The much-awaited Chilcot Inquiry, published on 6 July, was ultimately anticlimactic. It confirmed most of what we knew already: that the Iraq War was misguided and poorly handled. Condemning the aims and methods of the war, the faulty intelligence that provoked it, and the lack of strategic plan for its aftermath, Sir John Chilcot presented an unambiguously damning verdict. He didn’t, however, accuse Tony Blair of fabrication or manipulation of evidence, something many had expected. The Prime Minister is acquitted of “sexing up” the so-called “dodgy dossier”, and Chilcot lays much of the blame for weak intelligence on MI6.
Blair is clearly at fault in other ways, though. Ideologically he was always particularly inclined towards interventionism. In fact, he publicly defined his own concept of “humanitarian intervention”, a philosophy which crystallised during the Kosovo conflict in 1998. Blair had pushed US President Bill Clinton into threatening a ground invasion, and it was the fear of military force that ultimately forced Kosovo’s genocidal dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, to back down. Emboldened by this success, Blair felt that he could replicate this strategic approach in Iraq. This self-confidence was destructive, and may have encouraged him to massage the weak evidence that MI6 provided him into an unquestionably compelling case. Certainly his experience as a barrister left him with the ability to superimpose his own narrative onto the fragile intelligence he was receiving. His self-righteousness also often clouded his judgement. When French President Jacques Chirac pre-emptively warned Blair of the perils of military action, the Prime Minister turned to an aide, sighing, “Poor old, Jacques. He just doesn’t get it, does he?”
History seems to indicate that Jacques “got it” a fair bit more than Tony. The Iraq War failed to achieve any of its objectives beyond the toppling of the regime. Crafted by an overly-zealous and shortsighted Bush administration, the invasion was launched partly in response to 9/11, and was also the product of America’s decades-long history with Saddam Hussein. The US president showed a remarkable lack of comprehension of the complexities of Iraqi society. After overseeing an impressively effective military incursion that dismantled Saddam’s entire state structure in a matter of only weeks, Bush had little concept of how they might reconstruct. The result was catastrophic. The vacuum left by Saddam’s demise was filled with sectarian insurgents, breeding the extremist forces now ascendant. More generally, the Iraq War dealt a massive blow to American credibility and moral authority, essential pillars of American power. The failure to plan was an unmitigated disaster, and for this Blair also must take responsibility. As former Labour leader Neil Kinnock has recounted, Blair repeatedly gave assurances to MPs and ministers in his Cabinet that he was certain that the Americans had a comprehensive and specific plan.
Having said all this, the decision that faced the Blair government in 2002 was an unimaginably difficult one. Whilst the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that intervention can be counterproductive, the recent history of the Middle East makes no compelling case for either ‘intervention lite’, or non-intervention. In Libya, for example, coalition forces relied on airpower alone, and sought to stay on the fringes of the conflict. The result has been underwhelming: Libya without Colonel Gaddafi is chaotic, and is a fertile breeding ground for the the radicalism that blights the region. More pointedly, the atrocities we have seen over the last five years in Syria have resulted in part because the West has left these internal forces to their own devices. In other words, there are no obvious policy solutions to the instability of the region. History suggests that a different approach in Iraq might very well have yielded equally bloody results.
There is one other key point of defence for Blair. Bush was going to war in Iraq regardless of whether or not British support was forthcoming. The Prime Minister was not tasked with deciding whether or not the West would become embroiled in another Middle Eastern war; he was deciding whether Britain would stand by the United States. This is no insignificant point. As Blair himself said in his response to the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry, “there are two essential pillars to British foreign policy, our alliance with the United States and our partnership in Europe, and we should keep both strong as a vital national interest.” Even though the former is a relationship we generally take for granted, maybe we shouldn’t, particularly in light of the deterioration of the latter.
Revelations in The Atlantic earlier this year of President Obama’s frustration with Britain’s failure to meet NATO requirements (in Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece, ‘The Obama Doctrine’) are indicative of potential rifts in the Atlantic alliance. More worryingly, some of the rhetoric emanating from the Republican Party suggests that as the United States feels increasingly isolated and under threat, they may seek a reappraisal of some of their closest alliances. Blair’s decision to stand by America in Iraq might have been enough to demonstrate to an often-fickle American public that Britain is an indispensable and courageous partner, who will fight if needs be.