The world after Saddam, Blair and the Iraq invasion


By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, February 16th 2013

February 15th 2003 was a moment in global history: a rare articulation of political connectedness and consciousness.

From London to Glasgow to Ullapool to New York, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Tokyo, people took to the streets to protest about the Blair-Bush march to war with Saddam Hussein’s brutal Iraqi dictatorship.

Bush and Blair were determined on war; Bush to complete the job his father didn’t in the first Gulf War; Blair as a true believer in liberal intervention and enlightened imperialism investing his political being in the notion of the power of military force to do good. This was an intoxicating fix that Blair had earlier got in his Prime Ministership due to the Kosovo and Sierra Leone conflicts.

At the last minute with the clock ticking, Bush offered Blair a way out for Britain militarily, only for Blair to respond, ‘I’m here to the very end’. A self-obsessed Alastair Campbell recorded in his diaries on the day of the marches after a run, ‘I bumped into the end of people coming back from the march faces full of self-righteousness’.

What then were the consequences of the anti-war marches and Blair and Bush’s decision to go to war? Firstly and obviously, Iraq was freed of one of the most murderous, tyrannical dictatorships of recent times, one punitive, paranoid, prepared to kill and gas hundreds of thousands of its people.

However, what came with liberation was chaos and civil war. According to Iraqi Body Count, 157,531 Iraqis died in the eight years after the invasion; a 2006 study by ‘The Lancet’ estimated that 655,000 Iraqis ‘excess deaths’ occurred related to the war. And there was the loss of 4,488 American and 179 British military personnel; and the financial cost estimated by one study to be as high as $3 trillion for the US.

The huge anti-war marches had a discernable effect on British and American politics. They mobilised new constituencies beyond the traditional left, shocked at the brazenness and hubris of their political elites; and this created a seismic shock in trust levels between people and politicians which has never fully recovered.

Blair post-9/11 departed from the mainstream, buying into a near-messianic view of the world as one of good guys and bad guys, and seeing from Egypt to Libya and today in Syria and Chad, the menace of al-Qaeda and a perverted form of Islam which he believed the West and Muslims needed to take on uncompromisingly.

As crucially in Britain, there was a direct lineage from the disasters and humiliations of Munich to Suez to Iraq. This was centred on the obsession of the British political classes with the Second World War, misreading the lessons of the 1930s into numerous conflicts and wanting to stand up to dictators and not make the mistake of appeasement as Britain had done with Hitler.

Eden read Suez this way calling the Egyptian leader Nasser ‘a little Hitler’; Thatcher in the Falklands conflict used the same language invoking the Churchillian rhetoric of standing up to a fascist dictatorship; while Blair saw Saddam as a threat to the West’s security who had to be dealt with. Thatcher was transformed by the Falklands, but both Eden and Blair’s reputations never recovered from their respective foreign policy expeditions.

Blair’s wounded government won an unconvincing third term on 35% of the vote, but it had been drained of its political energy, and his dreams of European integration involving Britain and membership of the euro in tatters. Some may think the latter a positive in light of today’s continental economic problems but there is a direct line from the failure of Blair’s European policy to Cameron’s in/out referendum.

Iraq and Blair’s numerous wars, according to the respected sociologist Colin Crouch, tell us something about the West. Britain, the US, Australia and others, were he argued, changing fundamentally as societies, from welfare states, in which support and solidarity were the benchmarks of the body politic, to what he saw as warfare states, nations which were nearly permanently in a state of conflict or heightened anxiety and paranoia about imminent threats. Governments which explicitly said we cannot look after you in welfare, pensions or other social rights, would now promise to keep you safe at night in your home from those bad guys all over the world out to get you.

Then there is the story of accountability and learning the lessons and mistakes of Iraq. In June 2009 the Chilcott inquiry was finally announced six years after the war, but despite the fact it stopped taking evidence at the start of 2011, it will not produce a draft private report for witnesses to see until this summer at the earliest, and will not publically report until 2014 or 2015.

This is, after the farces of the Hutton and Butler reports, further evidence of how the British administrative elite have traditionally done things. A longer historical perspective provided by Christopher Moran in his penetrating analysis of British secrecy, ‘Classified’, shows the grip that secrecy has had on the civil service and government. There were no public inquiries as a result of Munich or Suez, neither Chamberlain or Eden prepared to countenance one.

One could argue that things are slowly moving in the world of the British mandarin, as accountability and some limited version of transparency belatedly enters the 20th century.

Since Iraq there have been a series of systematic crises at the heart of the British establishment, which our politicians, Blair, Brown and Cameron, have shown themselves increasingly out of touch with, hardly understanding the scale and depth of public anger, and failing to offer any credible solutions beyond platitudes.

While this has all occurred the British public still wait patiently for what should be the ultimate verdict on Iraq, the Chilcott inquiry, to report on what was done in our name in Basra and Fallujah. By the time it comes out it is possible that three UK general elections will have passed and many of its central figures such as Blair and Campbell show no signs of understanding the moral, political and humanitarian disaster that they embroiled this country in.

It is a sad statement on the condition of British democracy that we await a judge to bring some sense of account for such a set of disasters which have so tarnished Britain’s reputation. And we need to reflect not just on the road to a war that was one of choice not necessity, but a political system which repeatedly cannot bring failed politicians (and other public figures) to account.

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –