Asked in a candid interview on BBC2’s Newsnight whether he minded if “people call you a liar, some people call you a war criminal, protesters follow you; it’s difficult to walk down the street in a country”, he replied: “It really doesn’t matter whether it’s taken its toll on me.
“The fact is yes there are people who will be very abusive, by the way I do walk down the street and by the way I won an election in 2005 after Iraq. However, yes it remains extremely divisive and very difficult.”
By 23rd July 2002 George W. Bush had already decided to invade Iraq.
For Tony Blair, at the time, it seems quite clear what his reasoning was.
- Saddam Hussein was a terrifying dictator – anyone who travelled in Iraq while he ruled there confirms that.
- The sanctions were killing Iraqi civilians, mostly children. Two UN staffers of very high seniority had already very publicly resigned over the continuation of the sanctions as a human rights issue.
- The US could defeat Iraq in pitched battle: they had already proved that in Gulf War II. Having overthrown Saddam Hussein and set up a more pliant puppet government in Iraq (a scheme which had worked in Iran from August 1953 to February 1979) no matter how bad the US-UK dictator was, he would not be as bad as Saddam Hussein, see point 1, and installing a puppet government would mean the sanctions could come to an end, see point 2.
He had unquestionably been guilty of horrifying atrocities, though as those had been committed at a time when he was regarded as a useful Middle Eastern dictator, they had then been ignored by the governments of the US and UK. He had been using Iraqi oil money for internal investment, building Iraq up to become a fully-developed nation (yes, he also spent it on his “palaces”, but so did every other Middle Eastern dictator with oil: he also spent it on Iraqi industry and infrastructure, and that’s what really bothered oil magnates). He had invaded a neighbouring country with intent to conquer and occupy (Gulf War II).
And he wanted to develop atomic, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction – which plans were balked by Iraq’s defeat in Gulf War II and subsequent sanctions. Iraq never had nuclear weapons, and its ability to develop biological/chemical weapons had been trashed long before March 2003.
Therefore – I think Tony Blair thought – better to support the US and be on the right side of history and maintain the US-UK “special relationship”, than to oppose the war merely on the grounds that it was unlawful under the UN Charter for any country to invade another. The US intended to invade: the UK should be partners.
But that reasoning – especially point 3, the presumption that the US would successfully install a puppet dictator who would at least be an improvement on Saddam Hussein – would not form a lawful justification for the invasion, and would not satisfy many Labour MPs. While most of the 165 Conservative MPs could be relied on to vote for war with Iraq under the US aegis, it would have been highly embarrassing – potentially fatal, politically – for a Labour Prime Minister if he had got a majority for war mostly because of the Opposition votes: he had to convince at least 326 Labour MPs to vote for the war without telling them what I think were his real reasons. (He didn’t quite succeed.)
In order to justify the war to Parliament, a dossier was compiled which included both lies and distortions to make the case that the UK ought to take part in the invasion of Iraq:
Two particular claims in the dossier became particularly controversial. The first was that Iraq had been involved in sourcing illegal uranium from Africa in order to produce nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency went public in March 2003 to say that the document on which this claim was based was ‘an obvious fake’.
The second was the assertion that Sadam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be readied for use in 45 minutes. The introduction highlighted the claim: “the document discloses that his (Saddam’s) military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.”
Whether Tony Blair believed the “facts” as presented in the dodgy dossier or not, at the very least he knew he was receiving this as military intelligence telling him just what he wanted to hear: he wanted justification for invading Iraq and he had it, and he gave it to Parliament – with a ton of emphasis on how dangerous this made Saddam Hussein/Iraq – in September 2002.
On 15th February 2003, about two million people took part in public protests across the UK in profound disagreement with the Iraq war. Over a million in London: over a hundred thousand in Glasgow, where the Labour Party conference was being held that day: and many more across the UK. It’s a sound rule of thumb that for every one person who cares enough to take part in a march or a demo, there are ten more who agree with the protest but who aren’t able to or don’t care enough to get out on the streets. It’s a fair assumption that four months after the dossier had been presented to Parliament, at least 20 million people in the UK disagreed with the Iraq war.
And we were right.
We were right to question Blair’s self-justification for war. We were right that Iraq presented no threat to neighbouring nations. We were right to question the US’s lack of plans following the invasion. We were right to say that no matter how bad things were in Iraq before March 2003, they would only become worse if the US invaded.
Tony Blair set his views against the informed and considered opinion of twenty million people, and he was wrong – horribly, profoundly, terribly, consistently wronger than wrong – and we were right.
We may never be able to prove that Blair knew he was lying to Parliament. We may never see Blair held to account by an international tribunal for his complicity with war crimes. We may never even see the current UK Labour Party condemn Blair and disavow him as a man unfit to be Prime Minister.
But we can, at least, still tell Blair what we think of him. And if he doesn’t like it?
Well, too bad, Tony.
Mr Blair conceded that he had “long since given up trying to persuade people it was the right decision”.
He added: “In a sense what I’ve tried to persuade people of now is understand how complex and difficult decision it was. Because I think if we don’t understand that, we won’t take the right decision about a series of these problems that will arise over that next few years.
“You’ve got one in Syria right now, you’ve got one in Iran to come, and the issue is how do you make the world a safer place?”
Not by invading other countries and killing people. Not ever.
Update, 18th March
Panorama: The Spies Who Fooled the World, BBC One, Monday 18 March at 22:35 GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer:
“The lies of two Iraqi spies were central to the claim – at the heart of the UK and US decision to go to war in Iraq – that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But even before the fighting started, intelligence from highly-placed sources was available suggesting he did not, Panorama has learned.”
Shouldn’t the title be “The Spies Who Fooled The Politicians Who Wanted To Be Fooled”? or “The Spies Who Provided Excuses For War”?
The demos against the Iraq war across the world in March 2003 prove that the world was not fooled. It’s an open question if the politicians who acted on this intel were genuinely fooled.
The Gulf Wars
For us, it’s “the Iraq War”. For the Iraqis, it was the third war: Gulf War I, Iraq-Iran (the one where the US government officially supported Iraq and Saddam Hussein and unofficially sold weapons to Iran to fund South American terrorism); Gulf War II, Iraq-Kuwait-US (the one where Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the US led a war to restore an absolute monarchy over richest-ever oil fields, and left military bases in Saudi Arabia which Osama bin Laden eventually convinced the US to withdraw), and Gulf War III, the US invasion of Iraq, with British assistance – and Poland.
- Gulf War I (22 September 1980 – 20 August 1988) killed 320-720,000 Iraqi soldiers (150–375,000 Iranian soldiers), 100,000 civilians on both sides, and about 186,000 Kurds and other minorities in the Al-Anfal campaign (1986 – 1989). (The US and UK later used Al-Anfal as a justification for Gulf War III, even though at the time they had ignored the atrocities committed by our ally.)
- Gulf War II (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991) killed 20–35,000 Iraqi soldiers (482 Coalition soldiers and 200 Kuwaiti soldiers), over 1,000 Kuwaiti civilians and at least 3,664 Iraqi civilians. The military casualties on the Iraq side include several hundred Iraqi soldiers were buried alive by Coalition forces and at least hundreds killed while fleeing Kuwait.
- The non-war (1991-2003) may have killed over a million Iraqis, mostly children, using sanctions.
- Gulf War III (20 March 2003 – 15 December 2011) killed between 28–37,405 Iraqi soldiers and insurgents (24,219 Coalition soldiers, mercenaries, and civilian contractors) and about a million Iraqi civilians.