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Tony Blair’s Great Game: Toying with the Chilcot Investigation
By Charlotte Dennett
One of the most remarkable things about England’s ongoing “Iraq War Inquiry” is how little has been written about it in the U.S. Though many Britons believe the so-called Chilcot inquiry is a whitewash, there are important facts to glean from the testimony of high level officials who led Great Britain to the war in Iraq, facts which reveal contradictions in their official stories and bear comparison with the U.S. government’s version of what happened.
Last week, thanks to the internet, the transcript of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s testimony became available. His version of events leading up to the war, compared to the known facts about why the two most powerful nations in the world really went to war, revealed a high level of dissembling on his part -- especially on the issue of “regime change.” The secret to unraveling his lies and omissions is simple: insert the missing context of oil. During the BBC’s roundup of the first day of hearings, a BBC reporter spoke to one of the first witnesses, a foreign policy official who spoke about the impact of 9/11 on the Foreign Office’s deliberations as to the advisability of military intervention in Iraq. Then the BBC interviewed a British soldier who had been to Iraq. The soldier got right to the point: “This war is about oil, I don’t care what they say.”
Blair and his questioners said absolutely nothing about oil during a full day of testimony, so I shall provide the missing context below.
First, the known facts. Republican neo-cons advising Bush on his war strategy, including Vice President Dick Cheney (like Bush an inveterate oil man) had plotted for years to seize Iraq’s oil. Iraq was the first issue on their agenda when Bush came into office in 2000. Bush said “Find me a way,” and his lawyers got to work, concocting the necessary legal pretext for invading Iraq. But they all knew that seizing the oil was only half the equation. The other half was transporting the oil, via pipeline, to market. Their terminal point of choice was the Israeli port of Haifa, which housed not only a large refinery that had fueled the British navy in World War II, but was the terminal point for a previous pipeline that had connected the oil of Iraq to Palestine until the Israeli war of Independence in 1948.
Fast forward to April 4, 2003, only two weeks after the U.S invasion of Iraq. The Asia Times reported that “Iraqi consent [to building a new pipeline to Haifa] will be out of the question as long as the current [nationalist, anti-Israel] regime of Saddam Hussein is in power. As acknowledged by the Israeli minister [National Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky] a prerequisite for the project is, therefore, a new regime in Baghdad with friendly ties with Israel.” The new regime was to be headed up by Ahmad Chalabi, an exiled Iraqi leader, who openly supported the resurrected pipeline project. (Chalabi would go on to be Oil Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq in 2005-2006 before his precipitous fall from power after his duplicitous role in fabricating the WMD story became publicly known.)
The London Observer on April 20, 2003 quoted a former senior CIA official as saying that “it has long been a dream of a powerful section of the people now driving this administration [of President George W. Bush] and the war in Iraq to safeguard Israel’s energy supply as well as that of the United States. The Haifa pipeline was something that existed [up until Israel’s war of independence in 1948], was resurrected as a dream, and is now a viable project—albeit with a lot of building to do.”
Among the powerful people who favored the pipeline to Haifa were Pentagon neocons Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith, who, from the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, tried to link Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein to justify the invasion of Iraq. Between 2001 and the March, 2003 invasion, all worked closely with the now widely discredited New York Times reporter Judith Miller to develop the false WMD story, with crucial assistance from Ahmad Chalabi. Meanwhile, Bush’s lawyers were developing bogus legal arguments to justify the waterboarding of prisoners in an equally spurious attempt to elicit false confessions linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda and 9/11.
To sum up, the Bush administration came up with phony pretexts for the war in Iraq, cynically used a New York Times reporter to perpetuate its lies, tortured Afghan prisoners to further develop its lies, and then relied on lawyers in the Department of Justice to cover up its actions. All of this has been documented in the U.S., and yet Tony Blair apparently believed he could blithely sail through an entire day of questioning by the Chilcot Inquiry without being subjected to world condemnation.
Let’s look at what happened during his testimony about regime change in Iraq.
