In the past few days the bulk of the British media and a good part of the political-intellectual elite have been indulging in a new favorite sport: lynching Tony Blair. Headlines and streamers in newspapers from all parts of the political spectrum have used such words as “monster”, “demon” and, even “terrorist” to underline their hatred of the former Prime Minister.
The immediate trigger for this volcanic eruption of hatred is the publication of the final report of the so-called Chilcot commission’s seven-year long inquiry into British participation in the 2003 war that toppled President Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
Holding such inquiries has been part of the British political tradition since the mid-19th century. The stated aim is often to find out “the truth” about some big event, most recently major IRA attacks and the Hillsborough disaster that claimed the lives of dozens of football fans from Liverpool.
However, the real, unstated, aim is always to provide a common narrative that could reconcile opposing camps around a simulacrum of consensus and thus contribute to the restoration of public serenity. The method used is to listen to everyone, pick up a little of each account of the event, and come up with a synthesis that everyone could use to “prove” the “rightness” of their own version.
This is what has happened with the Chilcot report. It avoids the real questions, but gives those who opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein enough winks and nods to encourage their belief that the whole thing was a disaster from beginning to end.
Though the report has almost nothing explicitly critical to say about Blair it drops enough hints to point him out as the scapegoat without which no “inquiry” is ever complete. Anyone reading the report, which comes in 2.6 million words, or at least its summary in 250 pages, might gain the impression that Great Britain had been in the driving seat in the war to get rid of Saddam. The fact is that Britain, one of 48 nations coalescing under US leadership, provided less than 10 per cent of the forces involved and, after the war, was in charge of only one of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
In many civilizations the scapegoat plays a crucial role in helping society overcome its tensions and contradictions when they reach a break point. Initially, the scapegoat was a human sacrifice but sometime around 1000 BC Zoroaster and then the Greeks replaced the human sacrifice with an animal. In Abrahamic religions, Abraham was ordered to replace his son, offered as human sacrifice, with a lamb. In Christianity it is Jesus who plays the role: atoning for the sins of mankind by giving his own life.
In pre-Colombian Mexico, the Aztecs used their chief as the sacrifice, organizing a feast that lasted seven days and seven nights at the end of which the scapegoat would be dressed in the most luxurious finery, taken to the top of a watch-tower and pushed from there down to his death.
To be sure, Blair isn’t an Aztec chief, and even less a Christ-like figure. But he is a scapegoat. By lynching him, albeit metaphorically, everyone else is cleansed and thus society can reach reconciliation.
But let us see how a real inquiry, one not aimed at fudging things to satisfy everyone, might have tackled the issue. Such an inquiry would have sought answers to six questions.
The first is whether the war was necessary. The question has been asked about every war from the dawn of time and since peoples started waging war on one another. At the end of Homer’s Odyssey, narrating the history of the Trojan War, Achilles asks a broken Priam, Hector’s father, whether it had all been worth it. “Old man! I hear that you, too, were once happy,” the Achaean warrior jibes at the fallen Trojan king.
Was the Second World War necessary? Not necessarily. Britain and France had already accepted that Hitler should gobble up Czechoslovakia. Why couldn’t they accept that he do the same to Poland?
The answer to “was the war necessary?” could always be: “no”. One could always refuse to fight and pray for a peaceful solution. However, war has always been and is likely to always remain part of a range of tools available to man for conflict resolution and imposition of one’s will on adversaries and foes.
What we face here is a matter of judgement. A nation’s leader(s) must decide whether or not war is necessary. In the case of Britain, the leadership, headed by Blair, decided that it was. The issue was discussed at Cabinet level 28 times, always securing massive endorsement. In the heat of debates over the war only two ministers decided to resign. With the exception of the small Liberal-Democrat Party, the rest of the leadership elite, in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, voted massively in favor of the war.
Toppling Saddam Hussein was also popular with, and strongly urged, by the British media. Even the BBC which always tries to equivocate dared not argue that keeping Saddam in power in Baghdad was a good idea. That assessment was confirmed in the British general election that followed the fall of Saddam. Blair led Labour to an unprecedented third consecutive victory, confirming his record as the leader who secured the largest number of votes in the history of British parliamentary elections. So, on this second question, Blair is as guilty or not guilty as almost everyone else. To scapegoat him beyond reasonable limits is unjust.
