The Iraq War was the highpoint of the Blair doctrine but it was also his political undoing writes Chris Nineham

One of the extraordinary things about the legacy of the Iraq war is that Tony Blair remains not just a free man but a Knight of the Realm, a regular in TV studios and op-ed pages and a generally influential member of the establishment.

He lied Britain into an illegal war that led to the death of a million people, the displacement of millions more, the destabilisation of much of the middle east and spread of terrorist organisation around much of the globe. But Sir Tony is treated as an authority on a range of matters, and his opinions are especially valued on ‘security’ and foreign policy.

When they interview him, journalists tend to respectfully skirt the touchy subject of Iraq. If it does come up, Blair’s line is that he made a misjudgement based on wrong information from the security services.

Making War

This, of course, is complete nonsense. Tony Blair was not an unwitting accomplice of the British security services, US President George Bush or anyone else. He was an active advocate of the war. Just months after the 9/11 attacks on the US, he made a deal in Washington to support an invasion on Iraq and for regime change – illegal in international law – behind the backs not just of the British parliament and the British people, but even the cabinet.

As Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley revealed in his 2010 book on New Labour, Blair commissioned an ‘Iraq Options’ paper in early March 2002, a year before the war, without telling the cabinet. The report outlined possible regime change scenarios in Iraq. A few days later the British Ambassador to the UN Christopher Meyer confirmed that Blair signed up to regime change at a meeting with US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. In Meyer’s words, ‘We backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option’.

His supporters much-repeated defence is that he was getting close to the US administration  in order to restrain them. More nonsense. When Blair travelled to meet Bush at his ranch in Crawford Texas in April 2002 the story was he was going to persuade Bush to act ‘multilaterally’ through the United Nations. American participants at the summit, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, said they didn’t remember any conditions being raised and Blair’s own senior advisor David Manning who was also there said in an interview with Rawnsley, ‘I don’t even remember the UN coming up at Crawford.’

The massive demonstrations against the Iraq war on February 15, 2003 and after created a huge crisis in British society. John Kampfner wrote in his account of Blair’s Wars, that ‘The British government in the normal sense of the word, had ground to a halt.’ Blair himself admitted later he was desperate, writing in his memoirs that,

‘The international community was split. UK public opinion was split. I was between numerous rocks and hard places. The strain on everyone around me was unbearable’.

He was convinced that ‘these really could be my last days in office’. Worried that he might be unseated and that they would lose the only world leader they could rely on, George Bush offered Blair a last minute opt-out, saying that Britain could skip the invasion and come on board with the occupation later. Such was Tony Blair’s commitment to the military intervention however that he turned down the offer and pressed on.

Rough Methods

None of this should be surprising. Tony Blair had had been developing a radical, interventionist approach to foreign policy for some years. In a famous speech in Chicago in 1999, Blair had proposed a new doctrine of liberal interventionism. This he argued, would mean ‘qualifying’ the internationally agreed principle of non-interference in other countries’ affairs. It would mean accepting there were ‘circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts’.

This idea was built on the work of his close advisor Robert Cooper, a man who believed that, in a more unstable world, ‘we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the in 19th century world of every state for itself’.

The Kosovo war of 1998 was an important moment for Blair. He had been the loudest champion of intervention, and had publicly and successfully pressured Bill Clinton to take decisive action. Though the Western bombing of the Serbian forces killed thousands and accelerated the cycle of ethnic cleaning in the region, it was widely presented as a success for the interventionists, and Blair took personal credit. In the words of Jeremy Greenstock, UK ambassador to the UN at the time, ‘He felt that his determination, his sense of mission on that occasion had been vindicated’.

England’s Dreaming

This sense of mission explains why Tony Blair is still so admired by the British ruling class. The Iraq War was the highpoint of the Blair doctrine but it was also his political undoing. As those in the anti-war movement predicted, the war turned out to be anything but humanitarian. It was a disaster not just for the Iraqis but for people across the region. It made the world a much more dangerous place. The reality of the war and the lies Blair told to take us there combined with the impact of the anti-war movement forced him to resign in 2006. All of this turned him into a pariah amongst the wider population and generated deep distrust of the whole Westminster circus. Ever since, despite his immense wealth, he has looked haunted and broken.

But the ruling class remains committed to foreign intervention and to a fantasy vision of ‘Global Britain’. They are the number one Western champions of escalation against Russia in the war in Ukraine, and the amongst the keenest advocates of confrontation with China. In the case of Ukraine, a tweaked version of liberal interventionism is being deployed. Once again we are being asked to believe that that the British ruling class is pushing war to defend democracy and to protect innocent people from an authoritarianism.

Tony Blair was a Labour leader who found a way – at least for a few glorious years – to rehabilitate colonialism and find a new imperial role for Britain by the US’s side. What is more he wasn’t afraid of the bloody consequences. He had the guts to follow through on his humanitarian concerns with bombs from the air and guns on the ground. As his successors desperately cling to their seat at the Western war mongers’ top table, the British ruling class will be forever grateful to Blair for doing his best to keep their imperial dreams alive.

19 Mar 2023 by Chris Nineham

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