Tony Blair was arguably one of the boldest and most talented politicians of the late 20th and early 21st century. Domestically he is widely credited with delivering vast swathes of progressive legislation across the country, introducing the minimum wage, allowing civil partnerships, and strengthening employee rights. Britain’s social values radically changed during his time in office – the values of the older generation were swept away and a new morality gained greater acceptance. Whether legislation was the enabler or the consequence of these changes is up for debate. Yet it is Blair’s foreign policy which overshadows what would have been quite a progressive legacy. From being characterised as a saviour by the British press in 1997, Blair’s image as a war criminal was frequently propagated by the press, and, as the coverage on the Chilcot Enquiry reveals, it still endures to this day.
When confronted with media reports of loud, clamouring protests over his foreign policy, it’s easy to forget that more people actively voted for him than his opponents in successive general elections, even after his, and Parliament’s, disastrous decision to enter Iraq (undoubtedly a clumsy and calamitous execution, in hindsight). A silent but substantial number of people voted for him. No doubt a good number of these people had inanimate political views, or would have been more interested in parochial matters, such as their local health services, or were Labour triballists, or were simply uninspired by a Tory leadership that was more interested in niche topics like Europe than bread-and-butter issues like Education. And yet still, it appears that these people would have been at worst ‘neutral’ on Iraq and, indeed, there would have been people who supported Blair’s intentions in Iraq. We seldom hear about these people.
One of the unique features of opposition is that there is always a platform for the rebel – it is never inappropriate to speak against the status quo, whilst, conversely, supporters of it rarely feel the need to randomly unleash polemics in praise of what’s occurring. There’s no incentive to do so, for a start. Why speak when change is not needed? There are far more opportunities to criticise than to defend.
Opposition is also often the trendiest position. Supporters of current policies are committed to defending the inevitable fact that not everything about the current situation is perfect, whilst, in contrast, advocates of change can paint an alternative just as the artist paints his self-portrait: beautiful, but not realistic. Whether we entered Iraq or not, suffering would still have been a dominant occurrence in Iraqi life. The question of which suffering is preferable is a morally difficult question to answer, especially when the outcome of intervention could never be determined prior to the event. I wouldn’t seriously charge any reasonable person on either side of the Iraq debate as a maliciously-intentioned monster. And I don’t blame weary, quiet supporters of Iraqi intervention for not rising and tackling that precise insult when it is so often spewed by fervorous, frenzied non-conformists.
I should, at this point, satisfy the curiosity of many readers and answer the central question at the heart of the discussion quite plainly. I think our intervention in the middle-east was a mistake. I don’t think it is so obviously a mistake, and I especially don’t think it could be seen to be so obviously a mistake in 2003. The removal of Saddam Hussein, his trial, and, as a direct consequence, the beginning of the liberation of the Kurdish people from mass persecution (involving, yes, chemical weapons), were undoubtedly splendid acts. Saddam’s Iraq was appropriately described by Jalal Talabani as a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it. Indeed, under many of the international treaties that the UK has signed up to, Iraq arguably lost its right to sovereignty long before 2003. However, the destabilisation of what was already an unstable region, and the road towards a physical war against an abstract ideology that the initial rhetoric surrounding the war has led us down, are perhaps too great a price to pay when we see the unimaginable barbarism that has flooded great parts of Syria and Iraq, and the publicity and advocacy it has provided to supporters of extremist Islam within western nations. The roots of this violence pre-dated 2003, but our intervention certainly exacerbated it.
I have little doubt that, no matter what Chilcot’s report contains, Blair will continue to be vilified by many (but I add, not all) on the left who often tie their left-wing identity to anti-warism and (as if they are synonymous) anti-Blairism. Yet this is the same Blairism that played a hand in toppling real war criminals. Therein lies the spectacular irony.
The mass rape and ethnic cleansing sanctioned by the sadistic thug Slobodan Milošević in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia ended largely thanks to Blair’s leadership. So too was Charles Taylor’s child slavery in Sierra Leone. In fact, if you judge a man by his enemies – Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Mullah Omar, Robert Mugabe – Blair fares a lot better than the likes of Vladimir Putin whose passive, self-interested, appeasing foreign policy has equally harmed the middle-east by strengthening the hand of dictators like Assad. And yes, it’s true, Blair himself played real-politik with dictators like Gaddafi. There are many infamous pictures of Blair shaking hands with Gaddafi (as if that would be surprising for a world leader establishing diplomatic relations, or any different from any other British Prime Minister) – but to bring it up is simply a lazy smear. The untold story is that Gaddafi surrendered his own (underestimated) stockpile of weapons to Bush and Blair after the invasion of Iraq – a victory for the non-proliferation movement.
The difference between Blair’s intervention in Iraq and the actions of these war criminals previously mentioned is that, in Blair’s case, there is conceivably a moral case to be made, and a moral intention behind intervention, even if you disagree with the intervention itself. People who deny this are simply not serious people. They trade in hyperbole and cash-in cheap moral equivalences to boost their political capital as anti-war radicals, hiding the shaky foundations upon which they launch their abuse against Blair. This is not the fruits of mature disagreement, but of blatant opportunism to spearhead a political movement founded by crackpot war-for-oil conspiracy theorists whose evidence is a lot less convincing than that presented by both domestic and foreign intelligence services in the so-called “dodgy dossier”. Whilst socialist parties enthusiastically contest in Iraq’s free elections on manifestos promoting civil rights, there are people on the left who still think that opposition to the likes of Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and George Bush is the most relevant left-wing statement to make about events in the middle-east.
Intervention in Iraq was not an unmitigated disaster. We shut down the network of terrorists operating with Iraqi diplomatic passports. We shut down Iraq’s capacity to make chemical weapons (which still existed and had historically been used against Iran). We partially freed the Kurds (albeit only to be subjected to a new menace in the form of the so-called Islamic Caliphate). We brought justice to a man, Saddam Hussein, whose sick criminal deeds were far worse than Blair’s. And we brought at least the hope of a stable democracy. Those who deny the compatibility of truly free democracies within the middle-east (other than in Israel) seem too eager to promote the soft bigotry of low expectations. I’d wager that a silent majority would sooner submit to the quiet virtues of enlightenment values than suffer yet more religious strife.
As Chilcot’s report is set to be published, we can expect more of the trite, banal, clichéd caricatures of Blair and his media side-kick, Alastair Campbell. The whole discourse serves as babyish agitprop whose only achievement is to reduce months of arduous decision-making into a simple choice. Questions of war and peace, international affairs, and diplomacy do not have simple answers. They require thought. And the most well-intentioned security agents, political leaders and public supporters can make decisions that are not always conclusively correct, and yet they do not deserve to be hounded for their tough decisions (although, of course, the public have the opportunity to vote against many of them). For this reason we must resist attempts to blur the lines between real war criminals and people with whom we merely strongly disagree. Neither side wants eternal conflict in the middle-east, and nothing is gained by castigating Blairites, so it makes sense to call a truce in the propaganda war against Blair. We must resist the temptation to lazily and grossly malign either side of the Iraq debate when both ultimately want the same goal. There is strength in unity, and “never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”
Simon Bartram is a freelance writer, having graduated with a first-class degree in Modern History and Philosophy from the University of St Andrews. He works full-time in the City of London and is a student of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. You can follow him on Twitter @Simon_M_Bartram