Tony Blair will forever be remembered for Iraq. Not for peace in Northern Ireland or the minimum wage, nor the Human Rights Act or devolution to Scotland and Wales. Blair does little to help this: he rarely comments on political developments in the UK, but always does the rounds of the television studios when questions of UK military intervention are raised.
And Tony Blair’s Iraq legacy is a dreadful one. It is rightly remembered as one of the worst foreign policy disasters in British history. Millions who marched against the war understood the situation far better than the Prime Minister and those close to him. It was a disaster that cost at least 100,000 lives, two thirds of whom were civilians.
The arguments that Blair made in 2002 and 2003, along with his colleagues in Washington, collapsed one by one. There were no weapons of mass destruction and there was no link between the Iraqi regime and 9/11 or Al Qaeda. The last argument – one that was not central to the case for war at the time – was the need to remove Saddam Hussain, a brutal dictator. Anti-war voices rightly pointed to the dictators and repressive regimes that Bush and Blair not only tolerated but even actively supported. But the defence against that was that this was “whataboutery” – it wasn’t an argument against removing Saddam. So the final refuge of the dinted and damaged pro-war case was that, but for the intervention, Saddam would have remained in power.
Tony Blair’s latest written intervention in the Iraq crisis unwittingly erodes that case. The current crisis in Iraq sees a jihadist group (ISIS), battle-hardened in the Syrian civil war, approaching Baghdad, taking northern cities and the Iraq army deserting its posts and its US and UK-funded equipment. There are very disturbing reports of massacres. Blair thinks it “bizarre” and “wilful” that people should blame the 2003 invasion for this situation. He correctly identifies other sources of the crisis (the Syrian crisis and al-Maliki’s sectarianism) though he chooses to ignore any western culpability in either. But he also chooses to point out that Iraq would be no more stable today had they not intervened in 2003 and therefore the current crisis might still have happened. It is dangerous to indulge in counter-factuals, but I suspect he is probably right. He correctly points to the extraordinary events of the Arab Spring. But in doing so, Blair raises the question of whether Saddam could have been removed by the Iraqi people, without intervention. At the very least it undermines the argument that the only way there could have been change in the Iraqi regime was the path taken in 2003.
More problematic, it is no longer at all clear which side Blair would have chosen in such a situation. His position on the Arab Spring is, at best, ambiguous. While last summer, Blair backed air strikes against the Syrian regime, he now appears to back air strikes against elements of the Syrian opposition and, back in April, proposed a Syrian settlement that would leave Assad in power. Furthermore, in the same speech he gave full support to the military coup in Egypt. While conceding that he “strongly disagreed” with the mass death sentences handed out to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, he urged people to “show sensitivity” to the regime.
In the light of this, it is darkly ironic that Blair (correctly) notes the “inconsistency” of recent UK policy towards the Middle East. It is hard to escape the conclusion that – in any given situation – Blair would have made his decisions about the future of Saddam’s regime in terms of his impression of British (or, more accurately, western capitalist) geopolitical interest, not on the basis of the rights of the Iraqi people or even a democratic mandate. If Saddam was president today, it is entirely believable that Blair would be calling for western intervention to protect his regime. This is the last nail in the coffin of the “regime change” case for war.
Where I am sure we all agree with Blair is that what happens now is more important than “differences of the past”, but unless we can learn from the mistakes of the past we will get it wrong again. Tony Blair seems incapable of learning from the past, he simply wants to try and rewrite it in order to recast himself as hero rather than villain. Discussions about what is happening in Iraq are urgently needed but a period of silence from Tony Blair would be welcome.