Six years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the events that led to the liberation of Iraq remain a hot political issue in both Britain and the United States.
In the US, the debate lost some of its heat when Barack Obama, who had opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein, won the presidency. American opponents of the war feel that there is little extra mileage left in that issue.
In Britain, however, those who opposed the liberation of Iraq remain active. They have not won power and, with a Conservative victory in the next general election increasingly likely, have little hope of doing so.
What is left for them is to seek revenge against those who persuaded the British people to support the war and then took part in the campaign that ended four decades of Baathist rule in Baghdad.
Their number one target is Tony Blair who, as Prime Minister, played a central role in securing support for the war. Early next year, Blair is scheduled to be cross-examined at an enquiry set up by his successor, Gordon Brown, as a means of appeasing the Saddam nostalgic crowd.
When launching his campaign to secure public support for the war, Blair, advised by his communication experts, put the emphasis on intelligence reports suggesting that Saddam Hussein had reactivated his projects for producing weapons of mass destruction.
At the time, some of us believed that Blair’s choice of focus was wrong. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know what kind of mischief a rogue government may be up to in a close and secretive society. At the same time, the hordes of United Nations’ weapons inspectors who had spent almost 13 years in Iraq, were unable to confirm or deny the revival of WMD projects. (I put the case against the use of WMD as the main argument for liberating Iraq in a documentary broadcast by British television at the time.)
Once Saddam was out it became clear that he had not been able or willing to revive his WMD projects. Blair’s main justification for war appeared to have been a subterfuge.
However, judging an event such as the liberation of Iraq with reference to a single issue is as wrong as Blair was in trying to justify military action. Whether or not Saddam had revived his WMD projects was and remains irrelevant. It is like judging the dictator with reference to his moustache, a facial adornment that he could grow, shave, and then grow again.
The real issue was that Saddam had had WMDs, and had used them in the wars against Iran and the Iraqi Kurds, and could produce and use them again, if he so wished. Saddam himself was a weapon of mass destruction against his people, his neighbours and, potentially at least, others beyond.
The issue that Blair and others had to deal with was the nature of the Baathist regime, its murderous DNA, not its behavioral variations.
The question was and remains clear: did Saddam’s regime constitute a threat to peace and stability in the region?
Opponents of the war know the answer.
This is why they refused to tackle it then and continue to shun it now.
That Saddam’s regime was a threat was not a figment of anyone’s imagination or the fruit of Blair’s individual judgment.
The Baathist regime had been designated as a threat in 14 resolutions of the United Nations’ Security Council, most of which, passed under the famous Article 7 of the UN Charter, sanctioned military action against Saddam. The first two of those resolutions had already been cited as the basis for the first Gulf War that led to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.
It was not only the unanimous judgment of the international community that saw Saddam’s regime as a threat.
The people of Iraq shared that judgment because, to them, the Baathist regime had been a daily menace for four decades. The fact that almost no Iraqis, including members of the Baath Party and Saddam’s elite units, were prepared to fight for the regime, ensuring its collapse in 20 days, indicated the almost unanimous desire of the people of Iraq to get rid of their oppressor.
In that sense, the people of Iraq were their own liberators.
The Iraqi people’s desire for freedom was subsequently confirmed in a series of referenda and elections and will be confirmed again in next March’s general election.
Now, let us return to Blair.
In deciding to join the campaign to free Iraq from despotic rule, Blair had to act against Britain’s traditional policy in the Middle East. From the start of the British involvement in the Middle East during World War I, that policy had aimed at preserving the status quo, if necessary through military intervention.
Blair understood the strategic failure of that policy. He knew that Britain’s support for despotic regimes in the region had been a mistake and was no longer sustainable. In a radical re-thinking of that strategy, Blair decided to put Britain on the side of those in the Middle East who fought for reform and democratization. That was no easy choice and, to impose it, Blair had to fight against key elements of the British establishment and parts of the UK’s state structures, notably the Foreign Office.
By joining the campaign in Iraq, Blair showed that, from now on, Britain would send in troops to help depose a tyrant rather than defend one against his own oppressed people. Thus, Blair deserves the highest praise as a statesman who helped a major Western power switch sides – from the camp of despotism to that of democratization.
And, yet, few British prime ministers in recent times have been subjected to such a massive campaign of vilification as Tony Blair.
That he has so many enemies shows that he is someone who did something, in fact many things. A politician who does nothing in particular, except making speeches and flirting with interns, as was the case with a recent US president who shall remain nameless, would never arouse such intense hatred.
Blair antagonised a good part of his own Labour Party by slaughtering most of its sacred cows, especially the notorious Clause 4 that committed it to an antediluvian version of socialism.
Trotskyites, Maoists, Castro worshippers and other leftists, though never numerous, are loud enough, and angry enough, to augment the cacophony against Blair.
Many leftists had fantasies about Saddam being a Third World revolutionary standing up to Western “Imperialist” powers. They, too, hated Blair.
Islamists hated him because he was prepared to fight at a time they portrayed the West as a civilization of “fat, lazy cowards afraid to fight even for their lives.”
Atheists and agnostics saw Blair as weird because he appeared to have religious faith.
The Conservatives hated him because he had “stolen” some of their ideas and, in some cases, could pretend to be the political heir of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The anti-war crowd and ideological pacifists also hated him because he was prepared to go to war when many “useful idiots” and some sincere but misguided citizens believed that war should be scripted out of human existence just as incest and slavery had been.
In any case, a politician who manages to win three successive general elections and remains in charge of a complex society for more than a decade is bound to arouse some resentment.
All those resentments use the issue of Iraq as a short hand and, within it, the dispute over WMDs as shorthand within the shorthand.
However, history is likely to form a different view of Blair.
He is more likely to be remembered as a resolute statesman capable of ignoring tracker polls and focus groups and taking tough decisions in the interests of long-term peace and stability.
Even today Blair looks better than his detractors. He is not mourning the demise of Saddam and the liberation of Iraq’s suffering people.