Strangely, seeing coverage of Tony Blair's testament to the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK's involvement in the war in Iraq, the one which is still going on, I found myself believing in divine vengeance. I have noted in the past that many elements of the Bible as they have been filtered and interpreted by those in authority in the Middle Ages encourage a stable society. The emphasis that vengeance is God's is a good way to stop vendettas and people taking the law into their own hands, but this week I recognised that it can also be a bit of a consolation to people who feel wronged. The sense that 'well, I can do nothing to get back at him for what he has done, but he still has to face God's judgement'.
I suppose what brought me to this kind of last resort when seeking justice is how unwavering Blair was. I had always expected the politicians wheeled in front to the enquiry to say what they had done was right, and have actually been heartened by the legal officials and even Lord Goldsmith showing the confusing and uncertainty around the legality of the war. What cut most deeply with Blair, however, was his total lack of regret for anything he did. We always knew that he was arrogant, but this emphasised that now, even out of office and earning millions of pounds, he will not concede he has ever made a mistake. I once attended a speech by former prime minister (1970-4) Edward Heath in which he reflected on his term in office, a very troubled period in British society and wryly he argued that it might have been bad but was nothing compared to what came later under Callaghan (1976-9) and Thatcher (1979-90). Blair seems to believe that he ruled over a golden period in British history in which we, the public might have got things wrong but he was perfect in every way, and our problem was that we did not listen to him enough. Blair is supposed to be a Christian. He is now a Catholic, so I suppose he has been able to confess his sins and get absolution for them. However, surely to be a Christian of any sort you must be able to reflect on what you have done and see your errors in order to repent and seek absolution.
Blair can argue that invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussain was the 'right' thing to do. No-one would argue that Hussain was not evil and was killing many of his own people and using torture. However, so are many other leaders around the world and we seem to be taking no efforts to depose them. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe would seem a good place to start as we know he does not even have the suggestion of weapons of mass destruction. Yet, Blair does not take this line, so we end up with fudged explanations around misunderstandings about nuclear or chemical or biological weapons, some partial legal approval from the United Nations and the UK's connection to the USA. Perhaps the motivations were this confused mish-mash. However, if they were, this seems to suggest a weak, confused prime minister, that Blair certainly does not portray himself as.
Saying this, the concessions that Blair has allowed are that he never expected Al-Qaeda to become involved in Iraq after the USA had conquered it and neither did he expect Iran to destabilise the state either. A student of GCSE level International Relations, could have told you to expect these things. First of all, one of the reasons why George W. Bush emphasised the need to invade Iraq was because he felt it was a base of Al-Qaeda activity. Of course, Hussain, was in fact an opponent of the movement, whereas Saudi Arabia, the USA's ally in the region has always been a place where Islamist terrorists have thrived. The second point is that there was the example of Afghanistan. When that had been destabilised by the Soviet invasion and occupation (1979-89) it opened the door to the Taleban to take power and created a regime in which Al-Qaeda was able to operate, probably not as this supposed international terrorist structure somehow resembling the fictional SPECTRE, but as an association of small radical groups connected by a desire for promoting Islamist regimes through terrorism. In Afghanistan they were labelled the 'foreign fighters' and in many cases would be simply volunteers looking to fight to defend what they saw as the correct form of Islamist state that the Taleban had established. So, there was a clear example of what was liable to happen in a primarily Muslim country once a superpower had invaded; it encourages religious fundamentalists rather than weakens them.
As for Iranian intervention in Iraq after the US invasion, again, a teenager who had read 20th century history, could have predicted this. Even if this had not been a correct prediction, it was something the USA and its supporters should have prepared for. Iran and Iraq were at war 1980-8 and have continued to have border tensions since. Iran, itself a dictatorship, would never pass up the chance to keep Iraq weak and then to create a regime sympathetic to Iran if not a puppet state. Knowing the Iranian regime as well as the USA does due to its bitter relations with the country since 1979, surely it could have been foreseen that the Iranians would not have stood by passively. Their pursuit of nuclear technology suggests that the regime is not currently adopting a passive stance. From the Iranian perspective, look at a map and see that Iran has Afghanistan to its North-East and Iraq to its West, two places that by 2003, the USA was militarily involved with. Iraq under Hussain had been supported militarily by the USA, so is it no surprise that when the Americans are running it the Iranians would feel that they might be next on the list for invasion. If Barack Obama had not won the US presidential election, perhaps they might have been.
What has not come out in the Chilcot Inquiry are the real motives for the war, rather than the mixed up approaches that were supposed to win public support. This comes back to US concern about oil resources especially in the light of China's aggressive search for control of raw materials and a regime in Venezuela, the USA's prime short haul supplier of oil, that was unfriendly to US imperialism. I think George W. Bush probably believed, as he was told that Al-Qaeda, the imagined organisation that gave so many of his authoritarian policies some form of perceive legitimacy, was in Iraq. However foolish Bush was, as a former oil man, I imagine he must have seen the value of the USA holding Iraq. Of course, this explanation for the war is the least palatable to the public of all of the excuses put forward and this is why it will not be heard at the Chilcot Inquiry or anywhere else public.
