Tony Blair's Iraq War Was A Shameful Abomination. Ten Years after the London March, It's Time for Him to Admit It
By Dan Hodges
February 15th, 2013
Today is the 10th anniversary of the million strong march against the Iraq war. Which is why today would be the perfect day for Tony Blair to hold up his hands and say “I was wrong”?
Over the past week there have been attempts by some guardians of New Labour’s tattered standard to do the decent thing. If people had bothered to actually read Jim Murphy’s speech yesterday to the Henry Jackson Society – rather than throwing a childish strop over the politics of some of those invited to hear it – they’d have heard him acknowledge the last Labour government's “primitive understanding” of the conflicts they were instigating. The description of the fight against terrorism as a “generational struggle” was one that “oversimplifies the nature of the threat and compounds, rather than learns, the lessons from the past”, he said.
In an interview with the Guardian’s Andy Sparrow, Douglas Alexander went further. Deploying the emotive hyperbole for which he is renowned, Alexander conceded: “If you look at the ledger with a 10-year perspective, the negatives outweigh the positives.”
But well-meaning, and politically brave, though these limited statements of contrition are, they’re not enough. Iraq was not a misjudgement, or a negative number on a financial spreadsheet. It was an obscene, shameful, blood-drenched abomination.
The road that led to that war has been traversed with such regularity over the past decade that there is no point in my own footsteps replicating the journey. But to me, whatever your political persuasion, and whatever seat you occupy within the broad church that is the Labour movement, three facts are inescapable.
The first is that war was based on a lie. We were told its rationale was defensive. An evil dictator was developing nuclear and chemical weapons that could, and would, be used on ourselves and our allies. This was the stark truth, we were informed; there were no doubts.
And why were there no doubts? Because the doubts had been purposefully erased. The voices that questioned the case for war were silenced. Any evidence Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction was omitted. Even the legal case for and against war, when presented to the cabinet, was censored, so the counter-arguments were withheld.
Those who defend the war now say, “It wasn’t a lie, it was just an honest mistake. We made a judgment, but it was the wrong judgment”. But that is itself a rewriting of history. The wrong judgment was made, because anything that could have lead to a different judgment was airbrushed out of existence. That’s not an honest mistake, it’s the most dishonest mistake made by a British government for over half a century.
The second fact is that Iraq was a catastrophe for the very principle it was supposed to embody; the principle of humanitarian interventionism. Just look, for example, at the way Iraq and Afghanistan have become interchangeable.
If ever there was an honest war, it was Afghanistan. The Taliban regime had provided the bases, the training centres and the safe havens for the perpetrators of the most murderous attack ever inflicted on the US mainland. Unlike in Iraq, the camps existed, the links to Osama bin Laden were real, the intelligence was sound.
Yet we now talk about Afghanistan as if it were merely Iraq the Prequel. Similarly, look at the way the West had to be dragged kicking and screaming – at the behest of the Arab League – to intervene in Libya. Look too at our shameful acquiescence to the slaughter in Syria. And most dangerous of all, look at the handwringing that is going on as the Iranian doomsday clock continues its deadly countdown. The critics of the Iraq war like to claim “Iraq is actually a more dangerous place now than it was before the war”. But it’s not just Iraq that’s more dangerous as a result of that disastrous conflict; the whole world is.
And there is a third inescapable fact – one which may seem trite when set against this global backdrop – which is the way in which Iraq has not only undermined Tony Blair’s legacy, but also undermined the attempts of his supporters to build upon it.
I’m a mere neo-Blairite, a rat who joined the foundering ship. Yet I understand the frustration Blair’s longstanding supporters have with the cant and hypocrisy of many of those who use Iraq as a stick to pummel their fallen idol. Those Labour MPs who trooped through the lobbies in support of that war didn’t do so because they were buying a lie; they did so because they were buying a stake in future career.
Ed Miliband’s conscientious objector routine is also grating. “I know for a fact that he was against the war because it was he who persuaded me of the merits of the anti-war case,” a friend conveniently revealed to the New Statesman in the closing weeks of the Labour leadership election. “I remember flying out to Cambridge [Massachusetts], where he was on a sabbatical lecturing at Harvard, and he argued very strongly that the UN weapons inspectors should be given more time to finish their work.” Well I know for a fact that if Miliband had been a minister at the time there would have been as much chance of his resigning over that issue as there would have been him changing the title of his Harvard course to “Barry Goldwater – A Study In Leadership”.
But the fact remains Tony Blair got it wrong. Totally, utterly, catastrophically wrong. And his failure to acknowledge that fact isn’t just hurting him, it’s hurting those who are desperately trying to ensure the positives from his New Labour agenda don’t vanish down the plughole with the Iraqi bathwater.
Focusing on the forthcoming 10th anniversary of the invasion, the Independent’s John Rentoul – who graciously acts as a sort of Yoda to my Blairite Padawan – wrote “The wheezing traction engine of Blair rage is being cranked into action again”. But there’s a very good reason that engine is being cranked up. It’s because Blair hasn’t done what he needs to do. It’s not good enough to leave it the likes of Douglas Alexander or Jim Murphy to attempt to clean up the mess. Nor is it enough to blindly keep saying “Hey guys, I’d like to say sorry, but I can’t, because I honestly don’t believe I’ve anything to apologise for”.
Iraq isn’t a matter of belief; it’s a matter of harsh reality. The 100,000 dead Iraqis are a reality. The thousands of dead in Syria – 90,000 by some estimates – are a reality. An Iranian nuclear bomb may now be 18 months away from becoming a reality.
This time 10 years ago, a million people were on the streets. And they were proved right, and Tony Blair was proved wrong. It’s time for him to hold up his hand and admit it.
Dan Hodges is a Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest. He has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB trade union and managed numerous independent political campaigns. He writes about Labour with tribal loyalty and without reservation.