Fisking Blair’s chapter on Iraq

Our ex-prime minister is still the best Bliar in the business.

I'm knackered and sleepy, hungry from all the Ramadan fasting and -- officially -- on vacation. But I couldn't go to bed without commenting on Tony Blair's new book, A Journey, extracts of which have been published online here.

Much of the instant attention from the chattering classes in the Westminster village has been on the Gordon Brown (GB) chapter, and on Martin Kettle's pre-publication interview with Tony Blair (TB) in the Guardian, in which the latter says he always believed GB would be a "disaster" as prime minister.

But for me, it's the extracts from the Iraq chapter that caught my sleepy eye (and not just because A Journey is being published on the day after the last US combat troops left that war-torn country). TB continues to distort, evade, pretend and mislead on the issue of Iraq. He is the ultimate Bliar -- and so I couldn't help but fisk the available extracts from his Iraq chapter.

I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded, and that too is part of the responsibility.

Never did you guess? But why did you have to "guess"? Six of the country's top academic experts on Iraq and international security warned TB, at a face-to-face meeting in November 2002, that the consequences of an invasion could be catastrophic.

Cambridge University's George Joffe, one of the six invited to Downing Street, got the impression of "someone with a very shallow mind, who's not interested in issues other than the personalities of the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc". Meanwhile, the Joint Intelligence Committee warned TB in February 2003 that the threat from al-Qaeda "would be heightened by military action against Iraq".

Why should Saddam keep the inspectors out for so long when he had nothing to hide?

TB knows perfectly well that Saddam Hussein did not "keep the inspectors out", and nor did he expel them, as TB claimed in the run-up to war in early 2003. The truth is that the UN weapons inspectors left Iraq in December 1998 on the orders of the chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, in anticipation of the US/UK air attack on Baghdad.

Jane Arraf's CNN report, filed on 16 December 1998, stated: "This is the second time in a month that Unscom has pulled out in the face of a possible US-led attack. But this time there may be no turning back. Weapons inspectors packed up their personal belongings and loaded up equipment at UN headquarters after a pre-dawn evacuation order. In a matter of hours, they were gone, more than 120 of them headed for a flight to Bahrain."

"Butler ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad," said the Washington Post on 18 December 1998.

While it is true that relations between the Saddam regime and the UN weapons inspectors had already broken down, TB glosses over the fact that the inspection teams had been infiltrated by US and UK intelligence agencies and how, in the words of the former inspector and hawk-turned-dove Scott Ritter, "Inspectors were sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that had nothing to do with disarmament but had everything to do with provoking the Iraqis."

Even when he let them in, why did he obstruct them?

Obstruct them? That wasn't the view of Hans Blix, the top UN weapons inspector in Iraq, or Mohammed ElBaradei, the then head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA. Verifying Iraqi disarmament, said Blix on 7 March 2003, "will not take years, nor weeks, but months". ElBaradei offered a less specific forecast but nonetheless pointed out that "the recently increased level of Iraqi co-operation should enable us in the near future to provide the Security Council with an objective and thorough assessment of Iraq nuclear-related capabilities".

Why bring war upon his country to protect a myth?

Saddam did not "bring war upon his country" -- the US and the UK invaded Iraq, in defiance of international law. And the Iraqi dictator, as we now know, made several desperate, last-ditch attempts to avoid war, including the use of back-channel approaches to (of all people!) Richard Perle.

The caveats entered by Dr Kay were largely overlooked, including his assertion that Saddam was possibly a greater threat than we had known, a remark seen at the time as inexplicable, given the primary finding.

Dr David Kay? TB looks for support from a man who, as the Guardian's Julian Borger once pointed out, was far from impartial: "Before the war, Kay was one of the most fervent supporters of military action."

The second report from Charles Duelfer was not published until September 2004. It received far less attention, yet this was the complete analysis

Yes, and the complete analysis from Duelfer's Iraq Survey Group concluded that, at most, Saddam's Iraq had been engaged in "WMD-related programme activities". Get that, Tone? Not WMDs. Not even WMD programmes. But "WMD-related programme activities", whatever they happen to be. I wonder: can a WMD-related programme activity be activated within 45 minutes of an order to do so?

The constraint became even tougher when revelations from Saddam's son-in-law about his continuing interest in development of WMDs were broadcast to the world in 1996.

TB, like George Bush, trumpeted the alleged "revelations" from Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, in the run-up to war as well (for example, in a speech to the Commons in February 2003). But TB conveniently omits to mention here what Kamal told UN weapons inspectors in 1995, while being debriefed in Jordan (and first reported in Newsweek on 24 February 2003, three weeks before the invasion): "All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons -- biological, chemical, missiles, nuclear -- were destroyed."

This conclusion on nuclear weapons was actually endorsed by the Butler report of July 2004, though that was written prior to the full ISG report of September 2004. The Butler report concluded . . .

