The reputation of Tony Blair has never recovered from the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Now the long-awaited inquiry has hung an unforgiving verdict around his neck.
As always in matters of military aggression, the humane perspective has to start with the victims. Since the US-led, UK-backed invasion of Iraq in 2003, estimates of the lives lost to violence vary from a quarter of a million to 600,000. The number of injured will surely be several times that, and the number of men, women and children displaced from their homes is put at between 3.5 and 5 million, somewhere between one in 10 and one in six of the population.
There is no disputing the vicious brutality of the regime that ran the country before, but there is no serious disputing, either, that the suffering captured in these statistics of war are of another order to anything that would be endured in even tyrannical times of peace. Thirteen years on, as the deadly blast in Baghdad last weekend illustrated afresh, the predicament of the Iraqi people remains misery without end. The topsy-turvy post-9/11 rationalisation for regime change from the chauvinist, parochial and sometimes proudly ignorant George W Bush White House produced predictably topsy-turvy results. Jihadi forces that Saddam Hussein had contained were not discouraged by his ousting, but greatly emboldened. In sum, failures do not come any more abject than Iraq, nor catastrophes any less pure.
This broad picture was clear remarkably soon after the battleship banner boast: “Mission Accomplished”. It certainly did not take the Chilcot inquiry – which began six years later, and went on to publish only today after another seven years of work – to dispel the early hallucination of success. The sheer scale of the disaster, however, is why – after multiple select committees, the Hutton and Butler inquiries – this additional probe was impossible to avoid. None of the other investigations provided an official answer to the burning, central question, of how on earth the UK had got embroiled in this great misadventure in the first place.
After Lord Hutton’s very narrow reading of his remit, and Lord Butler’s attack on systems and processes went so far and wide as to exempt individuals from blame, there were understandable fears that the career mandarin, Sir John Chilcot, would likewise pull punches, or else lapse into evasive establishment prose. As it was, however, Sir John gave a brisk half-hour statement, in which the name “Blair” featured roughly once a minute. The 2.6m words of his report will necessarily take much longer to digest, but the defining sting was conveyed in just six words penned by Tony Blair himself, in a letter to Mr Bush in July 2002 – “I will be with you, whatever”.
Here, in essence, we have the private promise from which every abuse of public process would flow, as well as that pervasive, poisonous sense that the government was not playing it straight. The prime minister was not bone-headed, his letters to the president warned of deep doubts on the part of both MPs and the public, and shrewdly anticipated great difficulty in whipping Europe into line. But he negated the value of all this insight, and fatally compromised his own preference for constructing a UN-blessed route to war, by preceding it all with the bald vow that Washington could count on him.
Regime change was the unabashed objective of the White House, and by hitching himself to Washington with no get-out clause, Mr Blair effectively made that his policy too. It was an appalling mistake, first of all, because it involved committing the country to a war of choice, for which there was no real rationale, only an angry impulse to lash out to avenge the twin towers without paying heed to the distinction between militant Islamism and secular Ba’athism. Once committed, Mr Blair switched off the ordinary critical faculties that he applied to other affairs, and closed his ears to the warnings of the experts about the difficulties that could follow an invasion, and the grave doubts about Iraq being an imminent threat.
Entirely out of character, the great election winner who always insisted that “the British people are the boss”, closed his ears to great swaths of the country. From radical leftists to commonsensical Tories of a that’ll-never-work disposition, thinking Britain – the Guardian included – smelt a rat. It took to the streets to protest in numbers not seen before. But in this case Mr Blair did not regard the British people but the US president as the boss. He would occasionally let slip to his voters “I’m afraid I believe in it”, as if that assertion was a substitute for argument.
A rightwing practitioner of realpolitik could have been straight about the calculation to hold fast to an American alliance that served Britain well, come what may. That would have been unsavoury to idealists, but would have been a cogent – hard-headed, if also hard-hearted – point of view. That, however, is not the tradition in which Mr Blair has ever placed himself. As the high emotion of his protracted and schmaltzy press conference today exposed once again – complete with a refusal to admit to having made the wrong call, and the bizarre insistence that the war had made the world safer – it is always important to him not only to be serving the national interest, but a greater good too. He knew he was right.
Seeing as he was in reality monstrously wrong, this certitude had dire consequences. The faith-based failure to plan for the invasion’s aftermath, rightly damned in trenchant terms by Sir John, was the most catastrophic for the Iraqi people, and indeed for the British service personnel in harm’s way. The grieving families have every right to question whether their sons and daughters died in vain, and to wince at the stock phrases about every prime minister regarding the commitment of troops as the weightiest decision they will ever make.
But for the processes of governance, the political discourse, and the UK’s place in the world, greater damage was done by the political – and perhaps psychological – need to wrap up a crude decision to stick with the US in righteousness. This was the context in which a press officer could pen the first draft of an intelligence dossier, later carefully spun to give the more excitable papers just enough to be able to run with the hysterical claim that London was 45 minutes from attack. It was the context, too, in which Mr Blair’s team could deem it appropriate to rip off the internet old material about Saddam’s former arsenal, long since mostly destroyed, and hand it to journalists as a second dossier. At this time, Whitehall minutes recorded discussion of the US “fixing the facts”, when the line in public had always to be that American motives were pure. And the initial insistence of the attorney general that the war would not be legal, gave way first to the concession that there was room for argument, and then – after a brutal edit of his full advice – an outright green light.
Meanwhile, as Jack Straw and top officials would plot in private for how to secure a UN seal of approval for a course that was already set, Mr Blair protested in public that he was pursuing a “diplomatic solution”. There was diplomacy, all right, but it was diplomacy aimed at licensing war. When even this failed, the final cabinet discussions were less concerned with the real looming battle, than about the PR war with the French. For any progressive internationalist, and Mr Blair was once one, the most damning of all Sir John’s verdicts is that the result of the invasion was not – as was claimed – to uphold the authority of the UN, but instead to undermine it.
The gap between the public and the private rationale fed the mistrust which has since – amplified by the banking and MPs’ expenses crises – fuelled the Brexit vote. The whole conduct of politics in Britain was demeaned, but the highest price was paid on the left. The otherwise unthinkable ascent of Jeremy Corbyn occurred, prompting Labour’s lapse into civil war. Many Labour MPs are still struggling to understand it. As they do so, they should reflect on the cool rage of Mr Corbyn, who always opposed the war, in the chamber today, and contrast it with the complacent tone adopted by David Cameron, who originally voted in favour.
Mr Blair’s impulse to trot alongside a know-nothing cowboy might reflect a deep need to bury the CND badge of his youth and earn some muscular respectability. Mr Corbyn’s ascent is the most ironic of the consequences of his historic mistake. But by far the most serious are still being played out far away – on the streets of Iraq.