Enoch Powell famously said that all political lives end in failure. But he was wrong: some political lives end more disastrously, beyond misfortune, beyond failure. Tony Blair has been handed this more brutal epitaph by the Chilcot report, which has been released at last.
As Sir John Chilcot made clear in his announcement of the report’s findings, Blair is culpable – though not criminally responsibile – for the worst UK foreign policy disaster since the Suez crisis of the 1950s. The Iraq War is arguably even more of a nadir than Suez given the human cost of the decision to invade Iraq, the subsequent disintegration of the country, and the rise of Islamist militant groups now wreaking havoc in the region.
Based on its executive summary, the report is clear on a number of key points. The UK intervention in Iraq was a military failure; the decision to engage in military action was taken without sufficient evidence, and in a manner that was not the outcome of due diligence within the government. The decision was taken too early. Military action was not a “last resort”, and was entered into “before peaceful options for disarmament were exhausted”. This led to a series of events that have subsequently crippled the country and claimed over 180,000 lives (as detailed by Iraq Body Count).
In short, those who were maimed and killed as a result of Blair’s decisions over Iraq suffered and died needlessly.
Beyond Chilcot’s carefully phrased judgement that the assessment of the threat posed by Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction was “presented with certainty that was not justified”, many of Blair’s critics believe that he has blood on his hands and should be held directly responsible for the deaths of their loved ones and thousands of innocent people in Iraq.
While Chilcot was never likely to find a smoking gun in Blair’s hand, his statement at the release of the report didn’t hold back on the errors of interpretation of the evidence over WMD and errors of political judgement.
Blair’s core defence to Chilcot, that he acted in “good faith” and did not lie, has nothing to do with the war’s consequences. He responded to the report’s findings by saying that he would “take full responsibility for any mistakes without exception or excuse” – but it remains to be seen what form this reparation or contrition will take.
Regardless of the legal situation, in political terms, Blair has long been held culpable for the deaths of deployed Britons and Iraqi civilians alike since the invasion. The death toll is hard to establish with certainty beyond the 179 British soldiers killed, but it certainly extends into the region of 180,000 as detailed by the work of Iraq Body Count.
Blair and his political allies are also implicated in the civil war that engulfed Iraq since 2003. We only have to look to the weekend before the report was released, when 165 people in Baghdad were murdered by Islamic State suicide bombers, to see evidence of the chaos that followed the war.
Knowing the truth
Blair continues to argue his case – and since he still seems convinced that removing Saddam Hussein was justified, what else can he do? His response to the report puts Britain’s participation in the Iraq War down to failures of British intelligence, not his political judgement, and certainly not to a flaw in his moral compass, or a desire to support the Bush administration for reasons of political advantage.
A more cynical assessment is that Blair deliberately pitched the UK and its troops into a war to satisfy his own political urges and to support George W Bush and the American government. In this version of events, he was guided into it by his own worldview, a post-9/11 sense of mission against “the virus of terrorism”.
In the final analysis, only Blair himself really knows the truth about what motivated him in 2003. But despite his regrets about the failures of intelligence and his insistence that he acted in good faith, he must surely have reflected on whether he was fundamentally wrong about the need to have invaded Iraq in the first place – and whether he and his colleagues in the “coalition of the willing” are actually responsible for a death toll greater than that of Saddam Hussein himself.
Speaking to British troops in Iraq in 2003, Blair said: “When people look back at this time and look back on this conflict, I honestly believe they will see this as one of the defining moments of our century.”
He was certainly right about that.