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Evade, then invade

According to the newly released minutes of his January 2003 meeting with George W. Bush (detailed in the new edition of Philippe Sands’s excellent book, Lawless World), Tony Blair said that:

a second Security Council resolution would provide an insurance policy against the unexpected, and international cover, including with the Arabs.

“International cover” is an evocative phrase. What was meant by it? “Cover” has various interrelated military meanings. It can be covering fire, as when a soldier shoots at the enemy in order to distract from his comrade’s movements. It can be a place to evade fire, a nook or ditch or wall. Or it can be a cover story: the fictional role of someone who is actually an espionage agent, as in the cover of CIA proliferation investigator Valerie Plame that was deliberately blown by a spiteful US administration, even after the CIA had already told Dick Cheney that the story of Iraq seeking Nigerian yellowcake uranium was untrue.

So why did Bush and Blair talk about “international cover”?

Did it reflect a plan to adopt an offensive firing position so as to suppress the enemy’s response, as eventually happened with the cynical mistranslation of Jacques Chirac’s words when the UK and US blamed France for the failure to get a second UN resolution? Or was it an appeal to the idea of a “cover story”, a fictional identity or “legend”, as spy novelists tell us they say in the trade? Perhaps the two leaders were seduced by a glamorous vision of themselves as a pair of hard-boiled James Bonds, saving the world one war at a time.

Lucky, then, that “the Arabs” would be so easily fooled by this “cover”. Subsequent events proved just how easy it was to pull the wool over the eyes of “the Arabs”: who among them, after all, ever doubted Bush’s and Blair’s sincerity?

Or perhaps “cover” meant a rhetorical shelter from the sniping of war critics. It is good, no doubt, that Bush and Blair wanted to place themselves out of the line of fire. Democratic dissent is surely the enemy of freedom. But perhaps there were some Iraqi civilians who wished just as devoutly for “cover” once the bombs of “Shock and Awe” began to fall.

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