TB chooses to quote from the Butler report selectively. Surprise, surprise! No mention from our former PM of the report's conclusions that "more weight was placed on the intelligence than it could bear", and that judgements had stretched available intelligence "to the outer limits". No mention of the view, expressed by Lord Butler himself in the House of Lords, in February 2007, that TB was, at the very minimum, "disingenuous" about the Iraqi "threat".

As Saddam came to power in 1979, Iraq was richer than either Portugal or Malaysia. By 2003, 60 per cent of the population was dependent on food aid.

No mention here of the sanctions on Iraq, imposed by the United Nations and enforced by the United States and the United Kingdom. Those sanctions caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, and were described by the former UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday as a form of "genocide". As even the humanitarian panel of the UN Security Council noted in March 1999: "Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of the war."

Millions were malnourished, and millions were in exile.

How is that different from the situation produced by TB and GWB? The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq produced, at the height of the conflict, the Middle East's largest refugee crisis since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948. Inside Iraq itself, according to the UN, more than 1.5 million people remain displaced.

One statistic above all tells us what Saddam's Iraq was like. According to the UN, by 2002 the number of deaths of children under the age of five was 130 per 1,000, a figure worse than that for the Congo.

Again, no mention of the impact of UN sanctions.

Before anyone says "Ah, but it was sanctions", it should be remembered that Saddam was free to buy as much food and medicine as he wanted.

This is untrue. As Professor Karol Sikora, then chief of the cancer programme of the World Health Organisation, wrote in the British Medical Journal: "Requested radiotherapy equipment, chemotherapy drugs and analgesics are consistently blocked by United States and British advisers [to the sanctions committee]. There seems to be a rather ludicrous notion that such agents could be converted into chemical or other weapons."

Prof Sikora added: "The saddest thing I saw in Iraq was children dying because there was no chemotherapy and no pain control. It seemed crazy they couldn't have morphine, because for everybody with cancer pain, it is the best drug. When I was there, they had a little bottle of htmlirin pills to go round 200 patients in pain." As Benon Sevan, executive director of the UN Office of the Iraq Programme, said in 2001: "The improvement of the nutritional and health status of the Iraqi people . . . is being seriously affected as a result of [the] excessive number of holds placed on supplies and equipment for water, sanitation and electricity."

In the Kurdish area, despite Saddam and despite sanctions covering them, too, the death rate for children was half that of central and southern Iraq.

Apples and oranges, Tony, apples and oranges. As a Unicef document in August 1999 on the differences in levels of child mortality between the autonomous northern governorates in the Kurdish areas and the rest of Iraq pointed out: ". . . the difference in the current rate cannot be attributed to the differing ways the Oil-for-Food Programme is implemented in the two parts of Iraq . . . We need to look at longer-term trends and factors, including the fact that since 1991 the north has received far more support per capita from the international community than the south and centre of Iraq. Another factor may be that the sanctions themselves have not been able to be so rigorously enforced in the north as the border is more 'porous' than in the south and centre of Iraq." And as Hans von Sponeck, the former UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq, noted in 2001: "The northern part of Iraq, where the Kurds live, is getting a disproportionate amount of oil revenue for the humanitarian programme. Thirteen per cent of the population living in that area is getting 20 per cent of the oil revenues."

The origins of this figure lie in the Lancet report published in October 2004 which purported to be a scientific analysis of deaths in Iraq. The figure they gave -- 600,000 -- led the news and became dominant, repeated as fact.

"Purported to be"? What does that mean? That the Lancet authors were pretending to offer "scientific analysis"? Sorry, are we now supposed to take the word of our former prime minister, a law graduate from Oxford, over the word of a peer-reviewed study produced by world-renowned epidemiologists and published in Britain's most prestigious medical journal?

Later the methodology on which this report was based was extensively challenged; its figures charged with being inaccurate and misleading; and the assessment made comprehensively questioned by other publications.

Eh? Did John Rentoul ghost-write this portion of the chapter? "Extensively challenged"? Here's Lila Giterman writing on the first Lancet report in the Columbia Journalism Review: "I called about ten biostatisticians and mortality experts. Not one of them took issue with the study's methods or its conclusions. If anything, the scientists told me, the authors had been cautious in their estimates."

Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, called the survey method "tried and true", and added that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have". In a letter to The Age, 27 epidemiologists and health professionals defended the methods of the study, writing that the study's "methodology is sound and its conclusions should be taken seriously". But, best of all, the chief scientific adviser to TB's own Ministry of Defence said the survey's methods were "close to best practice" and that the study design was "robust". Did No 10 not get his memo?

Friends opposed to the war think I'm being obstinate; others, less friendly, think I'm delusional.

No, I just think you're being dishonest, Tony. Seven years on from Iraq, nothing has changed. Off to bed . . .

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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage