It will be no surprise to readers of this blog that I believe Tony Blair should be put on trial for crimes against humanity for assisting George Bush in attacking Iraq in 2003. The Chilcot inquiry, however compromised its members were by their establishment ties and however cautious they were in their use of language, have very belatedly reached the same conclusion.
If “military action at that time was not a last resort” and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein “posed no imminent threat”, then Bush and Blair launched a war of aggression. And that, according to the definition laid out by the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the “supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
But what I think of Blair’s actions and what Chilcot thinks of them are irrelevant to the question of what Iraqis – who were the chief victims of this crime – think of the attack on their country. And here a deception, mirroring those we have endured from the corporate media for the past 13 years, persists.
It is truly extraordinary that today’s front page of the supposedly liberal Guardian continues to promote Blair and the British establishment’s version of the Iraq invasion the day after the Chilcot Report officially discredited it. Not only that but – shamefully – the Guardian stuffs its Blairite spin on the invasion of Iraq into the collective mouths of the Iraqi people.
The Guardian promises a story telling us how Iraqis – whose voices we so rarely hear – feel about the Chilcot Report and what Bush and Blair did to their country. The declared intention here, at least, is noble: it is vitally important that we hear what Iraqis think. But is that really what the Guardian offers us?
According to the headline, the Iraqis’ view is best summarised in the following quote: “They should have known better.” And the standfirst below it continues the theme, claiming the Chilcot Report told Iraqis “what they already knew: the war was a grave mistake”.
One has to be truly delusional – as the Guardian and other liberal media so often are – to believe for one second that the most commonly held view among Iraqis is that Bush and Blair made a “mistake” in destroying their country. I believe Blair is a war criminal. Chilcot appears to be believe Blair is a war criminal. But Iraqis are either so magnanimous or so dumb that they think it was just a “mistake”. Did the Guardian editors ponder adding a “genuine” instead of “grave” before the word “mistake”?
The reporter, Martin Chulov, did not write the headline and standfirst. That will have been overseen by the most senior editors – certainly the foreign editor, probably the home editor, at least one of the assistant editors and, assuming she is hands-on, the editor herself, Kath Viner. None of them apparently paused to consider whether it was credible, let alone moral, for the Guardian to present Blair’s “mistake” defence as the collective verdict of the Iraqi people.
But Chulov, as so often in his coverage, is deeply implicated in this calumny. The headline and standfirst are based on a highly dubious reading of Iraqis’ views Chulov presents in an early paragraph as he describes their reaction to the latest mass attack:
Bystanders in the central Baghdad neighbourhood of Karrada seemed oblivious to the release of the Chilcot report, … which was little more than a footnote to most of the crowd. For the mix of mourners staring into the middle distance, desperate relatives wailing for help, forensic officers crouched near puddles and others who stood bewildered by the scale of destruction, it would merely tell them what they already knew: that the war and its aftermath were both grave mistakes.
Chulov would doubtless defend this assessment, claiming it is based on several quotes from Iraqis in the piece. Shafi Abdul Hassan, for example, is quoted saying: “We need honourable men to lead us out of this. There were enormous mistakes made, but our leaders have not helped us since.”
There is nothing in this quote to let us know who Abdul Hassan is referring to when he speaks of “enormous mistakes”, but the context suggests he is talking about Iraq’s own leaders, not Bush and Blair. It comes after he has mentioned the need for “honourable men to lead us out of this”. I assume he means Iraqi leaders have made “enormous mistakes” in the aftermath of their country’s destruction and the Iraqi people need better leadership if they are going to recover.
The Guardian could have chosen a surely more representative view – offered a little later in the piece – by Colonel Ahmed Hassan, an interior ministry police officer. He says: “There is no excuse for [the decision to invade]. It was an extermination war.”
But the framing of this article suggests Abdul Hassan is some kind of compromised government insider giving the official line rather his own personal and well-considered assessment. His quote seems to be there only for “balance” – to give the other side.
Chulov talks to two other Iraqis, both from areas that were controlled by the British military and were least riven by sectarian discord. The first sounds remarkably relaxed about an illegal invasion that, according to best estimates, led to the deaths of at least a million Iraqis and the displacement of probably four million.
Atheer al-Attar, an engineer from Basra, says:
The way they handled things was wrong. If they managed it correctly, we could have had better relations with the British now. I am for the invasion. I think it opened a lot of new horizons, but it could have led to a much better outcome.
The other, Fadi Faris, talks mainly about the context of the attack: whether Iraqi society was in a situation where it was ready to be “democratised” by the US and Britain. Or as he puts it:
It was like bringing a knife and giving it to a child. Under Saddam we had a government with a big problem. Now we don’t have a real government and we only have problems.
Interestingly, the Iraqis interviewed seem to share the assumption of the Guardian and the rest of the western liberal media that the motives behind the attack were benevolent rather than cynical. None seem to think that oil was a factor in the US-British attack on their country. Which is strange because, having lived among Palestinians since before 2003, I have rarely encountered one who does not think oil was a major consideration in the attack. (Another widely held view, of course, is that the attack on Iraq was about disposing of a major regional enemy of Israel. I suspect some Iraqis share that assessment too, but you won’t hear it in the Guardian.)
And here we reach the issue of journalistic responsibility. In any conflict zone, places where societies are weak and divided and there are many competing interests, a reporter can find someone to take just about any position of any issue. There will be many interpretations of what happened and who is chiefly to blame. Each interviewee may have more than one perspective of any single issue.
A reporter’s job is selection. Select whom to speak to. Select the questions to ask. Select which answers to highlight. Select which quotes to include. Select where to place them in the story and how much emphasis to give them.
All journalists do this in every story they write. Chulov did it here. In a story of this nature – one freighted with so much historical importance – he was obligated to talk to a wide range of people in different situations to get a sense of these various views and then weight them in the article according to their representativeness. He was also obligated to present their opinions in a fair context. If the story claims to be telling us what Iraqis think of Blair and Britain’s role, then that is the key question he should have asked his interviewees, and their answer to that question should have been provided in the piece.
Chulov, who has spent much time in Iraq, must already have a good sense of what Iraqis think about Blair and the attack on their country. But there is little evidence he fairly reflected that in his piece. Instead he read into his lead quote the most benign interpretation possible regarding Blair and Britain’s role. And then he backed up that dubious interpretation with quotes from two people whose representativeness seems more than unlikely – both appear to be established contacts from his time in British-controlled areas of south-east Iraq, presumably whose views he already knew.
Those views are important. But in the case of Faris, he is not answering the question the Guardian suggests he is: what he thinks of Britain’s role in attacking and destroying his country. He is talking about internal problems of Iraqi society – a very different issue.
In reality, Chulov and the Guardian’s assessment that the Iraqi people think Blair made a “mistake” is based on only one Iraqi’s view – that of Al-Attar. Is his view indeed representative of the Iraqi people as a whole? Can we even say for sure that the quote attributed to him is representative of his views as a whole, or is it just representative of the section of the conversation Chulov has selected for us.
Chulov’s piece had a duty to reflect the true anger of Iraqis about their country’s destruction. Instead the Guardian recruited them against their will to act as a witness in Blair’s defence.