by Dr Marie-Hélène Labbé
In an interview with U.S. television channel CNN, broadcast on Monday 26 October, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was sorry for Iraq war mistakes , referring to the 2003 intervention in Iraq, during which he was George W. Bush’s main ally. “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I can also apologise, by the way, for some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once we removed the regime”. This dramatic confession was taken up by the Telegraph and by various British tabloids. It may well signal open season with regard to responsibility: who manipulated whom? Who lied? The senior politicians, who wanted war at any price? The intelligence services, who did not do their job properly? The military, who incurred significant losses but who were ill-equipped and poorly trained because the decision to go to war could not be disclosed while the U.N. option was still officially being pursued?
Blair made the decision in favour of military intervention in Iraq alongside the United States “on a wing and a prayer”; without a great deal of reflection, and more on emotion than on judgement, but with the hope that he would nevertheless succeed, despite knowing himself to be ill-prepared. This is a paradox that continues to shape Blair’s attitude. He has consistently maintained, both during the Chilcot hearings and afterwards, that it was necessary to rid the world of a bloody tyrant and that he did not regret it. He reiterated this on CNN on 26 October.
Perhaps, but a decision to go to war is no ordinary decision. It commits an entire government, involves the armed forces, and requires some thought to have been given to the aftermath. Blair and his inner circle, however, did none of this. It was this combination of the messianic and the off-key, even improvisational, that so shocked the British people; particularly as he was swiftly castigated by British military victims, by the general officers discredited for their role in the Basra fiasco, but above all, for the subsequent neglect and then collapse of Iraq. While the emergence of ISIS is not, strictly speaking, the direct result of the U.S.-British intervention in 2003, that intervention nevertheless paved the way and gave Islamic State its leading figures. Implementing a decision taken so lightly could not fail to be a challenge in a region as complex as the Middle East, and in a country ravaged by tribal rivalries and religious conflict and bled dry by twenty-five years of Western wars and economic sanctions.
More serious, however, is that this decision was based on a lie. We now know that Blair knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when he stood before Parliament, and that the reasons that he presented to Parliament for the legality of the war did not, therefore, hold. President Bush knew this too, as did his advisors. And yet they have not been punished for it. Nothing: not the slightest reprimand, not the most minor of sanctions. Bush and Blair were even re-elected in 2004 and 2005. The Iraqi War did indeed take place, but the mission is far from complete, contrary to Bush’s bold:” Mission accomplished” on 1 May 2003 . Wellington said that “a great country cannot wage a little war”. The United Kingdom has painful experience of that fact. Winning the war against Saddam was not a challenge. Establishing peace and building a strong and viable State, on shifting and uncertain foundations: this is the real challenge. And neither the United States not the United Kingdom has risen to it.
The coalition’s failure, then, is blatant and there would be nothing shocking – it would, rather, be morally right - for those responsible for that error to be held accountable to the people who elected them.
There would appear, as publication of the Chilcot report approaches, to be mounting apprehension among two groups of people. The first is Sir John Chilcot himself, as he may be accused by those incriminated in the report - surprisingly, given the years that have passed – of failing to allow them sufficient time to respond. The second is the witnesses: firstly, because they may break the pact of silence that had bound them together since the hearings began six years ago; witnesses such as Clare Short, Blair’s Minister for International Development, who declared the first draft of the report to be “very poor and as big as War and Peace ”. The second reason for this apprehension, however, is that the various parties are seeking to lay the blame at each other’s doors. The military accuses the politicians of a lack of preparedness, and fears charges under the Human Rights Act or other international procedures. Senior officials within the intelligence services have already written their memoirs – in which they have recorded their own truths. These, for now, are kept quietly private, but would certainly be made public if these officials were criticised, and if the politicians responsible – read, Blair – were to be cleared of any wrongdoing. Until 26th October, the most senior politicians - Brown, Blair and Straw – seemed unaffected, without apology or regret. They became highly prized advisors, for whom the Iraq war was a distant memory. Things might change dramatically for them. By publicly apologising on 26 October for the invasion of Iraq - and shifting the responsibility onto the intelligence services - Tony Blair has opened up a Pandora ’s Box of cascading liability. The Chilcot report will be transmitted to the Prime Minister the week of 18 April and, following the PM’s clearance, it will be published. It will in all likelihood be dangerous.
Dr Labbé is Visiting fellow at Durham University. She is the author of “Le traumatisme irakien” to be published in February 2016 by the Presses universitaires de Paris Sorbonne.