Arguably one of the most controversial decisions our generation may ever see, the Iraq War is still hotly contested; rife with disagreeing claims and tense emotions. Last week, as part of the upcoming CNN documentary, Long Road to Hell: America in Iraq, former Prime Minister Tony Blair was interviewed about and apologised for some of his involvement in the conflict. Given that the Chilcot report, an investigation by Sir John Chilcot that scrutinises Britain’s decisions to join the war in Iraq, is expected to be released in the immediate future, many media sources and British politicians find this recent public statement insincere and merely self-serving, claiming that Blair is simply trying to cover his back before the report comes out.
Firstly, it is important to understand that the Iraq war is still highly contentious. For example, a CNN article cites casualties from the conflict to be tens of thousands Iraqis, more than 4,000 troops, and 179 British service members. On the other hand, a Pakistani newspaper claims that, in actuality, millions of Iraqis have been killed. When information that should be considered concrete and factual is disputed, any public statement (even an apology) regarding the Iraq War is bound to stir up debate.
Before making a judgment on Blair’s intentions, we should consider his apology. ‘I can say that I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong because, even though [Saddam] had used chemical weapons extensively against his own people, against others, the program [to make weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)] in the form that we thought it was did not exist in the way that we thought.’ Blair apologises for the false information that led to the invasion of Iraq. However, the results of that invasion – the removal of Saddam and the instability of the Middle Eastern region that followed – are not things Blair feels he is completely responsible for: “I find it hard to apologize for removing Saddam. I think, even from today in 2015, it is better that he’s not there than he is there.”
There can be no question about the fact that Saddam Hussein was a corrupt and dictatorial leader. He used chemical weapons against the Iraqi people, tortured prisoners, attempted to exterminate the Kurds (and was successful in killing hundreds of thousands of them), and murdered the children of his political enemies – and these are just a few examples. Most people do not wish Saddam Hussein were still the leader of Iraq. However, when considering the removal of the dictator, a point made by Colin Powell sums it up well: ‘You break it, you own it.’ When you invade another country you have to be prepared to take responsibility for it and its people until a new government is put in place.
Blair said, ‘Of course you can’t say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015. But it’s important to also realize, one, that the Arab Spring which began in 2011 would also have had its impact on Iraq today, and two, ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq. It’s not clear to me that, even if our policy did not work, subsequent policies have worked better.’ Blair is correct in this regard. It is imperative to recognize what impact the Iraq War had on the region and it is decent to take partial responsibility. However, it is also key to remember that policy making is an imperfect science all the specialist advisers and detailed intelligence reports in the world cannot ensure a correct decision. It is incredibly easy for people to blame Blair and Bush for the current state of the Middle East, and while their actions definitely contributed to it, they cannot be held wholly responsible. With that logic, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron could be held responsible for the migrant crisis in Europe because they did not do anything in Syria and chose not to remove Assad from power.
Some of the media disagrees that Blair and Bush are not completely responsible. Robert Fisk, of The Independent, argues that while Saddam Hussein was committing his war crimes and abusing his people he was being supported by the United States in his war against Iran, so the US only got upset with Saddam and wanted him removed from power when it suited them. If the US was so outraged at the atrocities Saddam Hussein was committing, they would have gotten involved years before, not when their policy goals finally made it possible. Asim Hussain, for The International News, says ‘due to conspiracies by US, UK and western countries against [the] Muslim world, … the whole world… [is now in] unrest while Muslim blood was spilling like water, but the UN was playing the role of US slave.’ He thinks the UN is a creation of western states and controlled by the United States, and that this is why the international body did not act in defence of Iraq. He also touches upon the hope of many religious and government leaders in the Middle East the West: that the UN will initiate war crimes trials on George Bush and Tony Blair.
Just how culpable are Bush and Blair actually? Should they really be tried as war criminals? The pressure and concerns Bush and even Blair faced in the aftermath of 9/11 are unimaginable. It is very easy to analyse the war in Iraq today and say that it was a mistake and the intelligence was clearly wrong. The claim that the leaders who made the decision to enter Iraq are completely responsible for the instability and new dangers currently facing the world (in the form of ISIS) is also contestable. It is reminiscent of when the United States armed the Afghani rebels in the 1980s to fight against the USSR. In the end, the mujahedeen morphed into the Taliban, a case no one could have predicted with complete certainty. Bush and Blair obviously bear some of the responsibility for what is happening in the world, as does any former world leader. Unfortunately, Blair and Bush were faced with a terrible crisis, and so their actions were more severe, as were the results and aftermath.
A number of news sources also question where apologies and statements are from the rest of the policy makers from that time. People like Condoleezza Rice, the former US National Security Advisor, Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of British MI6, and Dickey Cheney, the US vice president, probably played just as important of a role in deciding to engage Iraq as Bush and Blair. Apologies from them could begin to encourage more cooperation and understanding between bigger western powers and the affected Middle Eastern nations.
It is appropriate for Blair to take some responsibility for his decision to involve the UK in Iraq. He was the Prime Minister and therefore the accountability is on him. It is unlikely that the Chilcot Report played a part in this public apology; Blair is no longer a public official and is not running for re-election, so it is hard to believe public perception is his only motivation. The war in Iraq was very destructive and heart breaking for all countries involved. An open dialogue about it and the mistakes around it will hopefully help countries not to repeat them. But, as seen in Syria and in other conflict zones, we still have a great deal to learn.