Many people are saying that Chilcot has proven Tony Blair to be a war criminal. These people were always going to say this, whatever the report had said, hadn’t said, or even would never have said (the majority of them haven’t read all 2.6 million words). I haven’t read the whole thing either, but one doesn’t have to read the whole thing to hold an opinion. We, all of us, should remember that Chilcot does not opine on the legality of the invasion. He is investigator, not a judge.
My first confession: I always thought that Tony Blair was innocent.
My second confession: Chilcot changed my mind.
Where I had been mistaken was in thinking that Blair was an actor of rationality and competence.
This is appalling on both accounts. Firstly, because who in their right (liberal) mind would ever think that bloodied Blair was ever innocent? Secondly, are my convictions really so easily shaken? Am I so easily convinced by a report which really doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know?
It was the intimate notes that made me wonder whether I had misplaced my faith in Blair. I had always known that the Iraq War had been a disaster, and that it was also the case that Blair had acted on a humanitarian impulse. Where I had been mistaken was in thinking that Blair was an actor of rationality and competence. His private message to George Bush, with no precise caveats following from it, says: “I will be with you, whatever.” It is obvious that there is nothing wrong with leaders communicating privately. Nevertheless, the reason that this unconditional promise is so damning is precisely because it was done in private.
Why is this? This revelation of Blair’s unconditional support for the USA wasn’t new – something that we have forgotten. On 4 October 2001, following 9/11, he publicly said: “We were with you at the first. We will stay with you till the last.” Given the hour, given the horror, this statement was nothing but fitting and one which nobody could hope to criticise. What everyone missed was the fact that Blair fully meant what he said. He meant it in full then, he meant it in full two years later, and he meant it in full when he put it in the now-revealed private note. Ironically, none of us realised Blair’s capacity for honesty.
What Blair seems to have done during those years is to have strapped himself into an ideological straightjacket. The memos attest to this: Blair managed to convince himself that regime change was the right thing to do, even if he had to use the least pertinent arguments to convince others and follow through on his sincere conviction. Unwavering conviction is not by its nature a sin – the tragedy of Iraq was not that it was an unwinnable war, it is that following from it any similar war will be unwinnable. It is the execution of the war, not the intention, which is so damning. Chilcot makes this brutally clear. The paucity in the planning, the whereabouts of the weaponry, the debacle of debathification… these are things that we already knew had gone wrong, but what Chilcot’s report has done is to bring into focus Blair’s blinkered vision, which in turn more keenly implicates him with these problems.
So I had always thought that Tony Blair was innocent. The question I should have been asking myself was: what was he innocent of? I still don’t think Blair was a warmonger. I have not yet read Chilcot’s report in full, but Volume Five finishes by saying that the cabinet was not misled and Volume Four’s final thoughts are that the dodgy dossier is nowhere near as dodgy as dodgy Dave. Even George Galloway now says that Blair cannot be tried legally for war crimes – a huge concession. The charge to be levied, then, is an operational one. It is one of incompetence.
Charging someone for incompetence in a matter so complex as this opens up a wormload of barrels. Chilcot’s report accuses Blair of not challenging flawed intelligence at the time. Is he guilty of this incompetence? I am not convinced that it is the duty of the PM to excessively scrutinise the intelligence service. Remember that he was also being confidently advised by the Joint Intelligent Committees Assessment, in reports dating as late as March 2003, that Iraq possessed biological weapons – and we would be worried if our PM did not take such advice.
We should also remember that the intelligence of many other European countries also got it wrong on WMD. Blair relied heavily on this flawed intelligence in what might be called micro-incompetence. If it is, then perhaps Blair is similarly guilty of what we might call a macro-incompetence. Chilcot accuses Blair of not exhausting his diplomatic options. But again, what is the duty of the PM? It’s not to pursue diplomacy indefinitely. Chilcot’s report later states that “war might have been necessary at some point but not in 2003.” Anyone can see the dilemma here. Taking the view that we should not act is entering into a formula that increasingly empowers Saddam. It only postpones problems: we wait while he leaches his country via our very own oil-for-food program and messes around with weapon inspectors until he eventually acquires the weaponry he so desperately sought.
Simply put, it is not simple to assign blame in these areas. I think Blair is guilty of a more fundamental and personal incompetence. In saying what he meant in both public and private spheres, he held his end-goal to an incredibly high standard. To achieve, it would require him to keep two sets of books, through which he would offset cross-national unity and the value of detailed scrutiny against the methods which would be most likely to deliver what he thought to be the greater good. In this sense, he was dishonest to himself alone – and it was in this myopic state that he acted. Maybe you assess Blair’s incompetence very differently. Whatever the nature of his incompetence, it will be up to others to judge the extent of the offence.
if we make Iraq synonymous with Vietnam then we injure the memory of those who lost their lives in a truly unnecessary war.
But whether or not Blair ends up in the clink, there is a lesson not to be learned from Iraq: that humanitarian intervention is never justified. Following the report, Corbyn said that many loved ones had died “unnecessarily and without purpose.” This is a disgraceful statement. Those in the armed forces know exactly what they sign up for, and their “purposeless” sacrifice was to engage in a struggle that could have saved a country from a man who had killed millions. It didn’t save lives, but if we make Iraq synonymous with Vietnam then we injure the memory of those who lost their lives in a truly unnecessary war.
Instead, the lesson we should learn is to beware of the dangers of group-think. We should learn that just as Blair’s cerebral cabinet of angels turned out to be a clandestine congregation of demons, our own premature judgments might also be ill-made. Following Chilcot, we should all re-evaluate what we thought to be true about Iraq, lest we make a similar mistake to the one made by Blair. We should then accept our own conclusion, even if it means admitting that we were once wrong.