Whilst the weekend papers were filled with much repetition of Tony Blair’s slippery and well-crafted answers during last Friday’s “grilling” at the hands of the Chilcot inquiry, far too little analysis was made afterwards of how those soundbite-friendly responses actually stood up to scrutiny.
It was always highly unlikely that the former Prime Minister would sit there and admit to being a war-criminal, or to misleading the public and Parliament in order to start an illegal and unjustified invasion into a non-aggressing sovereign country. To do so would be suicide, and the media-savvy Blair, as we all know, is far too smart to do that. His deftness for dealing with interrogation, however, does not prevent us from studying the unrepentant explanations and rationale he did offer, and seeing if they actually hold water.
“This isn’t about a lie or a conspiracy or a deceit or a deception. It is a decision”, said Blair early in the morning, as if decisions were a mutually exclusive breed of thought, separate from lies, conspiracies, deceits or deceptions. As the very issue in question here is whether or not Blair made a decision to go to war independent of the readily available evidence to legally and morally do so, we must never forget that it is entirely possible for a decision to be made for which lies, conspiracy, deceit and deception are the only available means to fulfil it. Every heinous, illegal and unjustified act in history has been someone’s decision. Decisions are what motivate the majority of human action. Our job now, in the face of this particular decision, is to determine why it was made, and whether that decision led to lies, conspiracy, deceit and deception in order to achieve its goals.
If Blair decided to go to war first, and then lied about WMDs in order to do it, we have a very serious problem. A problem which should be at the crux of the Chilcot Inquiry.
“Sometimes”, said Blair, “what is important is not to ask the March 2003 question but to ask the 2010 question.” But the decision to go to war with Iraq in March, 2003, prevents us from seriously answering the “2010 question” with anything other than speculation, and right now we are looking for answers, not more guesswork and baseless assumption, so it seems prudent to stick to the questions of March, 2003.
“I genuinely believe that if we had left Saddam in power,” said Blair, “even with what we know now, we would still have had to have dealt with him, possibly in circumstances where the threat was worse and possibly in circumstances where it was hard to mobilise any support for dealing with that threat.”
The question of legality and justification regarding the war in Iraq, however, does not ride on what the former Prime Minister might or might not “genuinely believe”. It rests on some very simple principles that were unquestionably relevant in March, 2003: if Iraq was a legitimate and immediate threat, and if all non-military options had been exhausted, then we would have a right to defend ourselves against their clear and present aggression. If there was no aggression, no threat, and no clear and indisputable evidence that all other diplomatic options had failed, then we had no right to go to war.
We cannot just attack any country that we feel like on the basis that, one day, they might become a threat. Our leaders are not psychics, and this is not Minority Report – we must err towards peace until we are truly given no other choice but to fight back. That is how international law works. It’s what distinguishes aggression from self-defence, and just as a police officer can’t arrest and jail a person they simply have a “bad feeling” about unless there is demonstrable evidence that a genuine crime is being planned or committed – even if a similar crime has been committed by this person before – a government cannot go to war in self-defence unless there is substantial evidence first that the crime of aggression is actually taking place.
Putting aside these legal and historical objections to the former Prime Minister’s defence, however, the argument Blair proffered still doesn’t make sense, even on its own terms. If he had not acted in 2003, and the alleged threat posed by Saddam had indeed become worse, why on earth would it have then become harder to mobilize support? If anything, that should have made it easier. Whilst it has certainly proven difficult to convince other sane countries into attacking a nation who has posed no real danger to anyone outside of its own borders, seldom has it been hard to find allies to fight a justifiable war against a legitimate enemy when the evidence of external aggression is clear.
“After September 11,” though, said Blair, “the calculus of risk changed”. We could not just sit back anymore, the way we once did, and give enemy nations the chance to strike first. We had to be more pro-active.
Whilst perhaps the 9/11 terrorist attacks might have opened our eyes to security risks on Western soil that, hitherto, we just hadn’t thought about, it did not suddenly give governments carte blanche to drop bombs on any country they now felt uneasy about. Though the “calculus of risk” may well have arguably changed, the basic tenets of international law had not. Yet for Blair, despite the fact that the events of 9/11 were in no way connected to Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein, and that the 9/11 hijackers had committed their atrocity not with nuclear bombs or chemical weapons, but with stolen airplanes and low-tech box-cutter knives, “the primary consideration for me was to send an absolutely powerful message after September 11 – if you were a regime engaged in WMD you had to stop.”
It seems a peculiar leap of logic, but maybe I can follow it: though the 9/11 hijackers did not use WMDs, perhaps future attackers might, and so it would behove us now to tackle that problem before it’s too late? In a way, it kind of makes sense. But though it is perhaps an admirable goal to want to bring about the end to deadly WMDs after seeing the destruction and devastation caused on September 11th without them, the personal desire to send the world a strong message of disarmament does not exonerate Mr. Blair from observing the limits and procedures of international law. Whilst he had every freedom in the world to put pressure on countries about WMDs through organizations such as the UN or EU, to step up weapons inspections and sanctions in particularly tricky areas, to draw up multilateral disarmament treaties and lead by example by decommissioning the UK’s own nuclear, chemical and biological arsenal (and encouraging allied countries to do the same), he simply did not have the freedom to go to war against a non-aggressing country just to “send out a powerful message”.
