If Tony had let Saddam be, would we be applauding now? I doubt it


“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure,” Enoch Powell observed. Tony Blair and David Cameron know only too well what he meant, but whose failure was worse? To judge by Britain’s press last week, the answer is clear.

“Tony Blair’s legacy? Inflicting a terrorist firestorm on a fragile and unstable world.” That was the headline above Trevor Kavanagh’s column in The Sun, following the publication of the long-awaited Iraq report by Sir John Chilcot.

“I really do question Tony Blair’s sanity,” wrote Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail. “A monster of delusion” was a Mail headline last week. “Tony Blair thought he was the Messiah and often wore make-up, ex-PM’s former friend claims.” That was the Daily Express on Friday.

All these newspapers favoured Brexit. They have therefore been restrained in their criticism of David Cameron’s failure, which was to call a referendum on British membership of the EU and lose it. It is too early to tell just how grave the consequences of Brexit will be, but Fleet Street is still full of swivel-eyed optimists fantasising that either Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom is the next Margaret Thatcher. No one yet is questioning Mr Cameron’s sanity.

Blair’s failure took a different form. As I wrote on March 14, 2003, six days before the US invasion of Iraq, his mistake was “more or less uncritically [to] align himself with the American president’s policy towards Iraq, which aims explicitly at ‘regime change’ by military means”. But the benefits of this policy for the UK seemed to me “intangible”, whereas “the costs of backing Bush are immediately obvious: we get to fight a war and perhaps also help with an occupation that is bound to cost at least some blood and treasure, and we become the Islamic zealots’ third-favourite target (don’t forget Israel).”

British tabloids took a distinctly different line. On March 13, 2003, none other than Trevor Kavanagh praised Mr Blair for “stamping on wriggling anti-war worm Jacques Chirac . . . in a storming Commons performance”. Elsewhere, The Sun wished both Blair and Bush “all success” on the “long and tricky road to peace” [sic] in the Middle East. “History teaches a simple lesson,” its sister paper the News of the World told its readers on March 9, 2003. “Appeasing a tyrant is never the answer. Thankfully Winston Churchill grasped this in the last century. So now does Tony Blair. In this testing time for his leadership, we back the PM all the way.”

Writing in the Mail on March 17, Melanie Phillips hailed the advent of a “new world order”. Success in Iraq, she predicted, would be “a defining moment . . . in which Mr Blair . . . may emerge personally vindicated”, while the left — not to mention the French — would be “damaged goods”.

“No more Mr Nice Guy, Tony, please,” wrote Richard and Judy in the Express, urging Blair to “gain respect for his toughness as he already has for his courage”.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It means that, while success has many fathers, failure only ever has one.

We historians have the benefit of hindsight, too. In passing judgment, however, we try to focus on what decision-makers knew at the time of their decision. The great merit of the Chilcot report is that it reconstructs the decision-making process and shows where it went wrong.

We have long known about the defective intelligence that convinced so many people that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. But to my mind a bigger fault was the way America and Britain underestimated the difficulty of governing post-Saddam Iraq. This was especially inexcusable in view of the well-documented British experience in Iraq after the First World War.

History was not wholly forgotten. Thanks to Chilcot (volume 3, section 6, paragraph 856), we now know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Middle East department warned in January 2003 that “it would be very difficult to sustain a UK contribution . . . if our occupation of Iraq were opposed, in Iraq and in region”. In the words of the FCO’s briefing paper for the prime minister, the UK did not “want a repeat of the 1920s” — an allusion to the insurgency that swept Iraq in 1920. But that was about it. Only after the invasion, as the country descended into violence, did the lesson of history become painfully obvious.

Today, 13 years later, those whose warnings were ignored are in a better position to criticise Mr Blair than those who egged him on. Yet my inclination is to defend him. Unlike his turncoat critics, he has at least had the guts to express “sorrow, regret and apology”.

As Mr Blair said in his impassioned apologia last week: “It is important . . . to recall the atmosphere at that time . . . barely more than a year on from 9/11.” He beseeched his critics to put themselves in his position: “You are seeing the intelligence mount up on WMD. You are doing so in a changed context of mass casualties caused by a new and virulent form of terrorism. You have at least to consider the possibility of a 9/11 here in Britain. And your primary responsibility . . . is to protect your country.”

On that basis, he resolved to back Bush — “a decision endorsed by parliament with leaders of the opposition being given access to exactly the same intelligence and advice presented to me”. The UN was gridlocked, with France and Russia vetoing action that was justified under resolution 1441. So we joined Bush’s war because — in Blair’s words — “I thought the human cost . . . of leaving Saddam in power would be worse for Britain and the world”.

I took a different view, as we have seen, but how can I be sure I was right? As Mr Blair pointed out last week, we need to ask the counterfactual question: what if Saddam had been left in power? The alternative reality Blair asks us to imagine is not wholly implausible. If the forces assembled in March 2003 had not been used, “sanctions would have swiftly eroded”, the system of inspections would have crumbled and an “immensely strengthened” Saddam would have resumed his WMD programmes.

If Saddam had been in power in 2011, would there not have been an Arab revolution in Iraq, too? “In that case,” Blair argued, “the nightmare of Syria today would also be happening in Iraq.”

I know, I know. After all that went wrong in Iraq, beginning in March 2003, it is hard indeed to imagine a worse scenario. But this perfectly illustrates why all political lives are doomed to end in failure. For leaders must act on conjecture as well as intelligence. In 2003, Blair’s conjecture was that leaving Saddam in power would be worse than overthrowing him. In 2003, most of Fleet Street agreed.

Today it seems obvious to the journalists who once cheered him on that Blair’s conjecture was wrong. The reality is that we cannot be sure. All we can be is honest with ourselves. Failure, too, has many fathers.

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