You might remember former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as George W Bush’s brighter half, the man with the tan charged with selling the President’s war of aggression against Iraq. Unlike Dubya, Blair could pronounce three and four syllable words, but his clipped tones that went down well on American television didn’t mean that those words were necessarily true.
Blair’s case for war was several fold: first were the claims about weapons of mass destruction. Then there were the claims about weaponry that could hit London in 45 minutes. And finally there was the humanitarian justification.
For Iraqis who saw the Bush-Blair coalition kill several hundred thousand of their fellow citizens in a campaign of “Shock and Awe” that destroyed infrastructure and institutions, making a wreckage of civil society and introducing greater economic uncertainty than existed under Saddam’s brutal if predictable regime, the humanitarian logic must now seem like the worst of the many bad jokes in Blair’s repertoire.
Blair, once the fresh face of the “new” (neoliberal) politics, left office in something like disgrace, and has spent his post-premiership making lots of money, advising dictatorial regimes, and fixing the Middle East. I think I once saw him get an honor guard on the tarmac of an airport in Lilongwe, where he was presumably dipping in to offer a few minutes of highly-expensive advice of doubtful quality.
Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the Labour Party, opposed the Iraq war, and was proved prescient in his criticisms. He also declined to lend his support for increased British military intervention in Libya, and is wildly popular with the party’s grassroots, who have about as much time for Tony Blair as I do for root canals.
Blair, who comes across as comically insecure, undoubtedly resents Corbyn’s popularity and his repudiation of Blair’s neo-conservative, evangelical strain of bloody interventionism. That partly explains his recent attack onCorbyn, which was breathtaking for its chutzpah and ability to re-write history:
“I am accused of being a war criminal for removing Saddam Hussein—who, by the way, was a war criminal—and yet Jeremy is seen as a progressive icon as we stand by and watch the people of Syria barrel-bombed, beaten and starved into submission and do nothing.” Blair compared his own “politics of power” to what he characterized as Corbyn’s “politics of protest.”
It’s difficult to know where to start with Blair’s outburst. But one is struck by its petulance, and the impression that this is Wee Tony complaining about how Bad Jeremy is more popular with the other kids. Or the idea—which has echoed around many a schoolyard—that Saddam started it and that somehow excuses Wee Tony from helping to engineer the destruction of a state and the deaths of thousands of people.
Of course, Blair isn’t accused of being a war criminal for removing Saddam Hussein, a byproduct of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He is accused of being a war criminal for engaging in a “common plan or conspiracy” to wage “aggressive war,” something that has been well-established as a crime since the Nuremberg Trials that put Nazis on the dock.
He is accused of being a war criminal because he massaged intelligence in collusion with the Bush administration to engineer a war of aggression. The early stages of the war generated huge civilian casualties, destroyed infrastructure, and dismantled institutions. In the course of the conflict and the broader War of Terror, Blair’s intelligence services facilitated the extraordinary rendition of prisoners to be tortured.
Blair would clearly prefer to see Britain and the U.S. launch an attack on Syria in the name of humanitarianism. But the kind of humanitarian relief he practiced was notable for how little relief it offered. The invasion of Iraq, far from enhancing the lives of Iraqis, plunged them into deeper chaos and uncertainty, led to the proliferation of international terrorism, and created ISIS, a monstrosity that has a central role in violence in Syria and Iraq today.
Few proponents of mindless, aimless intervention pause to check their compulsion to act and ask whether the intervention they propose would actually improve the lives of the people they are acting to protect. “Do no harm,” should be the first requirement of any intervention, and President Obama wisely decided that as frustrating as it might be, there was no path to such an intervention in Syria.
This, together with Corbyn’s disinclination to use blunt instruments to solve complex problems, infuriates Blair, partly because it repudiates his doctrine and partly because it leaves his approach to Iraq looking increasingly indefensible, irresponsible, and lonely. And that matters because next month will see the publication of the interminably delayed Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq. The wording and judgement of the document is likely to be as anemic and tame as the commission’s questioning of Blair and members of his government. But it will nonetheless call attention to Blair’s sorry legacy in the Middle East,
There is some irony in Blair’s continued descent and humiliation at the very moment of one of his ideological heir’s triumphs. Hillary Clinton, who yesterday won the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, is a confirmed compulsive interventionist. The neoconservative’s supporters haven’t let themselves be overly troubled by her bloody legacy or cartoonish worldview.
Whatever the Chilcot report has to say, Clinton’s election, and the spate of ill-considered acts of state violence it promises are likely to offer some solace to Blair. It would be too much to hope that he could read of Clinton’s wars from a cell in the Hague, babbling to his jailer about the injustice of it all and how much he hates that Bad Jeremy while asking Dubya to pass him his gruel. Instead we all have to prepare ourselves to offer what scrutiny and criticism we can to Clinton and the neocons whose return to power in D.C. will ensure that Blair’s violently righteous, idle-minded, imperial world view lives on.