Tony Blair made dreadful mistakes, but he's not an evil cartoon monster
Those who excoriate the former British prime minister over Iraq care more about keeping their own hands clean than saving lives
Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30
The name of the river Somme in France apparently comes from the Celtic word samara, meaning "tranquillity". Such are the ironies of history.
Almost a hundred years ago to the day, the infamous battle along that part of the Western Front began. By the end of the first day, 19,240 British soldiers were dead, as well as 1,500 Frenchmen and 10,000 Germans, to little change in their respective positions.
Next day, British high command ordered the soldiers to do it again.
Over the following months, a million men were either killed or wounded, with a gain for the victors of only six miles, before the advent of winter forced the abandonment of the advance.
It's not hard to see why, in these circumstances, the British may have been less than sympathetic to Irish sentiment about the fate of the Easter Rising rebels.
The prime minister for most of the First World War was David Lloyd George, yet, when the University of Leeds conducted a survey of hundreds of historians and political scientists in search of the greatest PMs, he came third.
The great Liberal statesman did even better in a BBC radio poll, being judged second greatest, after Winston Churchill, obviously.
Lloyd George's role in unleashing the Black and Tans and the Auxillary Division onto Ireland evidently did no harm at all to his reputation. Though why should it, when Churchill himself was, like Macbeth, steeped so far in blood?
"I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes," the future PM wrote in 1919. He actually did authorise chemical weapons against Bolshevik troops that year in Russia.
"I hate Indians, they are a beastly people with a beastly religion," was another of his uproarious one-liners; and, when three million of them starved in a famine caused by British policy, he wasn't exactly sorry, blaming the victims themselves for "breeding like rabbits".
As a soldier in the Sudan, Churchill personally boasted about shooting at least three "savages", and was openly in favour of having "a lot of jilly little wars against barbarous peoples", not least because of a belief that "the Aryan stock is bound to triumph". As for Arabs, they were "barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung". Yet this is a man consistently elevated to the status of the greatest ever Briton.
Lloyd George and Churchill were fortunate that they were not around in the days of Twitter and Sky News, or they too would be denounced, perhaps rightly, as bloodthirsty warmongers whose reputations should not be allowed to survive the calamities brought about by their worst decisions.
That's been Tony Blair's fate in the aftermath of the Iraq War. In cities around these islands this weekend, protesters have been loudly calling for him to be arrested and hauled off to the Hague as a war criminal. There was no 2.5million-word report into the First World War or the Boer conflict, though it shouldn't take much imagination to envisage what an inquiry such as that conducted into Iraq by Sir John Chilcot would have had to say about British political and military strategy at the time. In those days, the victors got to write their own testimonies as the public forgave and forgot.
Churchill's saving grace, and it wasn't inconsiderable, is that he led the Allies to victory over Hitler's Germany in the Second World War. And perhaps only someone as ruthless as he could have done it. Others might have demurred at piling the beaches of Normandy with slaughtered soldiers on D-Day in order to establish a beachhead into Europe. Any modern day successor as PM would certainly baulk at the negative headlines such an audacious offensive might provoke.
When it came to removing Saddam Hussein, Tony Blair went ahead and did it anyway, either because he was a raging psychopath or because he genuinely believed that it was the right thing to do.
Public opinion has decided that the former is the more likely option, and the Chilcot report has seemingly emboldened them in that view, though there's nothing in it to back up such an interpretation. It concludes that war in Iraq was ill-planned and reckless and based on false premises, but there's nothing to suggest that Blair either lied to lead his country to war or relished the mayhem which followed his momentous decision.
Blair's reputation is being flayed right now on the basis of a romantic revisionist fantasy which still wants to pretend there was a nice negotiated settlement on offer to remove Saddam Hussein, which would have taken him out without force or nasty consequences.
This was, incredibly, supposed to be achieved by the United Nations Security Council, a body which is spoken of in some quarters as if it was the international equivalent of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, dispensing impartial justice to a fallen world, when the UN was then, as it remains now, a corrupt and divided organisation whose interventions in regions where people are suffering at the hands of dictators have been largely disastrous or ineffectual and which is regarded by those same dictators with withering contempt.
France and Russia would never have authorised military action, and, had they held sway, the Iraqi dictator would have remained resolutely in power. And maybe that would have been a good thing.
Donald Trump certainly thinks so. "He was a bad guy, a really bad guy," the US presidential hopeful said last week. "But you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so well. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists. Over."
Perhaps that's what the Middle East needs now - a strong despot who can impose order on a volatile region without having to worry about Chilcot reports or what Richard Boyd Barrett says about him in the Dail - but let's not pretend, as we look away, that this strategy comes without a cost of innocent lives either. Saddam may not have had chemical weapons by the time he was deposed, but he certainly wanted his neighbour Iran to think that he did. He'd used them on his neighbour's troops before, as well as on Kurdish civilians.
In April 2002, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution strongly condemning "the systematic, widespread and extremely grave violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law" by Iraq, "resulting in an all-pervasive repression and oppression sustained by broad-based discrimination and widespread terror." Beheading was the penalty for homosexuality. Torture was widespread.
Of course the world could have turned a blind eye to what was happening, but the victims would still have died. The only difference was that we wouldn't have had their deaths on our conscience.
Many of those who argued against war in Iraq were even opposed to the economic sanctions in place at the time. Their reason for opposing military intervention in Iraq was not because they'd decided that it was, on this occasion, reckless and unjustified, but because they were part of a Whatever You Do, Do Nothing brigade which was, and still is, hostile to the notion of Western intervention into any theatre of conflict.
They are the ultimate isolationists, who believe that it doesn't matter what foreign tyrants do as long as it does not affect us directly. That Iraq turned, after early successes, into a quagmire has allowed them to present their opposition to intervention as moral integrity when in fact it's nothing more than complacent abstentionism.
The idea that following their course of action would lead to a more peaceful Middle East is fanciful self-indulgence. Iraq would not have escaped the convulsions which gripped the region following the Arab Spring, unless those who blame Bush and Blair for every ill in the Islamic world believe that this popular revolt against brutal autocracy was the West's fault too?
Saddam would have responded to challenges to his authority in the same way as his Ba'athist brother President Assad in Syria, provoking the same descent into civil war, sectarianism and terrorism. Innocent people would have died, it just wouldn't have been "our" fault, and ultimately that's what it's all about - maintaining moral purity; keeping our own hands clean.
But they're not clean. Doing nothing creates victims too. That's why many in the Arab world were urging action to depose Saddam.
Tony Blair's government cut some corners to answer that call, and bears responsibility for the ultimate failure of the mission, not least for not putting sufficient resources and thought into the nation-building that should have followed the invasion; but he's not a cartoon monster, he is a man who faced the most difficult decision any prime minister has to make.
Every such decision involves risks, whether the choice made is to fight or not fight. Last week, Nato began a show of strength in Eastern Europe against Putin's Russia. Should that situation deteriorate and escalate as a result of this sabre-rattling, does that mean the better course of action would have been to do nothing?
The most striking lesson of Chilcot is that it's surely now impossible for any prime minister to declare war except in unambiguous circumstances of self defence, and choices are rarely that black and white. Yes, "the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted". Yes, military action "was not a last resort".
But that judgement will always be a matter of interpretation. Getting it wrong still does not mean that mistakes are evidence of devilry. The baying mob now demands Blair's blood whilst piously believing itself to be above all barbarous instincts. Bitter irony indeed.