Similarly, although Blair asserted on Friday that the issue of WMDs in Iraq and regime change were “conjoined”, and that “a regime that is brutal and oppressive - that for example has used weapons of mass destruction against its own people, as Saddam did, and had killed tens of thousands of people by the use of chemical weapons…is a bigger threat if it has weapons of mass destruction than one that is otherwise benign,” the fact still remains that, even if this is theoretically true, in practice, because of the existing rules of international law, just war, and non-aggression that separate “brutal and oppressive” regimes like Iraq from “benign” ones like us, we cannot be permitted to say, as Blair did: “we have to deal with his WMD ambitions. If that means regime change, so be it”. The two issues are not, as the former Prime Minister asserted, just “a different way of expressing the same proposition”, because one of the two propositions (curbing the development of WMDs) is a perfectly legal matter of enforcing nations into compliance with binding global agreements and commitments through inspection, enforcement and sanction, whereas the other (regime change) means – unless acting in legitimate self-defence following a genuine act of aggression – the illegal invasion and interference with the internal political affairs of a sovereign nation at great physical cost both to its people, and to our soldiers.
Astoundingly though, Blair concluded, of his decision to go to war with Iraq: “I do genuinely believe the world is safer as a result”.
Ignoring for a moment the over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians estimated to have been killed as a result of Blair’s invasion, the forty-plus sites across the country that are now contaminated with radiation and dioxins that will be toxic for generations to come, and the nearly two hundred British soldiers who have lost their life in the region since 2003, how the former Prime Minister can maintain this ludicrous assertion becomes even harder to fathom when one looks seriously at the post-Iraq world. Whilst the invasion of Iraq has still yet to bring its promised “liberation” to the Iraqi people, it has obliterated the country’s infrastructure and continued to serve as a rallying cry for terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda around the world. The perception of callous slaughter of Iraqi innocents by cruel Western aggressors remains a compelling reason for outraged Muslims to join the ever-growing ranks of jihad in all corners of the globe, and consecutive National Intelligence Estimates in the US have admitted that the war in Iraq has only “made the overall terrorism problem worse”. Closer to home, as the UK’s “terror threat” has once again moved up to “severe”, one only has to remember the home-grown horror of the 7/7 bomb attacks in London – committed by British terrorists in direct response to what they saw as an unprovoked assault by their government on the people of Iraq – to see that, far from making us safer, the war in Iraq has only made things much worse.
Contrary to Mr. Blair’s allegations, the world is not at all safer now here in the West, nor is it any safer in Iraq. Long after Saddam Hussein was killed and the regime in Iraq was changed, our soldier’s guns and bombs – and those of multiple warring insurgents set predictably free in regime change’s ugly wake – continue to kill civilians in their thousands. And though Saddam’s former atrocities in Halabja will forever disgust the world, they will soon pale in comparison to the shocking legacy of cancer and mutation our own chemical weapons have left behind.
Yet for Tony Blair, none of this appears to matter: that he believes a different story is true seems enough to make it so.
When asked if he had any regrets about his decision at the end of his time in the chair, Blair said he felt “responsibility but not regret for removing Saddam Hussein”. This was not surprising. The underlying message of the entire six-hour inquisition was that regime-change had always been the goal in Iraq, and that, in Tony Blair’s mind, going after WMDs was merely “a different way of expressing the same proposition”. As far as Blair was concerned, and for that matter, Bush, a decision had been made, regardless of any evidence there might be to the contrary: Saddam Hussein was a threat to world peace who needed to be taken out at any cost. Whether Saddam actually had weapons of mass destruction, and whether he actually posed a real threat became only a minor detail once the decision for war had been made, and in achieving that central objective toppling Hussein, the war was a huge success.
But decisions must have consequences. Especially when they so flagrantly break international law and are based entirely on a wilful fabrication.
That Tony Blair believes the decision he made on Iraq was right and that he tried to defend himself at the Chilcot inquiry was neither surprising nor important. Thankfully, these days, Blair’s opinion is no longer the opinion that counts: he is done making his decisions, and now it is our turn to decide.
Regardless of what Blair may have “believed” at the time, or what he “believes” right now, it is history that will ultimately judge him, and the facts of history remain unflinching: there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was plenty of evidence from UN inspectors and other sources before March, 2003 that this was the case, and yet Blair chose to go to war anyway. Instead of giving Hans Blix and his team the time they had asked for to finish their job, Blair opted to invade instead. The war he chose to fight had no legal basis in UN resolution, nor was it a justified case of self-defence against an enemy aggressor: the majority of the British population were against it, and even members of his own Cabinet were forced to resign in protest. It was an illegal and unjustified war that was sold to the British public through a conspiracy of lies, deception and deceit, and as a result of that war, over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians were killed, nearly two hundred soldiers have died, terrorism has increased both within the region and around the globe, and we have lost billions of pounds of public money that, perhaps, might have saved us from recession.
Regarding his decision to take us into Iraq, Tony Blair can believe and say what he wants, but back here in the real world, the evidence against him is damning.