A Brief Semi-Defense of Tony Blair’s Chilcot Defense

Eh, about that, old boy…

(I suppose the title should actually read “Defence”, but not this close to the 4th, right?)

After yesterday’s Chilcot Report, the world has more or less been united in scorn of Tony Blair, the once-dashing head of New Labor, who decided to yoke his genuine concern for human rights to a Bush administration that alternated between messianic and cynical. Blair’s reputation had already been mostly destroyed; now there is little chance of him being remembered for anything but a bloody (with meanings relevant to both sides of the Atlantic) disaster.

But there was one part of his defense that struck me as being relevant, and that was “you think things would have been any better had Saddam stayed?”

He added: “I can regret the mistakes and I can regret many things about it – but I genuinely believe not just that we acted out of good motives and I did what I did out of good faith, but I sincerely believe that we would be in a worse position if we hadn’t acted that way. I may be completely wrong about that.”

He argued that had Saddam Hussein been left in power, “he would have gone back to his [weapons of mass destruction] programmes again”.

And if he had been in power during the Arab Spring in 2011, “I believe he would have tried to keep power” in the way that Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, had done.

We’re all pretty much agreed that Trump’s semi-praise of Saddam is ludicrous, and we all agree because Saddam was one of the worst human rights violators of the 20th-century, which is pretty damned impressive. So to reckon with that is to ask if another 13 years of Saddam would have been a net benefit, in terms of human suffering.

It is obviously unanswerable, mostly because we liberated Iraq from the soul-crushing horror of controlled tyranny into the soul-crushing horror of anarchy, ethnic cleansing, and religious totalitarianism. Both options are pretty bad, and I can’t say which is worse. I can’t remember where now, but I remember an Iraqi writer saying that under Saddam, there was one giant dark circle you had to avoid. If you fell in you were dead. But now, there are millions of deadly circles and you don’t know where they are.

Still, if the Arab Spring had happened without the invasion, which seems likely in some form, would Saddam have just stepped aside? Or if he wasn’t alive, would one of his maniac sons be Asad but even more violent? Of course, if he had died, would the internal contradictions of Iraq have burbled up anyways, leading to a civil war like the one we have been seeing since 2003? It’s not hard to imagine the party breaking apart even without Bremer’s unimaginable idiocy, just under the weight of palace and fratricidal rivalries.

Counterfactual history is a mug’s game, of course. But I think Blair had a point in his defense of the war, even when it became a clear calamity: this might have happened anyway, and indeed, it probably would have. Iraq couldn’t have maintained itself after the tyranny of Saddam, and then you might have seen the hardening of ethnic lines, the splintering of Syria, regional chaos, the rise of an ISIS-like group anyway, etc. Indeed, you could argue that having troops there made the war more contained.

That’s an argument, anyway. We’ll never know of course, but the one thing that is clear is that it is hard to imagine how anything can be worse than what we have now, which undercuts any rationale for the invasion. The only thing we can say for sure is that American and British (and other) troops wouldn’t have been killed or maimed or had their brains broken, and that the hatred we engendered by doing the killing wouldn’t be so strong. Iraqis may have been killed horribly otherwise, but maybe not. The invasion was so destabilizing that maybe the nearly-inevitable impact of the final dissolution of the Ottoman Empire may have been relatively peaceful.

That’s the final argument for any of the war’s last defenders. It isn’t that Obama lost the war or anything like that. It’s that it takes an willful act of disturbingly macabre imagination to imagine a worse possible world.

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