Not disregarding Tony Blair because of Iraq

There’s a tendency to dismiss Tony Blair because of Iraq. Even though the invasion was a mistake, might he have been right to support it? Might people be wrong to dismiss him because of it?

President George W. Bush and Tony Blair

At the time, I didn’t support the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was clearly unsavoury but the evidence made public for his having weapons of mass destruction that posed a real threat to Europe was weak.

My sense at the time was that things would have looked very different if Iraq’s neighbours had been appealing for help.

The best account of the messiness of the situation that I saw lay in some deft editing by John Wilkins of The Tablet. My memory is that he published five articles, in successive issues. Two were from supporters of invasion and two from opponents. His editorial masterstroke was that the fifth article written by an Iraqi Kurd arguing that Saddam Hussein’s killing Iraqi Kurds twenty years earlier had put a duty on the international community to act (and Hussein was eventually executed for the killing of 148 Iraqi Kurds in 1982). The fact that the international community had waited for two decades before acting put a very different light on the “urgent” invasion.

Things would have looked very different if the West had waited and trusted the Iraqi people to change their own government rather than “bring” then democracy. In this sense I thought and think the invasion was wrong.

But, if the US had decided to invade anyway, might Blair have been right to join in?

The American angle

A while previously I’d seen an article in (I think) Prospect magazine which argued that Europe and the US had reacted in opposite ways to the Second World War, with Europe choosing a path of working together and the US a path of isolationism, and that US isolationism was emerging as a major threat. A unilateral US invasion of Iraq took things further in the isolationist direction. An alliance drew the sting of that.

European soul-searching after the war included Winston Churchill’s suggestion of a “United States of Europe”. It included the path from the Schuman Declaration to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community. The logic was that coal and steel were the raw materials of mid twentieth century warfare. While treaties can be broken, integrating the European coal and steel industries made war much harder. It was a brilliant combination of idealism and pragmatism which laid the foundations of what is now the European Union (and makes my stomach heave at the implications of the UK leaving the EU).
People in the US had instead read the story of the war as of there having been a mess until the US intervened and sorted the situation, with the implication that the US was the country to “sort things out”. That perception would have increased as people tried to make sense of the war in hindsight because the war had also led to rapid de-colonisation, creating a space for the US to take on the influence being ceded by the soon-to-be former-colonial powers.

At that stage China and India were less important than they are today, but their size should have made people wonder how long the US would be the world’s only superpower. There had yet to be a president of the instability of Donald Trump, but George W Bush was already reminding people that the values of the US President didn’t necessarily match those of the rest of the West.

Might Blair have been right?

If Bush had been determined to invade, and the US had the capacity to do this unilaterally, then Blair would not have been able to stop the process.

But pushing Bush into getting a UN resolution to support the invasion — even if it seemed questionable — meant that Bush didn’t establish the precedent that the world’s most powerful can invade another country to bring about “regime change” just because it wants to. That could become important when it comes to the international community trying to reign in a resurgent China.

If Blair was playing this long game, then it would be self-defeating for this to become public knowledge.

Might we be in a situation where Blair is consistently attacked for what, when the records are finally released, turns out to be his greatest piece of statecraft?

The Blair legacy

This matters because Blair’s legacy is mixed. Hearing him and John Major speak of Brexit is salutary. They have different political perspectives, but both come across as heavy-weight statesmen. The contrast with Boris Johnson is stark.

Within Labour, my sense is that Blair’s legacy is mixed because of the frustration of those who were never comfortable with “New Labour” and resent the fact that New Labour won elections.

Could we be in a situation where Blair’s contributions to addressing the mess the UK is now in are being ignored because of a wise attempt to prevent an irresponsible US President reinforce the view that the US can go it alone and undermine international institutions?

The imagined Islamic “enemy”

This isn’t to say that Blair was entirely right over the invasion of Iraq. The relationship between the West and the Islamic world has been complicated for centuries, and my own sense is that, since the psychologically-stable binary “good v evil” world of the Cold War the West has been trying to create an enemy in “Islamic terrorism”. That might say a great deal about Bush’s emotional need to intervene. It could also have led Blair to under-estimate the damage that supporting Bush would do to him in the UK. The other side of the same binary “good v evil” thinking might also offer some insight into the anger his position on Iraq now evokes.

For 2021

The tarnishing of Blair’s reputation gives people an excuse to ignore his comments on Brexit. It gives some in Labour a chance to dismiss things that might make them electable as “Blairite”. It also gets in the way of conversations about meaningful devolution in England — Blair’s model would have worked and would have removed much of the pressure for Scots independence, where the present government’s “devolution” is so peacemeal that it avoids pushing power from London and perpetuates frustration in Scotland because the size of England means it dominates in the UK.

I’m also very struck that Tony Blair’s comments on Covid19 vaccination sound vastly wiser than those of Boris Johnson: can we afford to brush these aside?

In 2003 China was growing. Now we have to engage with the reality of its power. In 2003 George W Bush did not look like a great president but few would have predicted one as dysfunctional as Donald Trump. Reinforcing the idea of American isolationism in 2003 would have undermined the things that could reign in China and made the world even more vulnerable to Trump’s instability.

We can’t ignore the possibility that history will conclude that Blair did the world a favour by stopping Bush from going it alone.

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