Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has given up trying to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq or persuade people that “it was the right decision.” His weariness is understandable. Blair has changed the reasons for supporting America’s decision to invade so many times, he has probably lost track of what it is he is justifying.
Yet Blair also remains unrepentant and is still preaching. Speaking on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the invasion, Blair admitted that life in Iraq, where sectarian killings continue, was not what he had hoped it would be following the downfall and execution of Saddam Hussein. Yet despite this he insisted the situation for Iraqis would have been terrible had the dictator remained in power, adding that Saddam was “20 times worse” than Syrian President Bashar Assad.
It’s easy to knock Blair. His vanity, his messianic belief in himself and his judgments, his clear deceit in going to war on intelligence he surely realized was flawed. A year before the invasion, he wrote to his chief of staff Jonathan Powell: “the immediate [weapons of mass destruction] problems don’t seem obviously worse than three years ago. So we have to reorder our story and message. Increasingly, I think it should be about the nature of the regime.”
In short Blair wanted a war. And he wanted it because he believed there was a moral case for it. It had nothing to do with WMD and he never cared about gaining United Nations support. In that same memo Blair wrote: “A political philosophy that does care about other nations – e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and is proud to change regimes on the merits, should be gung-ho on Saddam.”
The crude language displays a distastefully cavalier attitude to the hundreds of thousands of lives that would be lost on Blair’s desire for a “gung-ho” approach to Saddam. But playing devil’s advocate, one could say that his decision-making in the runup to the Iraqi invasion was informed by both the failures and successes of the international community in dealing with what were considered to be “rogue states.”
Wind the clock even further back to 1994 and Rwanda. The United Nations had boots on the ground. It had, by all accounts, been warned in advance that a genocide against the country’s Tutsis was imminent. Yet the U.N. Security Council did nothing. More than half a million men, women and children were massacred, including 2,000 refugees who had taken refuge in the Don Bosco School in the Rwandan capital of Kigali under the protection of Belgian U.N. peacekeepers. The peacekeepers were ordered by the U.N. to abandon the school, leaving it to Hutu militants waiting outside its gates, drinking beer. Once the Belgians left, the militants entered and massacred almost everyone.
The lesson Blair drew from Rwanda was that the U.N. is incapable of preventing human tragedies. Its membership, as we can see today over Syria, cannot speak with one voice and so shrinks from decisive action when it is most needed.
NATO’s belated attack on Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, generally seen as establishing the template for Blair’s “humanitarian interventionism,” stemmed in large part from global guilt over the U.N.’s failure to intervene in Rwanda as much as from disgust with the carnage in the former Yugoslavia and the Western hand-wringing that accompanied the conflict throughout the 1990s.
Blair persuaded then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had regretted his own failure to act in Rwanda, to join him. This “humanitarian intervention” was based on a simple premise: If the U.N. does not act to prevent, in Blair’s words during his famous Chicago speech in April 1999, ”a humanitarian crisis or gross oppression of a civilian population,” then individual states might do so themselves.
It was in essence a rebranding of Clinton’s earlier calls for “a coalition of the willing” when the U.S. president sought international support for possible action against North Korea in 1994.
The successful British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 stretched the premise further. Acting unilaterally, the troops rescued a failing U.N. operation that was on the point of losing control to the vicious militias, “gangsters” as Blair described them, who had taken hundreds of peacekeepers hostage and were poised to oust the country’s elected government. It was an overwhelming success and Blair has since said that it was one of the things of which he is most proud.
Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. I covered the government’s party conference in 2001, weeks after the attack and listened as Blair gave a speech outlining a world of “humanitarian intervention.” I left the conference thinking he might invade Zimbabwe – which he dearly wished to, North Korea, and probably China too, never mind Afghanistan or Iraq.
But while we ignore the international backdrop to the Iraq invasion at our own peril, none of this excuses what became one of the greatest military follies of modern history. Ten years on Iraq is a long way from being a functioning democracy. In the last week alone dozens of Iraqis have been killed in outbursts of the sectarian violence unleashed by the invasion. The Middle East is more volatile today. The invasion radically altered the region’s balance of power, to the advantage of Iran – a greater threat to the West than Saddam ever was.
The war in Iraq crushed British and more importantly American self-confidence, decidedly curbing Washington’s willingness to become involved in far-flung conflicts. Because of the conflict, the West remains firmly on the sidelines in Syria, effectively acquiescing in the continuing slaughter, just as it did in Kosovo until 1999.
Iraq exposed the limits of Blair’s doctrine. Sierra Leone, Kosovo and other smaller interventions failed to provide a consensual template for “humanitarian intervention.” All they did was give Blair dangerous over-confidence in his instincts and beliefs. The former British prime minister should now acknowledge these facts and take responsibility for them. Sadly, he refuses to do so. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, Blair really does think he’s infallible.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in London.