Tony Blair’s Day of Reckoning
The very long (and indeed very long awaited) report of the Chilcot Inquiry was finally published in London on July 6th. Set up in 2009, its much-delayed arrival allows us one last large-scale public examination of the key event that so profoundly destabilized the modern Middle East – namely the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. It enables us to ponder again the arrogance of the Bush Administration in Washington, and of Tony Blair’s New Labour Government in London; and to ask – in relation to the latter – why did Blair do it? Why did Tony Blair join so enthusiastically in the neo-con inspired overthrow of Saddam Hussein?
Sadly, the Chilcot Inquiry does not fully answer that particular question, though it gives us many of the elements that such an answer inevitably needs. The Inquiry’s task was different: to report on what exactly happened in relation to Iraq between 2002 and 2009, and in what sequence, rather than to report on why that sequence occurred, or whether its outcome was in any sense a legal one. But from within the parameters set by its own restricted terms, the Chilcot Inquiry drew a string of scathing conclusions, in the process criticizing a previous British prime minister with a severity that is unprecedented in recent British politics. Sir John Chilcot might speak1 in the quiet and understated manner of the career civil servant that he was, but that did not stop him or his team from speaking truth to power in a quite remarkable fashion.
There are lessons in what he said, and in the memories he stirred, which are of great value not simply to a British audience, but to an American one as well.
The Chilcot Inquiry simply declined to accept Tony Blair’s 2003 justifications for the invasion of Iraq; and by implication, declined to accept the justifications offered by the Bush Administration as well. Both Bush and Blair presented the invasion as essential and timely, and its immediate results as desirable and worthy of support. The Inquiry concluded, to the contrary, that the timing of the invasion was premature: “that Britain chose to join the US invasion before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.” It suggested that the case for invasion presented to the House of Commons by Blair in September 2002 was an inadequate one – that the dossier used in September of that year to build the case for war did not support the Blair claim that Saddam Hussein had an expanding program of chemical and biological weapons. The clearest summary of the Report’s lengthy findings, available from both the BBC2 and The Guardian3 in London, includes the following.
• That there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein in March 2003; that a strategy of containment could have been adopted and continued for some time; and that the judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMDs – were presented to the House of Commons by Tony Blair “with a certainty that was not justified”.
• That despite explicit warnings to the prime minister from his intelligence sources and others, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated; and the planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam were wholly inadequate. One result: that in spite of the heavy casualties involved both immediately and thereafter, the UK government failed to achieve its stated objectives. Whatever the invasion of Iraq was or was not, it was not a success story.
According to The Guardian, “the report also demolished Blair’s claim made when he gave evidence to the inquiry in 2010 that the difficulties encountered by British forces in post-invasion Iraq could not have been known in advance. ‘We do not agree that hindsight is required,’ Chilcot said. ‘The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and al-Qaida activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion’.”
In making these judgment calls long after the events themselves, the Chilcot Inquiry reinforced what was well recognized at the time by the bulk of Blair’s critics – namely that the UK’s involvement in the Bush Administration’s ill-judged and falsely-justified invasion of Iraq was very much Tony Blair’s own decision – and a very poor one at that. And there were critics of that decision even before it was made – lots of them indeed. More than a million people marched through London to oppose the war before the invasion actually started; and in the weeks and months immediately following the military action, buyer’s remorse built up quickly in the minds of many of those supporting the invasion as the reasons given in justification of invasion turned out to have been misplaced. Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the Labour Party in the UK, spoke for many of those critics in his response4 to the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry report, when he apologized for the invasion to the families of the troops killed/injured because of it, and to the many more Iraqi families whose lives have been forever changed by what Bush and Blair together decided to do.
As the Chilcot Inquiry report serves to remind us, there were problems for Tony Blair from the outset about the timing of the invasion, about the adequacy of the reasons given to justify it, and about the credibility of a prime minister taking the UK to war on the basis of those inadequate justifications. These were problems, all of which were well and truly evident at the time. It was obvious to many people then, and the Inquiry team now, that the Blair rush to war was the product of a particular fusion of his world vision and temperament with a political system in which determined prime ministers can exercise excessive degrees of personal autonomy. And as was noted at the time, it was a fusion that created its own enormous problems.
