Saturday 22 October 2016

Blair's apology for Iraq is a sorry sight

The big problem for Tony Blair is that he can't say his critics are using hindsight - because it was foresight, writes Declan Lynch

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

Former British PM Tony Blair
Former British PM Tony Blair

If you did European History in secondary school, you may have a vague recollection of the Ems Telegram.

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This was the 'dodgy dossier' of its day, a version of a meeting between the French ambassador and a Prussian dignitary which had been edited - or , if you like, 'sexed up' by Bismarck in such a way as to give the impression that the encounter had been more belligerent that it actually was.

It enabled Bismarck to get what he wanted - a war with France - just as the 'dodgy dossier' about weapons of mass destruction enabled Tony Blair to get what he wanted, which at the time tended to be whatever George W Bush wanted.

They've been at it for a long time, these men who take it upon themselves to re-arrange the world. And if they need to rearrange a few paragraphs to get there, they will not hesitate - already convinced of the rightness of their cause - to help it along with what might best be described as a bit of old-school tabloid hackery. It must seem like no more than a test of character. A chance to prove that they just want it more.

So the notion of spinning yourself into a war certainly didn't start with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, but as Blair's latest efforts to spin himself out of it have shown, in the case of this particular war, there is one big problem.

In giving that interview to CNN in which he apologised for the fact that "the intelligence we received was wrong" (ah, lads!), he was at all times struggling due to the lack of the one really strong argument that a man in his position can usually make, which goes something like this: anyone can be wise after the event.

Yes, it is true that hindsight is mostly bullshit, that there are situations in which people such as Tony Blair and George W Bush have to make horrible decisions - and maybe even sex up a few lines to bring the people with them - and that any fool can make the right calls when they're looking at it 12 years later.

But this war and the reasons for embarking on it - and the people who dreamed it up - are not being criticised in hindsight (well, actually, they are) but, crucially, they were also being criticised at the time by very large numbers of people.

This was not hindsight, it was foresight. And the multitudes who marched against that war didn't even need much foresight to figure out that this was a deeply dodgy proposition which would not end well.

They knew it was wrong - they didn't think it, they knew it. If a few hundred or even a few thousand people are on the streets protesting, it's because they think that something is wrong. When a few hundred thousand (one thinks of the Irish Water marches) or even a few million are out, it's because they know that it's wrong.

So Blair can apologise on CNN "for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime". But while mistakes of that kind are inevitable, there are mistakes which are a lot worse than that - deliberate mistakes.

"Of course, you can't say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015" - and, indeed, nobody is saying that.

If anything, they are saying the opposite, but then Blair's purpose in this interview was not to construct plausible arguments - because without the old 'hindsight' defence he hasn't got much in that regard - but to begin his PR campaign against the Chilcot report, which apparently he has already seen.

Indeed, there were leaks which suggested that the report would be "damning", which means that it probably won't be damning at all, that it will criticise Blair for mere "mistakes".

So there he was, still trying to control the narrative but knowing there is still much of this that he cannot control - truly the leader who can't say to his critics that they're all very smart now but they weren't so smart back then, a eunuch on a wedding night, an untipped spear.

But it was sad to see him there, too: Blair, who had at times been an enemy of bullshit, most notably in his disdain for his enemies within Labour who had never won anything for the party, who were happy enough to keep losing and to keep thinking they were great fellows, all the same. And there must be times when he wonders what manner of madness possessed him about Iraq? He might even wonder if he should issue an actual apology rather than the lines from the playbook that he was still running last week. Maybe something like this: "Look... there are situations in which you just lose touch with your better instincts, when you are driven by some belief which feels like a holy thing but which, in the fullness of time, you realise is just ambition - a desire to strike out for some grand destiny.

"Look... when you are in the grip of that energy, it is amazing how, knowing so much, you still do not see things that are obvious to most reasonable people.

"Look"... and then it gets away from him.

Sunday Independent

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