In 2.6 million words, the Chilcot report confirms what many of us already suspected: that Tony Blair is an unashamed fibber. Far from watering down his role in the conflict as some feared it might, the Chilcot report depicts Tony Blair as a key player in the biggest foreign policy disaster of the 21st century: It finds that Blair knew war in Iraq was not the last resort, and yet he pushed for invasion anyway; it finds that Blair exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein, and was informed regime change would likely lead to chaos in the region and increase the threat of domestic terrorism; and, perhaps most shockingly, it finds that Blair made a commitment to sending troops into Iraq eight months before the invasion even began.
However, this is only one strand of a report whose summary alone comes to 150 pages. Since last Wednesday, many have reveled in the possibility that Blair may finally face charges for helping to destabilize the Middle East. The press has proceeded to nail the former PM to the wall — listen to the headlines, and it might seem like Tony Blair is the Iraq War’s kingpin. Though Blair rightly comes in for criticism in the report, we seem to be confusing what the Chilcot report really is — an indictment of gung-ho Western interventionism — with a critique of one man. But Blair is far from the only individual to be singled out.
The report finds that, before Blair had declared his country’s allegiance to the USA with a throwaway “I will be with you, whatever,” the Bush administration had already made a decision to act in Iraq. With or without Blair, America was going in. Spurred on by neocon advisers like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and ignoring Blair’s calls to heed the advice of the UN, it was from the start Bush’s plan to settle “unfinished business” in Iraq. Blair may have provided Dubya with arms and lent some extra political clout by backing him, but this was largely the Bush administration’s show. In terms of post-war planning at least, the UK — given no role in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the body for post-war reconstruction — was shut out. When the fighting was over and the winning of hearts and minds began, Bush flat out ignored advice from the Blair government on how to proceed. If any one man should face the brunt of the criticism for the Iraq catastrophe, it is Bush, not Blair.
Of course, it takes more than one to take a country to war, and Bush’s team — including Colin Powell, who initially tried to talk Bush out of heading into Iraq — dutifully followed just as a majority of MPs in parliament went along with Blair. Britain’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron, was one of those MPs who voted for the war in good faith, without properly scrutinizing the evidence. John Prescott, Blair’s deputy PM at the time of the Iraq War vote, now admits intelligence was “tittle-tattle” and that the then-Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, offered no documentation to justify conflict. Prescott voted for war anyway.
Blair’s foreign secretary at the time, Jack Straw, meanwhile dismissed claims that war in Iraq was illegal, did not pursue all diplomatic options on the table and instead chose to listen to MI6, which brought weak and plain wrong intel — informants who gave false evidence were never properly vetted — to Westminster. Straw trusted Lord Goldsmith, who ‘changed his mind’ on the legality of invasion after being lectured by Washington, and then never sufficiently explained the legal basis on which the UK could take military action. Although faced with wishy-washy justification, almost all of Blair’s cabinet still voted for war.
Many of those who voted in favor still cry naivete. But those that went merrily along with Blair citing ‘good faith’ forget that MPs such as Robin Cook and Charles Kennedy — both now passed — publicly and loudly explained to their fellow parliamentarians in the UK that the broader evidence suggested going to war was unjustified. They were, unfortunately, up against the might of the British media, organized to march to the beat of the pro-war drum by the then-head of press at the Foreign Office, John Williams, and Tony Blair’s spin doctor (and inspiration for The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker), Alastair Campbell.
As war neared, the faces of Cook and Kennedy featured, along with other objectors, on a cut out and keep dartboard of “traitors” from The Sun, Britain’s biggest daily and one of the many Murdoch publications that pushed for invasion (there was little chance Murdoch was ever going to oppose Blair — he is godfather to one of Murdoch’s children, after all). The Murdoch press helped create an atmosphere, on both sides of the Atlantic, where it was not just wrong but downright treasonous to question motive for the Iraq War. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, has since said, “I’m not sure that the Blair government – or Tony Blair – would have been able to take the British people to war if it hadn’t been for the implacable support provided by the Murdoch papers.” Now the very same papers criticize Blair for the Iraq tragedy, as though they themselves aren’t partly culpable.
The blame isn’t limited to just the aforementioned. We should also look at those who profited from the invasion, to those ‘security experts’ who lied about WMDs, and to those who later tried to cover up UK and US ineptitude. Many played a part. It takes more than just one man to make an illegal war. What kind of lesson will we learn by directing our anger almost entirely at Blair?
In 2013, Kareem Serageldin was sentenced to 30 months in jail for concealing $100 million in losses whilst working at Credit Suisse. He is, to date, the only Wall Street executive to be prosecuted for playing a part in the 2008 crash. Of course, we know that many more like Serageldin were also to blame; the judge at Serageldin’s trial described his conduct as “a small piece of an overall evil climate within the bank and with many other banks.” But seeing as the majority involved got off scot free and were given no cause to finesse their ways, the system that led to the most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression has remained largely unchanged.
Let’s not forget in the hysteria that Tony Blair was never alone, that like Serageldin he had support from a network of others acting in their own self-interest. Serageldin deserved to go to jail, but in making an example of just one we apparently allowed the rest to carry on business as usual. Have we learned much from our 2003 ‘intervention’? As we leave a broken Libya behind and increase our presence in Syria and the Yemen, the answer, seemingly, is no. As much as he protests, Tony Blair has much to answer for, but in making him some poster boy for the failure of Iraq, in calling for his head and no one else’s, we risk letting many others off the hook. Chilcot is not, as some in the media are now telling it, just a story of one man’s rise and fall – it’s a damning portrait of an entire system that has to be made learn from its mistakes.