Blair claimed that the invasion of Iraq was a just war, his critics that it was just a war.5 Blair claimed that the invasion was vital to stop the use by Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction: his critics that, in the absence of those weapons, the invasion was a mistake heard around the world,6 one whose negative repercussions reverberate to this day. Blair claimed that the invasion could not be delayed – Hussain’s weapons could get in the wrong hands, and anyway the troops were already deployed and must be used or stood down. Stand them down, his critics said: why rush to war when the UN inspectors are simply asking for more time, and when no successful vote for a second UN resolution is on the horizon?7
Thanks to the Chilcot Inquiry, we now have a fuller record of how the decision to invade was arrived at, implemented and later justified. But what the Inquiry does not give us – because it was not its brief to do so – is a full and clear understanding of the underlying causes of the events it details. But we have known those causes too from very nearly the onset of the invasion itself. They were extensively discussed at the time in – among many other places – a study of Blair’s War published in 2004; and because those causal drivers have not entirely gone away, they too are worth visiting here in at least summary form.8
It is worth beginning any explanation of the Blair decision to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush in 2003 – his decision to insist privately to him that “I will be with you, whatever,” – with the recognition that Blair had first inserted himself as a key Bush supporter immediately after 9/11. Indeed, it is matter of record that leading figures in the Bush Administration did not initially welcome that insertion, or know precisely what to do with it. But they soon found out. They soon discovered just how good an advocate for their positions Tony Blair could be on the world stage – so much better indeed than Bush himself – which is why in consequence the UK prime minister then found himself traveling from world capital to world capital, building for Washington a coalition of the willing designed initially simply to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and to deny al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan.
But once so mobilized as the Bush Administration’s leading traveling salesman, Tony Blair found himself rather drawn to the job, and in any case was unable or unwilling to step back/aside when what was being sold in Washington DC subtly changed. From being an outside ally, Tony Blair found himself increasingly sucked into the role of an internal player, heavily invested in the debate inside the Bush Administration between those who wanted to use 9/11 to complete unfinished business from the first Gulf War and those who did not. “The fucking crazies have taken over the asylum,” Colin Powell told Jack Straw, the UK’s foreign secretary, in an unguarded moment in 2002;9 and Tony Blair was in there with Powell, trying to keep the crazies under some degree of UN control. This, from Blair’s War:
What seems to have happened to the New Labour Government as the events leading to the invasion of Iraq unfolded was that in part they became victims of their own prior statements. Having argued in Texas in April 2002 that there were certain regimes in the world that were too dangerous to be left in place, and that it was essential that the international community act to contain or remove them, by early 2003 Tony Blair had reached the moment he had long tried to postpone. He had reached the moment at which the dilemma written into the linkage he laid out in April could be avoided no longer – the moment, that is, when the condemned regimes were still in existence but the multilateral coalition to remove them was not. How then to jump? Had the status of the regime been changed by the absence of an international will to remove it? No, of course not. Was the regime too dangerous to leave in place? Blair was on record as saying so. So the case for unilateral action won, as it were, by default. Blair did not want to act without UN backing, but he couldn’t get that backing; and he had argued himself into a corner in which inaction against the regimes being criticized was no longer a possibility.
Tony Blair took the UK to war alongside the United States in March 2003 because by his public statements he had locked the UK onto a path of confrontation with Iraq, by standing alongside the US in its condemnation of the Iraqi regime. It was not a path from which escape was then possible without loss of face, and without imperiling the relationship with the US to which he had given unique priority and on which he was prepared to surrender New Labour’s commitment to multilateralism and, if need be, his party’s fortunes. Nor was it a path from which escape was possible without bolstering the self-confidence of the Iraqi regime that both the US and UK governments claimed was so dangerous. So the UK went to war in a comedy of errors, locked into a sequence of events that its Government had worked so hard to avoid. Comedies of errors of this kind can be avoided in the future, of course, by the early adoption of verbal restraint. They can be avoided, that is, if and to the degree that, whenever next the US singles out a rogue state, UK ministers are more cautious in their opening statements. But similar ‘comedies’ (really tragedies of course) will occur nonetheless, unless UK governments in addition make a sharp break with the ‘unique UK world role’ arrogance inherited from the imperial period, the very arrogance indeed that led Tony Blair to put the UK on that US-specified path in the first place. The best way to avoid ‘accidents’ of the Iraqi war kind happening again, that is, is to make a sharp break with the mind-set that generated this one.
