Yes, it was Blair’s fault

Glen Newey

Iraq's invasion and its aftermath illustrate Lord Salisbury's maxim about the 'optimist view of politics', which 'assumes that there must be some remedy for every political ill, and rather than not find it, it will make two hardships to cure one'. The Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 war in Iraq is a world away from the whitewash obligingly thrown over the venture by Lord Hutton's 2004 report, commissioned by Tony Blair while still in office. Sir John Chilcot's summary findings mount a cumulatively devastating critique of Blair's conduct before, during and after the war.

Chilcot finds that Blair overstated the case for war and in particular the imminence of any threat posed by Saddam Hussein. There was no urgent reason for invasion in March 2003; the containment policy, including the work of Hans Blix's UN weapons inspectorate, could and should have be allowed to continue. Cabinet was scanted; intelligence and legal advice distorted. Blair caved in too easily to US impatience to launch the war; plans for its aftermath were grossly inadequate, as were resources for British postwar occupation.

The optimist view is particularly dangerous when stiffened by moral purpose. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Bush and Blair resolved to answer jihad with crusade. They chose to target a third party, with a fine disregard for the consequences: 'We don't do body counts,' the US general Tommy Franks said of the war in Afghanistan in 2002; you don't count the dead when God's on your side. Iraq Body Count estimates that there have been 251,000 violent deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion – a conservative figure beside other projections. An IBC graph shows the dramatic rise from the civilian death count in January and February 2003 – three and two respectively – to the unbroken run of hundreds, and often thousands of deaths per month since the invasion in March that year.

Chilcot does not say in terms that Blair lied about Iraq's possessing weapons of mass destruction. That charge is often made, but it's never seemed to fit Blair's highly moralised self-image. Blair's claims about Iraq's WMD up to March 2003 are closer to Harry Frankfurt's notion of bullshit, defined as assertion without regard to the truth of what's said. People bullshit for various reasons, but one is the moralistic urge to believe something regardless of whether it's true. As Frankfurt says, 'bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.' Chilcot says that the Joint Intelligence Committee exaggerated the imminence of the threat, a point which formed the basis for Blair's buck-passing sorry-not-sorry apology last October.

A case against Blair (or George W. Bush) in the International Criminal Court is a non-starter, for reasons outlined by Geoffrey Robertson recently, since crimes of aggression were not defined by the ICC statute at the time of invasion and can't apply retroactively. Chilcot's remit excluded considering the war's legality. He did remark in his public presentation of the report that the invasion, though purportedly upholding the authority of the UN, in fact did the opposite. One possible legal avenue is a common law action for misconduct in public office, defined by the Crown Prosecution Service as an offence committed when 'a public officer acting as such wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder without reasonable excuse or justification'.

There is a case to answer. Since the war, Blair has stressed regime change as the rationale for aggression against Iraq, rather than the WMD which furnished the casus belli at the time. This is false. On 25 February 2003, Blair said in the Commons: 'I detest his regime but even now he can save it by complying with the UN's demand' (even though it was accepted by all but the coalition chiefs that UN Resolution 1441 wasn't sufficient for military action). Lord Goldsmith, then attorney general, originally advised that the war was illegal, then U-turned. Blair did not tell the Cabinet this. Goldsmith told Chilcot he didn't know why he had changed his mind.

Goldsmith, like a number of others, comes in for criticism, but Chilcot's finger of blame points squarely at Blair for the Iraq catastrophe. His response this afternoon to Chilcot accepted responsibility 'without exception', but also, bafflingly, without 'excuse' either, as in the old beaten football manager's line: 'I'm not making any excuses, because we were without five key players.' Blair had acted, in the all-absolving phrase, 'in good faith'. A catch in his voice, he sounded like a little boy who's had his catapult confiscated.

He surely cannot be entrusted with any significant public office again, but should be left to potter about, fairly harmlessly, with his silly 'faith' foundation. Like most prime ministers, he was much exercised about his 'legacy': it is as indelibly tainted by Iraq as Cameron's will be by Brexit. As well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, 179 UK soldiers died between 2003 and 2009. Relatives of the British dead attended Chilcot's presentation of his report. Apparently Blair had more pressing claims on his time.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Edward Said: The Academy of Lagado · 17 April 2003

David Runciman: The Politics of Good Intentions · 8 May 2003 Conor Gearty: The Hutton Report · 19 February 2004

Eliot Weinberger: What I Heard about Iraq · 3 February 2005


  • 7 July 2016 at 7:11am
    cufflink says:
    I marched with the other two million through London in protest at the impending Iraq war to no avail; yet I do not feel as vituperative as this punishing blog against Blair. Why? because he has in his recent moving and historic statements come to some extent clean.
    It is prophetic that this coincides with the commemoration of the Somme tragedy of 1916 that incarnadine disaster.
    It is not often mentioned that in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait which posed a threat to international law and security and of course were driven back by the US Alliance.
    Following this and to avoid another 'Somme' the US determined upon the overthrow of Hussain by a 'Shock and Awe' strategy that annihilated the protective elite Guard. Mayhem between armies is the usual course of war.
    The casus belli is not the essential issue, for it never has or did have any moral justification; but what does, is the uses that 'victory' is put to.
    Let Blair be answerable for the follow up mess in the Middle East and not the agonised decision his PR puts forward for the war.
    We can see now that Middle Eastern politics is not a European forte and should be held in much suspicion.
    I regard Tony Blair as a capable Prime Minister when I now consider what is currently going on.