His questioners focused in on a meeting Blair had with President Bush in Crawford Texas in April, 2002, approximately a year before the invasion. No one – not even an advisor – was present at this meeting.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: “…From the evidence that we have heard so far, from now a large number of witnesses, and from the documents we have read, it does begin to appear that by about March or April of 2002 you were strongly attracted to the idea of changing the regime in Iraq.”
In fact, Lyne continued, the day after the meeting in Crawford, Blair told the press: "If necessary, the action should be military, and, again, if necessary and justified, it should involve regime change.”
Sir Roderic pressed on, asking if the meeting with Bush was a turning point in strategy.
Blair replied: “No, the absolutely key issue was the WMD issue.” WMD and regime change, he went on, were dual issues, both interconnected.
LYNE: “But, of course, in a recent television interview with Fern Britton you were asked then, ‘If you had known then that there were no WMDs, would you still have gone on?’ and you replied: ‘I would still have thought it right to remove him.’"
Blair danced around that question, without even hinting that the overriding goal was to seize Iraq’s oilfields. Then Baroneess Usha Prashar took up the questioning, focusing in on a meeting held at Chequers (the Prime Minister’s country retreat) right before the meeting at Crawford:
BARONESS USHA PRASHAR: “So the preparation for the meeting at Crawford that took place at Chequers…according to [Blair’s Director of Communications] Alastair Campbell's diaries, you told the Chequers meeting it was regime change in part because of WMD, but more broadly because of a threat to the region and the world. That's true?
BLAIR: “I think these things were sort of conjoined, really. I mean, the fact is it was an appalling regime and we couldn't run the risk of such a regime being allowed to develop WMD… The Americans in a sense were saying, "We are for regime change because we don't trust he is ever going to give up his WMD ambitions". We were saying, "We have to deal with his WMD ambitions. If that means regime change, so be it".
PRASHAR: “Can we then come to Crawford? Because you had one¬to¬one discussions with President Bush without any advisers present. Can you tell us what was decided at these discussions? “
BLAIR: “There was nothing actually decided,.. As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because Israel was a big, big issue at the time.”
Blair insisted that no specific commitment came out of the meeting, even though former Washington ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer had testified that Blair and Bush had signed a secret deal 'in blood' to topple Saddam Hussein almost a year before Iraq was invaded, and that officials found themselves searching for “a smoking gun” to justify going to war.
Now let’s just stop there. No one was present at these meetings. What would the two most powerful leaders of the Western World need to talk about in absolute private?
Might it be Iraq’s oil? Oil is the word no one dares mention in the context of what led to the war in Iraq – not in Congress, not in the official 9/11 Commission, not in the mainstream media and apparently, not in Great Britain. The Great Game for Oil, a subterranean war between nations to seize the earth’s remaining oil fields, has for over a century been a very deadly enterprise, and a very secretive one as well. My father, America’s first master spy in the Middle East, was also probably America’s first victim in the Great Game. Daniel C. Dennett died in a mysterious plane crash in Ethiopia in 1947 following a top secret mission to Saudi Arabia to work out the route of the Trans-Arabian pipeline.
The Great Game for Oil is the reason why not even conservatives have been able to get, through Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests, the low-down on what happened in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Task Force on Energy which first convened during the second week in office of George W. Bush – except some maps showing Iraq’s “super-giant oil fields.” British Petroleum (BP), irreverently called “Blair Petroleum” in Britain because of the Prime Minister’s intimacy with his country’s major oil company, was in on Cheney’s task force meetings.
In July, 2002 – just three months after the secret Blair-Bush meetings in Crawford and in the midst of Miller’s unrelenting (and, it turns out, false) New York Times reporting about WMDs, Blair held a top secret meeting at his Downing Street residence with some of his advisors about regime change. An internal memo summarizing the July 23 meeting (and subsequently leaked to the press, becoming the infamous “Downing Street Memo,”) declares: “Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy… The case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. 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.”