This then brings us back to Blair and his mish-mash explanation. for going to war. He said there was no plot or conspiracy to bring about war, but the problem with the approach that was adopted was that it was a shabby collection of reasons. At least, to some extent, admitting that neither the USA and especially not the UK was ready to go to war in terms of forces and equipment, he said a military build-up could not have begun without alerting Hussain to the potential of invasion. I think Hussain probably had already seen the UN resolution and the weapons inspectors. His country had been invaded by the USA and UK back in 1990-1 and it was clear they had been disappointed that he had not fallen at the time once they had expelled him from Kuwait. So, Hussain was as ready as he could have been to face the invasion. This issue about trying to keep preparations low key, is something that Blair can be blamed for directly as it meant the UK forces were ill-equipped and this has meant far higher casualties than needed to be the case. If you are going to be a militarist state in the way the UK has been in the 2000s you need a strong military and not to be involved in two wars on the cheap. Skimping on equipment means paying a higher price in casualties. For the British public this is on charge that Blair really needs to be held accountable for, because unlike with US global political approaches, he had direct control over it. The excuse that decent preparation could have given the game a way is pathetic.
In fact, a strong, visible military build up would have helped remove Hussain. By making him feel under threat and so keeping his military expenditure at a maximum, the West could have brought down the regime through economic chaos the way the USSR dissolved after years of sustaining its side of the arms race. However, that would not have served the USA as there was no knowing who might have got control of the oil, possibly the country with the greatest foreign currency reserves in the world, China, though effectively supporting Hussain's regime financially as they are backing those regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. All superpowers, including the USA, prefers to deal with dictatorships than democracies; China, however, has fewer qualms over human rights records. Of course, ironically the USA's invasion of Iraq moved it into an era in which it adopted torture as an approach it was happy to use.
So, what we got from Blair, was probably what we expected, though, I, like many headline writers was stunned by how unwavering Blair was in seeing himself as having done precisely nothing wrong. I suppose unrepentance is the luxury of retirement. The fact that he has gone on to be a Middle Eastern envoy on the basis of his career is sickening. Blair's attitude is very like that of the politician he most resembles in policies and attitude, Margaret Thatcher. She famously said 'this lady's not for turning' and saw any critics of her sledgehammer policies as 'moaning minnies'. The UK likes politicians of this ilk and they serve long in office, whereas their more human successors, John Major and Gordon Brown are portrayed as weak and vacilliating. However, for one, I would rather have a politician aware of his flaws because that means s/he is aware of their humanity. Humanity is what connects them with not only the entire electorate, but more broadly people across the world. It is fine to admit you have made mistake, but for some reason we want politicians who will never do this. As a consequence we end up with policies, which may appear needful and strong at the start but usually end up leading to years of suffering for ordinary people. To anyone who favours unwavering politicians, with no regrets at all, just like Tony Blair, I would point to the politician who took this to the extreme, who continued to blame everyone else for what ruin he had brought to his country and the world, right until his death: Adolf Hitler.
P.P. 01/02/2010: An interesting twist in this story comes from former minister Clare Short who is apparently going to claim at the Chilcot Inquiry that Gordon Brown, long Tony Blair's rival in government, was kept out of the inner circle that decided on the UK's involvement in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Short believes that on the back of the glory of the expected quick victory Blair would have moved to remove Brown from his position as Chancellor of the Exchequer effectively marking a coup against his rival and ultimately his successor. We know that Blair postponed stepping down as prime minister as long as he could and went much later than Brown had been led to expect. Brown did become prime minister, in 2007, as Blair had promised him back in 1994, but in harder circumstances and with the troubles in Iraq dragging on after the war and the UK still suffering casualties.
For Blair it seems the invasion of Iraq had the potential for a 'Flucht nach vorn', in the style of Fritz Fischer's explanation of the domestic reasons for the German triggering of the First World War, i.e. using overseas success to resolve domestic political pressures. I was very suspicious when in his testament to the Chilcot Inquiry last month, Blair's henchman Alastair Campbell emphasised that Brown had played a full part in the discussions about war. I did not see why Campbell made this emphasis and assumed he saw it as a chance to get a bit of revenge on Brown. This may explain why Brown is happy to testify to the Inquiry before the election.
Even if Short's accusation is exaggerated, it seems that Blair's arrogance was straying into a whole other field, and he saw domestic political gain to be had from the war, no matter what else he got from backing the USA's approach. Perhaps it anticipated receiving the large popularity boost of the kind his heroine, Margaret Thatcher had received after the Falklands Conflict of 1982. It shows that not only was he willing to play with Iraqi lives for personal political gain but British ones too.