The third question, often asked but skirted by Chilcot, is whether the war was legal. Since there is no universally approved mechanism for making a war legal, one has to refer to the legal system in the nation concerned and, beyond that, to the position of the United Nations. As far as British domestic law was concerned the war was certainly legal because it had secured the overwhelming approval of the Parliament.
What about the UN? In its 70 years of existence the UN has specifically approved two wars: the Korean War and the war to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. In the same period the world has witnessed over 300 wars of all sizes without the UN taking a position on their legality or otherwise. Under Blair himself Britain went to war in Sierra Leone, to restore the legitimate government, and in Kosovo to protect Muslims from being massacred by Serbs without obtaining a specific UN authorization. More recently Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine without the permission of the UN.
Incidentally, it is curious that the loudest in the anti-war movement demostrate only when Western democracies and their allies go to war, never against Russia, China or Khomeinist Iran.
Theoretically, of course, the UN Security Council could pass a resolution declaring a war illegal. However, this has never happened and is unlikely to happen because the UN Charter itself recognizes the right of self-defense which depends on the decision of the member states and not the UN.
Blair is, of course, criticized for not having tried to secure specific permission from the Security Council to invade Iraq, as had been the case in the Korean War and the war to liberate Kuwait. Those who closely followed the events of those days know that such permission would not have been granted as both Russia and France had publicly stated they would veto any attempt at removing Saddam Hussein by force. So, was Blair guilty on that score? The honest answer is: no. He is only guilty of deciding not to allow Russia and France to dictate British policy on that issue.
The fourth question is whether the intelligence on which Blair built part of his case for going to war was flawed. The answer is: yes. Some of us knew this from the start. Two months before the war I wrote and narrated a 30-minute program on the British Channel Four television precisely about that, arguing that the case for getting rid of Saddam had to be built on facts of his murderous rule not incomplete reports about his WMDs.
But, here, too, scapegoating Blair is both inaccurate and unjust. British Intelligence reportedly employs an army of spies and analysts, many of whom were mobilized to find the truth about Saddam’s WMDs. If they didn’t, they, too, are to blame. The British Parliament, especially national security committees of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, could have asked questions and probed deeper. They didn’t. The media could have made a fuss. They didn’t. The opposition parties could have tried to shoot Blair’s fox. They didn’t. So, on matters of intelligence, Blair was not careful and exacting enough. But he was not alone in that deficiency.
The fifth question is that Blair violated international law which forbids the use of force for regime change. No doubt, the US-led invasion produced regime change in Baghdad which could be regarded as violating UN rules in spirit if not in the letter. But for that charge to stick we must first prove that the aim of the invasion had always been regime change and not the implementation of 17 Security Council resolutions violated by Saddam.
When the first US contingents arrived in Baghdad, Saddam and his government made the fatal mistake of simply running away to hide. Thus by the time the capital had been captured there was no regime to change. The rational thing to do would have been for Saddam to stay, offer surrender as the government of Iraq, and ask for negotiations with the victors of the war. That was what the Nazis and the Japanese did after their defeats in the Second World War. Saddam didn’t do that. Thus on that score, too, Blair cannot be blamed. There was no regime for Blair or anybody else to change.
Finally, the question is whether or not “the monster” Blair failed to adequately prepare for post-Saddam Iraq. Blair-bashers make much of this issue, although they know that Britain played no more than a supportive role on that score. After Saddam’s fall I met Blair in Downing Street at his request to discuss the future of Iraq. It soon became clear that the British were only focused on keeping peace in Basra and trying to re-start southern Iraq’s economy by reviving the dead port of Um Al-Qasar.
However, before the war there had been much planning by three committees of experts, most of them Iraqis in exile, working in Kuwait. This is why Iraq was able to have a new constitution, approved in a referendum, so fast, followed by elections for a parliament. A new Iraqi currency was quickly put into circulation and the period of “occupation” under American “Pashas” Garner and Bremer, under the UN flag, lasted just over a year. (In Allied-occupied West Germany, occupation lasted more than four years. Japan spent seven years under direct US rule.)
If we remember that Blair was only the second violin in the war that finished Saddam Hussein we might agree that he alone cannot be guilty of not preparing for the post-war period, either.
In a democracy, as power belongs to the people, any credit and/or blame must also be extended to the people as a whole. If toppling Saddam Hussein was a political version of the Original Sin, let’s not blame it only on “Demon Blair.”