One person objected: Britain’s Attorney General, Jack Goldsmith. Notes the memo : “The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. “
The memo went on: “The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD… If the political context were right, people would support regime change.”
I could find no reference to the Downing Street Memo in the transcript of Blair’s testimony, but the following exchange is revealing:
SIR MARTIN GILBERT: “You told the House of Commons Liaison Committee in July 2002, when they asked, ‘Are we preparing for possible military action against Iraq?’ you replied, ‘No, there are no decisions that have been taken about military action.’ But we have heard from other witnesses that, while no operational decisions were taken on military action, a whole range of decisions were being taken about military options, including, of course, joint planning with the United States… My question is: would it not have been reasonable for you, and indeed expedient, to have explained publicly, much earlier than you did, that while the UK hoped for a peaceful outcome in disarming Saddam Hussein, we were also preparing for all eventualities including military action?
BLAIR: “We had not decided we would take military action at that point. On the other hand, you couldn't say it wasn't a possibility… Our position was we wanted to get America down the UN route and get a resolution through the United Nations. Now, because … you couldn't be sure that the United Nations route was going to work … in fact, the likelihood is that it wouldn't … nonetheless we had to do military planning for it.
In fact, American Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind has revealed that in January 2003, two months before the invasion, Bush suggested flying a U-2 reconnaissance plane painted in UN colors over Iraq to trigger a retaliatory strike by Saddam Hussein, thus putting Hussein in breach of UN resolutions.
Sir Roderic Lyne brought up Blair’s failure to heed his own Attorney General’s warnings about the dubious legality of the war.
SIR RODERIC LYNE: “[Attorney General Goldsmith] told us that he volunteered [his concerns] after your meeting of 23 July when you were about to go off and see President Bush and he had volunteered written advice to in a minute of 30 July, the text of which is not in the public domain, but he commented to us that this advice, he felt had not been particularly welcome.
Goldsmith’s warnings about the questionable legality of an invasion and regime change would come up repeatedly in the questioning, for as it turned out, Goldsmith’s opposition persisted until the very final days before the invasion, when he changed his position, reportedly as a result of intense pressure from Blair’s advisors.
As in the U.S., the dubious legality of the war is at the heart of Blair’s – and Bush’s – criminal liability for sending troops to war on false pretenses.
Sir John Chilcot made it very clear that “this is not a trial. No one is to be punished; that is for the courts to decide.” But the British public was sufficiently dissatisfied with Blair’s explanations after a full day of questioning that polls showed that 80 percent think Tony Blair is a liar. His comment during the final moments of his testimony, that he bore “responsibility but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein,” did not sit well with the families of dead soldiers sitting in the audience, or with the British public.
Bush and Blair helped bring about a victory for the world’s major oil companies. In November, 2009, Exxon Mobil and Shell signed a contract with Iraq to develop its second largest oilfield, and BP, along with the Chinese state energy company CNBC, snapped up Iraq’s giant Rumalia field. But at what cost?
General Sir Michael Rose, one of Britain’s most distinguished generals who is now retired, put the cost of this war in stark terms: “Over 100,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 4,500 soldiers from coalition forces have been killed during almost seven years of the occupation - and probably ten times that number have been injured. Two million Iraqis have fled their country and another two million have been internally displaced. Up to $3 trillion has been spent on the war by America - a staggering sum that is likely to have played a significant part in the collapse of the American banking system and helped create the present difficulties facing the world economy.”
General Rose believes the Chilcot inquiry “should be the first step in a judicial process that [may]…ultimately result in Tony Blair being indicted for war crimes.”
George Bush and Tony Blair take heed: The world is watching, and we are not forgetting. Your age of impunity is over. We are now entering the age of accountability.
Charlotte Dennett is the author of the newly released The People v. Bush: One Lawyer’s Campaign to Bring the President to Justice and the National Grassroots Movement She Encounters Along the Way. Formerly a journalist reporting from the Middle East, she now practices law.