When I arrived in Baghdad in the hot and frightening summer of 2003, there were still plenty of people prepared to argue that Tony Blair and George Bush had done the right thing by invading Iraq. I remember a distinguished British journalist telling me by the pool at the al-Hamra hotel that things were getting better, as the sound of gunfire echoed in the distance and tracer fire lit up the sky. That morning I had seen an entire bus full of passengers being robbed by highwaymen at gunpoint on the main road to Baghdad, and watched as an American tank opened fire on a busy street.
Things were not getting better; as we now know, the Iraq nightmare was only beginning. But I remember that Tony Blair was not alone in dragging the UK into that tragedy. And as the Chilcot Report was released, I couldn't help thinking of the others who cheered our troops all the way to disaster. I coudn't help feeling they were only to eager to drag Blair to the scaffold, a quick public execution to hide their own guilt.
I remember another British journalist, even more distinguished, who stopped me on my way out of the al-Hamra to complain about my reporting. "What are you doing?" he hissed at me. "Do you want us to lose?"
And I remember a polite dinner party at a British Embassy where one of the guests told me it was all very well to oppose the war before it started, but now that we were in Iraq it was unpatriotic of me not to support it.
That was the reality of 2003, however we try to hide behind the Chilcot report now. Tony Blair did not force Britain kicking and screaming into a war it did not want. He had plenty of cheerleaders. With a couple of notable exceptions, including the Independent which I then worked for, the British press was united in support of the war.
So were MPs. Parliament voted in favour of the invasion by 412 votes to 149. Both the Labour government and the Tory opposition supported the war. Only the Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy had the courage to oppose it. All the political heavyweights of the age supported it, except Robin Cook, who had the dignity to resign in protest, and Clare Short, who didn't find the courage of her convictions until it was too late.
It did not, it is true, have the support of all the British people. A million people marched in London to prevent the war, in what was probably the largest peaceful protest that ancient city has ever seen, but they were ignored. Then, as now, we were the 48 per cent. With the full might of the British Establishment behind him, Blair could afford to dismiss the concerns of people waving placards in the rain, even a million of them.
The Chilcot report tells us that Blair misled us over the mirage of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and took us to war on faulty intelligence. But I remember well the debate of 2003. People were not taken in. I remember the earnest editorials acknowledged even then that Blair's intelligence was probably faulty, and that there were almost certainly no WMDs. But they argued we should invade all the same, because it might be the only chance to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
The inconvenient truth we have chosen to forget about 2003 is that an entire section of British society supported Blair's war not because of the phony WMDs, but because they approved of the Bush doctrine of regime change. They believed it was worth any pretext to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and they cheered on Blair's lies. In a way, this was our own version of the old colonial "white man's burden": the belief that it was up to us to remake the societies of those less privileged in our own image, if necessary by force.
To watch the reaction to the Chilcot report, you would believe there had been no warnings. You would think Blair alone had spoken, and no one had said that it would not work, that it would be a disaster. You would think Robin Cook had never lived. But there were a million who marched because they knew.
The truth about Iraq is simple, and you do not need the Chilcot report, a work ludicrously longer than War and Peace and the Bible combined, to tell it. Saddam Hussein was a monster. But the idea that killing a monster solves all your problems is a fairy tale for children. When Blair and the British Establishment decided to ally themselves with the Bush regime in order to get rid of Saddam, they swapped one monster for another.
Bush and his cronies' full reasons for going into Iraq may never be clear. Was it about oil? Was it about a demonstrating American power -- "We're an empire now" -- or was it about the man who tried to kill George W's daddy? It doesn't really matter. The one thing that was painfully clear in Baghdad, even as early as the summer of 2003, was that it had nothing to do with helping the Iraqi people. If it had, there would have been a plan. There have been police on the streets. The British and Americans would have built the schools and hospitals the country so desperately needed after years of neglect under Saddam.
Instead the streets were lawless. People were shot dead by carjackers as they waited at traffic lights. Children were kidnapped on their way to school and held for ransom, their severed fingers sent to concentrate their parents' minds. When Iraqis protested at American soldiers who had taken over their children's school in April 2003, several were shot dead by US troops. Few Westerners had heard of the city where it happened at that point, but it would soon become infamous. Its name was Fallujah.
When I visited Iraq's top children's hospital, sewage was flooding the leukaemia ward and dripping from pipes over premature babies' cots. Blankets lay around stained with rotting blood. There was a severe shortage of medicine and orderlies rolled oxygen cylinders along the floor by hand. When I asked doctors what the Americans had done about the situation, they told me no American had set foot in the hospital. Not a single soldier or occupation official. No one cared.
That was the reality of Blair and the British Establishment's mission to save Iraq from itself. As for the long-term consequences, they are just as clear. The Iraq invasion caused the Syrian civil war and gave birth to Isis, whatever Blair says. When we invaded, we set off a struggle for control between the Sunni Muslim Iraqi elite and the long repressed Shia majority. Sunni militants flooded to Iraq from across the Middle East to fight both the infidel occupiers and the Shia. The insurgency became a civil war.
The Sunnis lost that civil war and turned their eyes to Syria, where a Sunni majority was ruled by a Shia elite. When the uprising against Bashar Assad began, they hijacked it and turned it into a new phase of the same civil war, that now engulfed two countries. Isis controls territory on both sides of a border it does not recognise. It was born out of this civil war, and it was murdering Syrian and Iraqi Shias long before it attacked Paris and Brussels.
Isis is Blair and Bush's creation, but the damage they did does not end there. As ever, we are trying to fight the last war instead of the one we are now embroiled in. Blair and Bush's colossal error in invading an Iraq that did not threaten us has left us too traumatised to respond to genuine danger. We are stupefied, unable to act against an enemy attacking us in the heart of European cities. We had no reason to go to war with Saddam; we are already at war with Isis, whether we like it or not. They have declared war on us, and they are inflicting damage while we wring our hands over the debacle of the Iraq invasion.
It goes, perhaps, even deeper. A case can be made that it was Blair's disastrous foray into the Middle East that first set Britain on the road to the tragic mistake of Brexit. Since Iraq, Britain appears to have retreated into itself and turned its back on the world. The country is reluctant to get involved in international affairs. Parliament voted, perhaps wisely, not to join US air strikes against Assad in Syria. Perhaps less wisely, the UK has been content to leave dealing with Vladimir Putin to Angela Merkel and her sidekick, Francois Hollande. A former world power in retreat from the world, Britain has become introverted and isolationist. Brexit was just the next step on the way to irrelevance.
Tony Blair was, without doubt, the most talented British politician of his generation, yet his legacy is wretched. A man who seemed on that new dawn in 1997 to promise so much has betrayed even his own achievements, his own party recoiling from anything associated with his name as if it were toxic. He, who could have been so much more, deserves all the opprobrium that will be heaped on him.
But if we allow Blair to carry the blame for the disaster of Iraq alone we are deceiving ourselves. He was aided and abetted every step of the way by the Labour Party and the Conservatives, by the overwhelming majority of the British press, by vast sections of public opinion, both on the patriotic right and the worthy left -- in short, by the entire British Establishment.
These are the people hiding their own guilt behind their denunciations now. They want Blair's head in the hope that he will atone for their mistake. It is not enough simply to say he lied. If we are truly to confront the tragedy of Iraq, all those who supported the war must come clean and admit their part in it, at least to themselves.Suggest a correction