Did the head of MI6 mislead the Iraq inquiry?

He is wrong to claim that no one anticipated the violence

The MI6 boss, Sir John Sawers -- he of Speedos fame -- gave evidence to the Iraq inquiry yesterday. But did Sir John, wittingly or unwittingly, mislead Chilcot and co?

Here's what he said (courtesy of the BBC website):

"Very few observers actually highlighted the scale of the violence that we could face. I think about the only person in my recollection who got it right was President Mubarak who warned of unleashing 100 Bin Ladens."

He said undefeated elements of the Ba'athist regime combined with international terrorists and Iran-backed "Shia extremists" had created an "onslaught of violence that was not thought through by any observer".

Sir John said: "I think frankly, had we known the scale of violence, it might well have led to second thoughts about the entire project and we could certainly have mitigated some aspects of it had we had a clearer appreciation of it in advance."

But he said it was not "reasonable" to assume the violence should have been predicted, as it was an "unprecedented scenario".

So, according to the head of MI6 -- who also happens to be a former foreign affairs adviser to Tony Blair -- it was not "reasonable" to assume that the violence should have been foreseen, and only President Mubarak of Egypt predicted the manner in which the invasion of Iraq would exacerbate the threat of al-Qaeda-related terrorism, inside and outside Iraq.

Is he lying, suffering from amnesia or just plain ignorant? It must be one of the three, because I can assure Sir John that countless intelligence reports, terrorism experts, diplomats, politicians and pundits, at home and abroad, warned that invading Iraq wouldn't be the "cakewalk" predicted by the neocons, and that it would only radicalise Muslims across the globe, destabilise the country and the region, and provide new opportunities for jihadists to attack western troops on a Muslim battlefield.

Do you want a few examples?

1) Here's the American Academy of Arts, in its report War With Iraq: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives, published in 2002:

Another concern is that American occupation forces in Iraq, perhaps for a protracted period of time, will be vulnerable to the violence and instability that could ensue once Saddam's regime has collapsed . . . Considerable recent experience, from US Marines bombed in Lebanon to US military personnel murdered in Kuwait, suggests that US forces in dangerous circumstances are prone to be victimised by terrorist attacks.

2) Here's Daniel Benjamin, who is currently Barack Obama's co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, writing in the Washington Post in October 2002:

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates would find American forces in a post-Hussein Iraq to be an irresistible target . . . Those who today blow up French tankers off Yemen or bars in Bali will soon be picking off GIs in Basra.

3) Here's the former CIA official Paul Pillar's view, as reported in the Washington Post in 2006:

Pillar describes for the first time that the intelligence community did assessments before the invasion that, he wrote, indicated a postwar Iraq "would not provide fertile ground for democracy" and would need "a Marshall Plan-type effort" to restore its economy despite its oil revenue. It also foresaw Sunnis and Shiites fighting for power.

Pillar wrote that the intelligence community "anticipated that a foreign occupying force would itself be the target of resentment and attacks -- including guerrilla warfare -- unless it established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam".

In an interview, Pillar said the pre-war assessments "were not crystal-balling, but in them we were laying out the challenges that would face us depending on decisions that were made".

4) Here's an account in the Independent of how six of Britain's leading experts on Iraq and the Middle East briefed Tony Blair on the potentially dangerous consequences of invading Iraq, back in 2002, in Downing Street:

Over the next hour and a half the experts sought to take Mr Blair and his senior colleagues through a number of possible post-invasion scenarios, ranging from simply replacing Saddam with another dictator, though one sympathetic to the west, to a messy slide into civil war and fragmentation of the country along ethnic, religious and tribal lines.

5) Here's a poster and a message devised by the anti-war lefties over at tompaine.com in late 2002.

7) Here's the US Army War College, the military's own think tank, reporting on "reconstructing Iraq" in February 2003. It reads, in the words of Jay Bookman, "like an after-the-fact autopsy":

* "Ethnic, tribal and religious schisms could produce civil war or fracture the state after Saddam is deposed."

* " . . . a small number of terrorists could reasonably choose to attack US forces in the hope that they can incite an action-reaction cycle that will enhance their cause and increase their numbers."

* "This ongoing media attention to suicide bombing suggests that any future Iraqi terrorist leaders could have this tactic at the forefront of their minds."

* "After the first year, the possibility of a serious uprising may increase, should severe disillusionment set in and Iraqis begin to draw parallels between US actions and historical examples of western imperialism."

* "Even the most scrupulous effort at fairness can alienate various tribes and ethnicities from the occupation forces and cause them to respond to occupation policies as a group. This discontent could fuel mass action or even an uprising."

So Sir John Sawers is wrong -- not that the establishment worthies on the Chilcot inquiry panel seem to have noticed. (By the way, isn't it time they hired a proper QC to help them out with their feeble questioning?)

It's difficult to disagree with the verdict of Professor George Joffe, one of the "experts" called in to see Blair in 2002: "What has happened in Iraq was predictable and was predicted . . ."

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump