Tony Blair and big Iraq lies

I’ve been reading former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, a gift from my wife. It’s gripping.

As a political junkie, I love his account of reforming Britain’s Labour Party and government. Labourites viewed themselves as champions of the working class. But, as Blair shows, what eluded them was the human aspirations of working people to rise – to be working for something. Many Labourites were so intoxicated with the idea of working class solidarity they could not abide working people striving to become – ewww – middle class. That was what Blair’s career mainly was about.

And, of course, Iraq.

Blair left office – brought down, really – as a villain. History can be a harsh judge. Also mistaken.

Yes, his memoir is a foresquare defense against the calumnies he’s endured. He starts off saying he won’t apologize, that would be wrong. And yet, I actually found him too apologetic in tone, too generous to his attackers.

Take the legality issue. How often the word “illegal” is paired with “Iraq War.” Blair allows that this could be argued either way. But he states the facts. UN Resolution 1441 in November, 2002, gave Saddam one last chance to comply with previous edicts. It did not specify military consequences, and war critics argued that a “second resolution” would have been needed for that. However, back in 1990, Resolution 678 had already authorized “all necessary means” to enforce the UN strictures that Saddam was flouting; 678 was still in effect; and 1441 expressly reaffirmed 678. Furthermore, 1441’s “legislative history” shows rejection of French and Russian moves to insert a requirement for a further resolution before military action.

The conclusion that the Iraq War was UN-authorized is – excuse the expression – a slam-dunk.

Blair is equally trenchant on the other Iraq issues. The canard that it was “all about oil” he crushes in one line: if so, we could have made an oil deal with Saddam in a heartbeat. (And anyway, oil is vital to the world economy.) Blair acknowledges post-war missteps, but shows how the bloody aftermath – a battle for power within Iraq, exacerbated by outside forces (Iran and Al-Qaeda) – unfolded in ways that could not reasonably have been foreseen. The much-feared disasters did not in fact occur; and what did was not the consequence of our bungling but, rather, a deliberate, wicked and fierce effort to wreck Iraqi society. Blair says we had to fight that. And, to the question, “if you knew then what you know now . . .” Blair answers that his decisions would be the same.

The key reason for that judgment contravenes another verse of the conventional catechism: that, on some misguided idea of making Iraq better, we made it worse. Much worse.

People who think so are people who never had to live in Saddam’s Iraq. It’s a mistake of ignorance. This was not just another garden-variety dictator. The suffering Iraq had to go through to get free – yes, everything – was worth it. As bad as all that was, Saddam’s Iraq was indeed worse. Much worse.*

Now, the Big Lie – Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

No, not that Bush and Blair lied. The Big Lie is that they lied.

Here I will do a Blair and acknowledge how widely accepted this lie has become, so you might be forgiven for believing it. But read the book, and if you still think they lied (or cooked the intelligence), your brain is encased in concrete.** Prior to the war, every attentive observer believed Iraq had WMD programs. It wasn’t a fantasy, or a fabricated “pretext” for war. After all, if Saddam didn’t have WMD, why wouldn’t he have come clean and (literally) saved his neck? And – even if the WMD program was subject to doubt – could we have risked being wrong?

But I have more to say. All this “Blair lied” and “Bush lied” stuff is utterly disgusting. You can disagree with policies and decisions, you can loathe the results, but to believe these men were so venal that they lied (sure to be exposed, by the way) to sacrifice lives in a war for (God knows what) bad purposes, then cynicism has totally corroded your soul and destroyed your judgment. This sort of thing has been poisoning our politics.

I have harped on this before. I have strong views on political issues but, by and large, people who disagree I think are honest and sincere and genuinely seek the common good. But I await all-too-predictable comments of a different tenor from people disagreeing with me.

Blair’s book makes painful reading about what hell he’s endured over Iraq. (And his book launch was attended by vicious demonstrations.) Ironically, to have wimped out would have been altogether self-serving and politically expedient, whereas the course he chose was the hard one, and he has indeed paid a heavy price for doing what he believed was right. He should be honored for that – even if you think he was wrong.

Someday there will be a world where horrible choices like 2003’s need no longer be made. I am sure of it. But until then, we must face up to our choices.

* Iraq’s population today is actually almost surely higher than it would be were Saddam still there. And its standard of living far higher.

** The whole “Blair lied” trope was launched by a BBC report that his office had “sexed up” an intelligence dossier about WMD. That report itself was eventually proven false. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a lie can run around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

6 Responses to “Tony Blair and big Iraq lies”

  1. Lee Says:

    Not only aren’t they evil liars, folks like Bush and Blair are not incompetent either. That stuff may sell newspapers, but these personal attacks hinder needed national debate.

    [FSR comment: Blair has a lot to say about Bush, and it’s highly complimentary — which he knows infuriates the Bush-bashers. Fact is, no one gets the “greased pig of American politics” (the Presidency) without being pretty smart and having a lot else on the ball.]

  2. Richard Laming Says:

    Resolution 1441 didn’t “reaffirm” resolution 678, the word used is “recalling”. The text of 1441 is here:

  3. Robin Says:

    Blair told parliament that Iraq had WMD. Not only that, he also claimed that they posed a real and immediate danger to the UK. Iraq did not have WMD so Blair lied. To not acknowledge this is to deny facts. The reality is that Blair pressured parliament with lies and sexed-up evidence from a 14-year-old report to allow him to follow through on a decision he had already taken. A sad day for democracy. That “every attentive observer believed Iraq had WMD” only works if “attentive” = agreed with “intelligence” authorities. Bush was much more honest from the start that it was about regime change rather than WMD.

    About the UN resolutions, if the UN authorization for the war was concrete, why were US and UK running around like headless chickens trying to get another resolution authorizing invasion? They couldn’t get one and then went ahead anyway. That is the definition of going against the will of the UN. The re-interpretation of previous resolutions happened only after the failure to get UN authorization.

    The point has often been made that Iraq is better off now than it was under Saddam so that justifies the action. (You claim a larger population, even if true – so what?) Yes it is better that Saddam, who was a brutal dictator, is gone. But spending billions on a war leaving a country with ~100,000 civilians dead many more refugees and practically plunging it into civil war is not a good result. Furthermore, if we look at the long-term consequences, the unilateral use of force weakened the UN as an institution as well as the democracy of the UK.

    If I wanted to learn more about the history and decision making, the last book I would read is Blair’s autobiography. Politicians autobiographies present things as they would like them to appear: often they are egotistical and self-justifying. From this point of view it sounds like Blair’s doesn’t disappoint.

  4. J. Hughes Says:

    I stumbled upon this post after reading your review of Infinite Jest. It was wonderful to finally hear from someone clear-headed enough to see the obvious: that the only thing worse than the world’s foremost literally critics fawning over Infinite Jest is Infinite Jest. The only thing it taught me is that well-worded sentences, believable characters (believable anything) and things like “coherent plotlines” and a “reason for writing the book at all” are apparently no longer fashionable. I suppose I should move on to Iraq now…
    I don’t see Bush and Blair as the evil-minded, oil-thirsty demons that many critics of the war do. And while I wouldn’t accuse either of them of lying outright back in 2003, I do believe they chose the information they wanted to hear (vague “reports” from an Iraqi group opposed to Saddam) and ignored or suppressed anything too inconvenient (such as statements made by UN inspectors). Iraq dipped and dodged and wormed their way out of inspections for years, but in 2002 they finally reached an agreement with the UN and allowed inspectors into the country. They hadn’t found any nuclear weapons or processing sites by the time the US invaded. They didn’t definitely say the Iraqis were in the clear because they never had time to finish inspections; UN personnel had to evacuate on account of, well, the Iraq war. Because the UN wouldn’t give the Bush Administration what they really wanted, they went to the Iraqi National Congress, an anti-saddam insurgent group who had better cause than anybody to lie to US intelligence. And they did. And they weren’t named at the time as the source, so nobody could object to the US Government relying on fundamentally unreliable intelligence to start a war. And we never found any signs of nuclear weapons. This all happened. There’s several somewhat believable interpretations concerning the dogged determination to invade Iraq; I personally believe that Bush had his heart in the right place and either a.) was mislead by his staff to conclude there was clear evidence of a nuclear threat or b.) knew the evidence was very flimsy but figured that a stable, free democracy would emerge post-saddam. can’t speak for Blair, since Britain got most of their info from the US (who got it from an imiaginative, unscrupulous rebel outfit).
    with regards to the outcome, a lot of people predicted the country would collapse into civil war, on account of the long, long history of violence and discord between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis. In a country with no democratic institutions, no history of democracy, that had been at war in some form for most of the previous thirty years. Not exactly a whopper of a surprise. The country certainly sucked under Saddam, but here we are twelve years and several hundred thousand bodies later and Iraq fits the textbook definition of a failed state, likely to get worse. And god knows how many more will die until the US-led coalition is able to put ISIS down (assuming that victory is followed by peace and harmony, which would be irrationally optimistic). And while some critics like me haven’t spent years living in pre-and-post-saddam Iraq (many have), I don’t think it’s fair to use that to disqualify us unless you yourself have been an Iraqi citizen in Iraq since 1990 or so. My family and I fled N. Ireland because of violence and persecution, even if I had spent my whole life in a NY penthouse or whatever I can still see that the most charitable, rosy-eyed spin on the whole mess is that life may, possibly, be no worse than it was for Iraqis under Saddam. A more realistic view is that it wasn’t worth plunging Iraq into complete anarchy and a civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead only to have five years of corruption and chaos and slightly less violence, followed by another civil war which will likely leave at least as many dead as the last one.

  5. J. Hughes Says:

    Sorry, that post was much longer than I thought… God help me, what if I’m turning into one of the angry comment-section ranters that I so deeply despise? what if within a year I wind up trolling WaPo 16 hours a day? writing things like “SCREW ALL U NOOBS OBAMA IS A MUSLIM TERRORIST LIKE NO JK I READ IT ON BREITBART”. If thats my future I might need to pull a David Foster Wallis (without wasting an entire national forest writing books filled with obnoxious, look-at-my-enormous-intellect hipster nonsense) and end it before I become…one of them. They who hath been consumed by Reddit subforums.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks, J.Hughes, for your reasonable comments. Four years after the above post was written, Iraq is in bad shape. Obama’s cutting short our involvement didn’t help. But I myself, in answer to the Jeb Bush “if you knew what you know now” question, would say don’t invade. I was in favor of the war in 2003, but what I know now and didn’t know then was how bad the execution would be. In particular, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, one of the most massively bad decisions ever made.

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