Like Sykes and Picot a century before them, Blair and Bush tried to reshape the Middle East. It had devastating results.
Not for the first time recently, Britain woke up to find the clocks had gone back. On Wednesday when the Chilcot report was published, it was to 18 March 2003, the date that parliament voted for war in Iraq.
Thirteen years ago, a backbench Labour MP called Jeremy Corbyn addressed the biggest rally the country had ever seen to stop the Iraq war. His words on 15 February that year stand the test of time.
“For those who say this is a necessary and just conflict because it will bring about peace and security, September 11 was a dreadful event. Eight thousand deaths in Afghanistan brought back none of those who died in the World Trade Centre. Thousands more deaths in Iraq will not make things right. It will set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and misery of future generations.”
Soon after Chilcot eviscerated the arguments that then British prime minister Tony Blair used to justify his military adventure, Corbyn, now Labour leader, apologised on behalf of his party. Its former leader Blair was unrepentant. He said if he could have his time again he would make the same decision.
But it's not just Blair who continues to advocate western interventionism in the Middle East. Cameron, in response to Chilcot, remained unrepentant about Libya, the intervention on his watch.
The party of war accounts, too, for the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), that votes consistently for intervention and against Corbyn. As Nafeez Ahmed reported when he analysed their voting records, the two voting patterns - pro-intervention and anti-Corbyn largely overlap.
Only 71 MPs out of the 194 who refused to back Corbyn (by voting against him, abstaining or not turning up) were in parliament in 2003. But of those, seven voted against going to war. A total of 172 MPs had voting records supporting British military interventions abroad - the same number who voted no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership.
Eighty-nine percent of Labour MPs who are not behind Corbyn have supported British military interventions, although not everyone. Fifty-six percent are staunchly pro-war and only 19 per cent - 37 Labour MPs - have consistently anti-war voting records. Ninety-eight of the 100 Labour MPs who held office when votes were taken for an inquiry into the Iraq war voted against such an inquiry being started.
They may no longer count themselves as Blairite but the majority of the PLP who have been trying to unseat Corbyn are interventionist. Alan Johnson, who was home secretary under Blair, is one. His voting record on foreign affairs and defence is as follows: for the use of UK military forces in combat operations overseas; for the Iraq war; against an investigation into it; for replacing Trident with a new nuclear weapons system; for more EU integration: for strengthening the military covenant. Hillary Benn, whose sacking as shadow foreign secretary triggered the attempted coup against Corbyn, is another.
The Chilcot report applied as much to the positions of Johnson, Benn, and Mike Gapes, former chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, as it did to Blair, which could be one reason why they consistently voted against an inquiry into their war. At least Blair had the nerve to stand up for two hours in front of a deeply hostile room of journalists, but they did not. Instead, they turned their fire on their party leader.
Benn said: “There are many of us who do not regret that Saddam has gone,” and suggested the United Nations should be reformed so that “brutal dictators that murder and terrorise their own population can and will be held to account.” Such as Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi whom Blair continues to advise? Johnson questioned whether there were was “any evidence of any lies told to Parliament”. There is.
Benn’s appeal to reform the United Nations, which Chilcot said Blair had undermined, is significant for a different reason.
The launch of the Iraq war in the absence of a second UN resolution led to open season on interventions in the Middle East. No one bothers with the UN these days for permission to launch military operations. The Russians did not in Syria. The Saudis did not in Yemen, although there is a UN resolution on the blockade of Yemen. The Egyptians and Emiratis did not seek a UN resolution before they intervened in eastern Libya.
And there is no UN resolution, let alone parliamentary or congressional debate, about the presence of British, US, French military personnel working with and out of Benina airport which is controlled by the renegade Libyan general Khalifa Hafter in Benghazi.
In March, Middle East Eye revealed that British and Jordanian SAS were deployed in Libya, according to a briefing given by Jordan’s King Abdullah to US congressmen in January. Abdullah told them the Jordan accent was close to the Libyan one. It was assumed at the time they were helping Libyan militias repel Islamic State (IS) militants in Sirte. No parliamentary debate has taken place about the use of British troops in Libya.
Today we reveal the taped voices of British, French, US pilots and ground controllers speaking to and from the control tower at Benina airbase. The co-ordinates given in the recordings bear no relation to known IS positions. They instead co-relate to strikes on targets such as on Souq al-Hout, the fish market in Benghazi, on the enemies of Haftar.
In Souq al-Hout, Haftar is fighting the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, an amalgam of Islamist and militant groups. The coalition includes Ansar al-Sharia, which is labelled a terrorist organisation by the UN, US, UK and Turkey. But the council also includes the February 17th Martyrs Brigade which is funded by the Libyan Defence Ministry in Tripoli. Both here and in Derna, the British, US, French and Jordanians, along with Egypt and the UAE, are helping Hafter fight militias which kicked out IS and are loyal to Tripoli.
The British and the US could be supporting both sides of the Libyan civil war at the same time, or they could be paying lip service to one side, and giving real military aid to the other.
While the UN Support Mission condemned Haftar’s air strikes on Derna and warned they could constitute a war crime, British, French and US personnel are helping Haftar fight his own war in Benghazi. Haftar continues to refuse to recognise the authority of the unity government in Tripoli. British military personnel are helping forces in eastern Libya who are not loyal to, nor under the unified command of the Government of National Accord. The help British military controllers and pilots are giving Haftar undermines the spirit if not the letter of the UN arms embargo.
This is the deep quagmire of foreign intervention 13 years on. Rather like Sykes and Picot a century before them, Blair and former US President George W Bush were involved in a deeply ideological attempt to reshape the map of the Middle East. In his dealings with the Emiratis, Egyptians and Israelis, in his talks with Hamas, and with the Palestinian strongman Mohammed Dahlan, Blair is still pushing that agenda. But 13 years ago, Blair made his ambitions secret.
In a note to Bush written on 26 March 2003 entitled “The Fundamental Goal”, Blair wrote: “This is the moment when you can define international priorities for the next generation – the true post-Cold War world order. Our ambition is big – to construct a global agenda around which we can unite the world.”
Blair said the war would be part of a bigger push to “spread our values of freedom, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law” across the world. “That’s why, though Iraq’s WMD is the immediate justification for action, ridding Iraq of Saddam is the real prize.”
Blair and Bush failed in the Fundamental Goal. They succeeded in doing three things to the Middle East. In getting rid of Saddam, they unleashed a sectarian conflict which spread throughout the region. They upset the regional balance between the Persian and Arab worlds. Regime change in Iraq allowed Iran into the country and the region. Without Iran’s military support, Bashar Assad would have been much less confident in his ability to crush an unarmed uprising in Daraa in 2011. Without the Iraq war, neither al-Qaeda nor IS would have been in existence in Iraq or in Syria. Hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced.
Like Sykes and Picot whose secret pact laid the foundations for a century of colonial conflict in the Middle East, Bush and Blair lit a fire when they invaded Iraq that rages across the region to this day. There is no end in sight to this conflagration. Cameron merely followed Blair's example and in truth they belong to the same party. Cameron's successor as prime minister will do the same. The fruits of their labours is the Libya that we see and report on today.
- David Hearstis editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.