because he believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

He said Britain’s original intention in preparing for war had been to show potential aggressor states that the “international community” was determined to act in a “post Cold War world”. “Nobody wants to go to war, nobody wants to see innocent people die, nobody wants to see your forces put at risk,” he said, but added: “I believe we made the right decision for the right reasons.”

In an extraordinary admission, he began to say that the “regime change” and WMD reasons for war had come later; however, he was not pressed on this statement by the panel. He suggested he was at odds with Tony Blair over the Bush” administration’s policy, in that he had “never subscribed to the neo-conservative view” that peace could be imposed “at the barrel of a gun.”

“I don’t think that we were fully aware of all the tensions within the US administration,” he said in a swipe at former US secretary of state for defence Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and other neo-conservatives in the Bush administration. “It is one of my regrets that we couldn’t persuade the Americans… I did a paper [for] the Americans that said these things needed to be planned for and we needed the international agencies to be involved…

“You cannot win the peace simply by military action… you need to give them a chance of political empowerment at some stage, and you need economic development.”

His criticism of US neo-conservatives will have struck a chord with the anti-war lobby but time and again Brown seemed to avoid questions on how much he knew about the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq – with or without final approval of the UN Security Council – or on how closely he had been briefed by Tony Blair on the latter’s conversations and correspondence with the US president.

He defended the way Tony Blair had conducted the conflict, saying “everything that Mr Blair did during this period, he did properly,” and after being pressed repeatedly on whether he had seen correspondence between Blair and Bush, he said: “I did not see Mr Blair’s private letters to the US president.” The correspondence, mentioned by Alastair Campbell in his testimony in January, has led to speculation that Blair knew about Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2002.

But Brown – who stressed on several occasions that at the time he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, not Foreign Secretary – was adamant that no decision to go to war was made by the British cabinet until “all diplomatic avenues” had been exhausted. This happened, he said, only when it became clear that “some countries” – he mentioned France, which was on the Security Council at the time, but also Germany, which was not – were not prepared to back military action under any circumstances. France, however, has always insisted that it simply wanted more time for UN nuclear inspectors to complete their task in Iraq; Chile, which was also on the Security Council at the time, had also insisted that that was the way forward.

Brown brushed off a question by the panel on why he had agreed to the invasion when the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had earlier expressed doubts about the legality of the war. Brown said: “In retrospect, historians will look at it very carefully: first drafts, second drafts, third drafts … The question that came before us was, was the advice of the attorney general unequivocal advice? He had a straightforward question: was it lawful or was it not? And he gave an unequivocal answer. Unless he was prepared to say that his unequivocal advice was not lawful, I would not have changed my view…”

He said he believed in future the House of Commons should have the right to make the final decision on going to war, “and that is something I am working on”, although he said it was important to point out that the matter had gone to the House of Commons “and we have to remember that the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of taking military action”. He acknowledged, however, that the late former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, had the view “that the policies applied in the no fly zone were a better way of dealing with the problem [of Saddam Hussein].”

Like Blair and others before him, Brown blamed faulty intelligence for the missing weapons of mass destruction: “We subsequently discovered that the sources were the wrong sources. I had full briefing from the intelligence sources and the information seemed plausible at the time.”

At the time of the invasion, when asked how much Britain was prepared to spend on the war in Iraq, Brown famously said: “Whatever it takes.” Today he said the Iraq war had cost Britain about £1 billion a year, with the total so far amounting to £8 billion.

He denied accusations that budget cuts had left soldiers unprotected, insisting that all requests for equipment for the invasion were granted, and the defence budget was continually rising during the war: “I do not believe that there was any request that was made for equipment during the course of these events in Iraq that was turned down.”

In any case, “the effects of the Iraq invasion are far less than, for example, the effects of the global financial crisis on the economy,” although the war did “make my life more difficult” because so much money had to be found to fund it.

Warming to his idea of a new world order, Brown said the world community had to move on from peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. He seemed to be calling for a new international organisation to police “rogue” and “failed” states across the world. And he named names: “If in Zimbabwe there were to be a change of government … or in Somalia… there are going to be interventions in future for humanitarian or other reasons, then we should have an international agency.”

Brown will have done little to enhance his image among grieving relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq when he said it had taken “seven days to win the war, and seven years to win the peace”, and that the war was “tragic” but “necessary”. With a flurry of bomb attacks in the run-up to Sunday’s election in Iraq, and with a lasting peace after US withdrawal by next year hardly a foregone conclusion, the prime minister may have been looking for headlines. But his repeated reference to the “international community”, when only the United States, Britain and perhaps Spain were prepared to go to war at the time was simply absurd.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: “Gordon Brown’s articulate performance cannot conceal the fact that military spending was inadequate, that intelligence was flawed and that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

“Seven years on, he has now allied himself, without qualification, to Tony Blair’s decision to embark on the worst foreign policy disaster since Suez in 1956.”

Photograph: The U.S. Army

Photograph: The U.S. Army

When Barack Obama won the US presidency, cynical observers wondered whether he might prove to be a case of “new packaging, same old product” – mainly because of the poisoned chalice of US “commitments” abroad he inherited from the Bush administration.

Were they right? How far would the White House’s marketing men go to present an old conflict in a new light?

Look no further than a memo  by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, leaked to ABC News, announcing the rebranding of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to the new, fresh, improved “Operation New Dawn”. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration (old product) says the new name, which is scheduled to take effect on September 1, “sends a strong signal that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended and our forces are operating under a new mission”.

So… from regime change, to name change.

Military Families United, a pressure group that supports families of both active military personnel and war veterans, said the move is a public relations stunt because “you cannot end a war simply by changing its name”.

New dawn or a ride into the sunset, all US troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq by the end of next year.