    • 12 July 2016 at 10:27pm
      JohnD43 says: @ cufflink
      Like Cufflink, I marched in the London Stop-the-War demo. I did so because the whole situation was so fraught: a PM saying there were WMD that could be deployed in 15 minutes in the hands of a despot who had already shown no reticence about firing big weapons at Israel, and Israel surely not prepared to sit on her hands again (particularly under assault by WMD), while the Islamic bomb had just been made fact in Pakistan. Had Blair been right, there was no way to stop Sadam from firing his Scuds again with who knows what form of ordnance on the tip, or of stopping Israel from replying. An Israeli attack on an Islamic state, however despicable its leader, must have raised the risk of Islamic retaliation.

      There were options: let the inspectors complete the job they were saying was unfinished or risk having the whole thing go off. “Woops Apocalypse” made real! If Blair believed his own rhetoric about WMD he put us all in jeopardy. The fact that Blair-Bush did take the risk tells me they didn’t believe, so they lied. QED.

    • 13 July 2016 at 11:37am
      Mickstick says: @ JohnD43
      I attended a dinner at the National Gallery, Washington DC in February 2003. I was placed next to Tony Brenton, at that point the acting British Ambassador. All talk was of Iraq and any impending war. 'Scheduled for mid-March', said Brenton, 'always has been'. 'What about the weapons inspectors?' someone asked. 'The diplomacy? That's just window dressing.'

  • 7 July 2016 at 12:15pm
    whisperit says:
    Chilcot was hardly the most radical or far-reaching critique possible, but it certainly does enough to expose Blair's grotesque "good faith" argument.

    Even by his own account, this simply meant a willingness to deliberately mislead and railroad the Cabinet - and Parliament - into supporting a decision he had already made. Because faith justifies any means.

    Blair's recent claims that the current disaster is the result of politicians' failing to intervene in Syria in the way he and Bush did in Iraq is a transparent and grandiose act of self-justification.

    Still, at least we might get a good case study on narcissistic defence mechanisms authored by his psychotherapist in due course.

  • 7 July 2016 at 7:24pm
    Graucho says:
    The invasion was going to happen with or without the UK. The oil lobby wanted it because they could see vast profits. The Israeli lobby wanted it because Saddam Hussein was their mortal enemy, had previously used chemical weapons and his Scud missiles had reached Israeli cities. Above all G.W. Bush wanted to prove something to his daddy. Le President il veut. So how did we get mixed up in this ? It's the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy. A tragic hero with so many virtues, but one weakness that finally brings him down. Tony Blair's flaw ? Vanity. He always had to be the centre of attention, strutting upon the world stage. Unlike Chirac who immediately saw Bush for the ill informed third rate thinker that he was, Blair saw a means of taking the limelight. These are the conclusions on which my facts are based was his M.O. Professional barrister Blair started from the required verdict and built his case. The one juror who would have seen through the charade Robin Cook was removed from the foreign office and replaced with time server Jack Straw. One would like to say that the rest is history, but the body count mounts daily. This is the fiasco that keeps on giving. Well Blair is certainly the centre of attention now. The expression on his face at the press conference was out of the last act of Lear.

  • 8 July 2016 at 12:29pm
    Potone says:
    I am not so sure that the invasion would have happened with or without the UK. Many Americans took to the streets to protest the impending war, and Blair's support was crucial in persuading many Americans that the war was justified. It was hard enough to dismiss the French rejection of the war, and was done in the silliest manner possible, but if Blair, who enjoyed enormous popularity in the U.S. and was our closest ally,had said,"Sorry, but we're not with you on this one", it might have been enough to cause Congress to step back from the precipice.

    Of course the ultimate responsibility for that illegal and immoral war lies with Bush, not Blair, and it is a disgrace that he has never been held accountable. The consequences have been what was predicted by those who opposed the war, and there is no end to them in sight.

    • 12 July 2016 at 9:33pm
      John Cowan says: @ Potone
      As an American who opposed the war, I don't believe that for a minute. There were far too many domestic reasons to go to war, and the whole "coalition of the willing" was good publicity but neither militarily nor politically necessary. The whole thing would have gone down with or without the UK and with or without the American people's agreement, at least in the short term. Every time we knocked down one specious argument, another was waiting in the wings to follow it. Eventually the antiwar movement simply ran out of time.

  • 12 July 2016 at 6:26pm
    Neil Foxlee says:
    Blair also bears a heavy burden of responsibility for both the referendum outcome and the loss, in England and Wales, of Labour votes to UKIP. Most notably, in 2004, Blair took the decision not to follow France and Germany in adopting transitional arrangements for migrant workers from the new Eastern European EU member states.

    Insofar as immigration can be seen as the decisive issue in both the referendum and the rise of UKIP, this article (from 2015) suggests that the writing was on the wall:

    “Between 1997 and 2010, net annual immigration quadrupled, and the UK population was boosted by more than 2.2 million immigrants, more than twice the population of Birmingham. In Labour’s last term in government, 2005-2010, net migration reached on average 247,000 a year. The dramatic changes have left British politics ruptured. Immigration remains the No 1 issue on the doorstep, according to pollsters – a stream that feeds into the well of mistrust in politics”

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