Tony Blair spent a full afternoon this week – the Wednesday afternoon following the release of the report in the morning – apologizing publicly for many of the consequences of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, whilst continuing to defend the legitimacy of the process that led him to join George W. Bush in authorizing it. It was a pretty desperate, thin and ultimately unconvincing afternoon performance – the inadequacy of which is everywhere evident in the image of a beaten-down Blair that adorned the front pages of the UK press on Thursday,10 and in the string of critical editorials and reporting which accompanied the image.11
For there is no easy way to deny the persistence and the ubiquity of the shadow thrown forward by the grievous mistakes made by the Bush Administration and the Blair Government in 2003; and that shadow is, of course, no minor affair. It still entirely dominates international relations, homeland security, and public policy on a raft of issues from immigration control to welfare reform. For what Bush and Blair started, no one has yet found a way to end. The ‘mission accomplished’ by the invasion of Iraq turned out not to be the creation of a stable democratic Iraq, liberated in the manner of a Germany or a Japan in 1945. It turned out instead to be the destabilization of an entire region, with the arrogance of those invading that region in 2003 being matched only by their ignorance of the conditions they were actually destabilizing.
So no matter how often Tony Blair now denies it, or George Bush simply declines to discuss it, it remains the case that the full horrendous cost of their lethal fusion of arrogance and ignorance when in office is being borne today by the civilian populations of the Arab world, and by the families of the many casualties of the war and terror that the invasion released. And because the scale and scope of those costs is so vast and so apparently permanent, the call will inevitably appear again, in the wake of the publication of the report of the Chilcot Inquiry, for particular individuals to stand trial. The call will come – indeed it already has12 – for those who took us to war in 2003 to be tried both for the war crimes they orchestrated and for those which their policies subsequently released – if not the invasion, then the rendition; if not the decision, then the deceptions used to justify it. And why not? African dictators, after all, regularly receive such trials at The Hague these days, the better to discourage dictators in Africa in the future. So why not Bush, Cheney and Blair as well, for similar reasons here?
Yet in that particular rush to personal judgment and blame, there is one reason at least for some caution and wider reflection. For those subject to the excesses of dictatorship – in Africa and elsewhere – can at least legitimately claim that they were not consulted ahead of the crimes being committed in their name. They can claim that their hands are entirely clean and their consciences entirely clear. But neither the Anglo-American political class not their electorates can be so easily excused, or excuse themselves. If we are to avoid Chicot Inquiry equivalents in years to come, it is the ignorance and arrogance that we all carry that now needs to be both investigated and held to account.
The Bush/Blair mindset that left them so confident about their right to rearrange other people’s political furniture in a country far removed from their own is a mindset that has not gone away: and it needs to. We would all be horrified if some outside power turned up in either Washington or London, set on using military force to change the entire political order. Indeed, the British celebrate their resistance to Hitler in 1940 on precisely those grounds, as do the Americans do in relation to the British themselves, on every 4th of July. It is surely time, therefore, for all of us to break decisively with the double standards that sit at the center of the imperial mindset that produced the invasion of Iraq, and seek instead a world order built on the principle of doing unto others only what you would have them do unto you. And where better to start that search than back at the United Nations whose potency for global good was another immediate casualty of the Bush/Blair rush to war in the heady days of 2003?
1 The video of his introduction to the report is available at http://www.euronews.com/2016/07/06/sir-john-chilcot-outlines-key-findings-of-report-into-iraq-war/
5David Coates, “A just war, or just another of Tony Blair’s wars?’ in A. Bartholemew (ed), Empire’s Law, London, Pluto Press, 2006, pp. 282-296: Available at:
6 David Coates and Joel Krieger, “The mistake heard around the world: Iraq and the Blair legacy,” in Terrence Casey (editor), The Blair Legacy: Politics, Policy, Governance and Foreign Affairs, Polity, 2009, pp. 247-59. Available at:
7 David Coates, “The still unanswered question – why did we rush to war?’ Greensboro News and Record, February 22, 2004: Available at www.davidcoates.net/opeds/The%20still%20unanswered%20question.pdf
8 From David Coates and Joel Krieger (with Rhiannon Vickers), Blair’s War. Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2004, pp.125-28: available at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blairs-War-David-Coates/dp/0745633595
See also Esther Addley, “The world’s worst terrorist’: families lay blame on Blair,” The Guardian, July 7 2016: available at https://account.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/accountingloginse.aspx?returnurl=pageview.aspx%3faction%3dshowissue%26issue%3d15452016070700000000001001%26page%3d2%26articleid%3d4278a01e-f9ba-4015-b1ea-32792086d317%26previewmode%3d4&__utma=152952879.627192584.1468005806.1468005807.1468005807.1&__utmb=152952822.214.171.1248005807&__utmc=152952879&__utmx=-&__utmz=152952879.1468005807.1.1.utmcsr%3d(direct)%7cutmccn%3d(direct)%7cutmcmd%3d(none)&__utmv=-&__utmk=153839224
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.