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.

The Chilcot Report: The Complicity of a Wasted Decade

 

I will be with you, whatever. Christ. 

 

What’s a bigger shock to a national system: an actual surprise, or the tug on the chin, forcing you to look at something unpleasant and buried? For Great Britain, was the Brexit vote (and the loss to Iceland!) the biggest blow to national image, or is it today’s Chilcot Report on Tony Blair, the Ministry of Defense, the political/media class, and the Iraq War? At over two million words- the summary alone is 145 pages- it looks to be an exhaustive look at the complicity of Tony Blair in the rush to an era-defining disaster. (Here are the high points.)

(The low point for Tony BLair is probably this: “In his forensic account of the way Blair and his ministers built the case for military action, Chilcot finds the then Labour prime minister – who had promised US president George W Bush, ‘I will be with you, whatever’ – disregarded warnings about the potential consequences of military action and relied too heavily on his own beliefs, rather than the more nuanced judgments of the intelligence services.” No matter in which tone you read that singular “whatever” it is reputation-definingly pathetic. The Guardian has a great look at how a smart man yoked himself to a swaggering bouffon he thought was both moral and controllable)

But then, the obvious answer to the above question is: of course Brexit (and Iceland!). I mean, everyone knew that the intelligence was phony, the options to avoid war unexhausted, the righteousness of its defenders equal parts unbearable and completely blinkered, and the execution of the war and its aftermath criminally cruel and indictably incompetent. Through its wreckage we have the unspiraling of Syria, the rise of ISIS, the generational refugee crisis, and more. But we know all this.”

That said, there is something vastly important in getting everything down on the record, in complete and unflinching detail. I think this is always important, but especially for the Iraq War. We have to remember what happened last decade. The run-up to the war was filled with chest-thumping fury and smoldering conviction. Those who spoke out against it were banished (remember the Dixie Chicks?). As the war went sideways, it was increasingly buried, ignored, and treated as some distant colonial enterprise on a more malarial time. We collectively (though not entirely, thanks to some brave journalists and activists) shrugged it off, and watched TV.

There was a brief bout of patriotic bellowing during the surge, but even that was perfunctory. It was getting the band back together for one last rusty gig, as the various national security ghouls invaded TVs again to talk about Republican leadership in the face of Democratic cowardice.

But something funny happened during all of that; or rather, not funny, but historically tragic. We somehow shifted from everyone thinking the invasion was great to everyone thinking that it was a bad idea without ever really thinking about it. The conclusion became a done deal, and one we officially don’t talk about. As a nation, we refused to learn its lesson, which is why we focus insanely on Benghazi rather than the intervention in Libya, and more insanely, why Obama can be pilloried for “doing nothing” in the labyrinthine abattoir of Syria. ISIS is painted as Obama’s fault for “losing” in Iraq, and the actual war isn’t talked about.

As a nation, we’ve pretty much forgotten about 2002-2009. That’s partly because its been Republican strategy, with media complicity, to ignore everything pre-Obama (remember how they mocked him for sometimes talking about George Bush, as if there could be any way that the recent past affected the present?). But it is also a national longing to ignore a stupid and bloody and disastrous decade, one that was filled with the dead and wounded, with economic collapse, and a sense of guilt that we spent it watching reality TV. We haven’t had a national reckoning with what went wrong. We jumped into the Obama era as a way to assuage national guilt, and then have been focused on the fury that followed.

Great Britain seems now to have had that reckoning, and we’ll see what the fallout is. Even if people “know” this, there is a difference between knowing something and being forced to face it. It’s the drunk who wakes up in the morning with the lingering guilt he wants to ignore, before finding out that, yup, he knocked up his wife’s sister. You have to face your crimes. I’d like to think we can learn from the Chilcot Report, but think it might be too late. We went from the Obama Era to the Era of Obama Racial Backlash, personified by a symbol of that horrible decade, the reality-show racist. We’ve learned nothing.

I just read Karen Greenberg’s excellent Rogue Justice, which I’ll be reviewing for publication. When that comes out, we’ll have a lot more discussion on how we drifted into the security state we have now. It’s all tied together. In the meanwhile, you should read her book. It’s a great look at the decisions that were made which helped us, as citizens, fall into the indecisions that cemented them.