Just like Tony Blair, I’m back from a lengthy absence due to external commitments just as further controversy explodes – this time over the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq. Well, actually, the controversy isn’t really about that and is, as usual, about debating the merits of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Actually, it isn’t really a debate about that either, as the ‘illegality’, immorality and catastrophic consequences of the 2003 invasion are now firmly fixed in popular belief. So instead of a debate about what should be done to deal with events in 2014, we are faced with yet another round of public demands for a show trial followed by tearful admission of guilt for crimes against the people by a contrite Blair. It’s just so annoying for some that he seems to be unwilling to follow the script.
The problem with all this is is evident in the media expectations associated with the Chilcott inquiry. Either it will exculpate Blair, in which case it will be a ‘whitewash’, or it will reveal the ‘truth’ which of course has already been determined by the commentariat to be that Blair is a war criminal responsible for kowtowing to the most unpopular reactionary simpleton of a US President in history, and committing Britain to the greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez on the basis of self-evident lies.
This of course is precisely the course followed by commentary on the previous five (or is it six?) inquiries into the decision to invade. The fact that this represents an assumptive judgement and excludes any evidence-based examination of that judgement goes without question. But then we all prefer to have our prejudices confirmed rather than challenged.
Encouragingly, Blair’s essay on the current Iraq crisis and his appearance on the Andrew Marr show at the weekend show no sign of capitulation to the dogma of what John Rentoul accurately refers to as ‘Blair-rage’, but there is little sign of the media letting their favourite bone go. Here’s how Blair saw the same issue within the context of the media pressing for ministerial resignations in his first term:
When they have decided to go for someone, they start with the story. That story may or may not be true, but it is then embellished. If resistance is met, they just up the pressure until the frenzy is the journalists’ equivalent of the screaming abdabs. If resistance continues, they basically say: right, we will continue running this story until the person resigns.
Or, in this case, confesses their guilt and throws themself on the mercy of the braying mob. Although this would certainly satisfy a real public desire for vengeance against the villain of the received wisdom, it also means we’re denied any sensible examination of the policy options as the Pavlovian exploitation of the Iraq dogma crowds out objective debate. See the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ at any time between 2003 and now for examples. This might have been understandable ten years ago, but it is painfully self-indulgent now and leads to a policy void when dealing with current events that demand a response now.
That void might have been addressable but for Cameron’s failure to properly study the Blair handbook on political manipulation; understanding only the facile attractiveness of soundbite politics and the doomed need to de-nastify the Tories at a time of increasing Euroscepticism amongst his core constituency, he missed the necessity of preparing the ground for taking unpopular and hard decisions, such as that over the use of force in national interest. Hence his Libyan intervention policy, opting for low-risk air strikes for a low return in local political influence to assist the construction of a functioning Libyan state; or even more pertinently his failed approach to Parliament to approve intervention in Syria.
And that’s the key issue for us now. The ISIS invasion of Iraq is a product of Syrian non-intervention, a non-intervention which ignored the successful results of Anglo-American intervention on behalf of the Kurds in 1991 in favour of an erroneous received wisdom about 2003. ISIS have certainly been able to capitalise on Sunni alienation from an Iraqi government dominated by Shia sectarianism in a post-Saddam Iraq. But that sectarianism is a failure of democratically elected Iraqi politicians pandering to Shia majoritarianism, and not a failure of western agency since the US withdrawal in 2011. Meanwhile, as Blair points out, Assad continues to give us an objective lesson in what happens after the Arab spring meets a B’aathist dictator whom the west flinches from deposing.
On that subject, has abybody seen the Syrian Body Count website to quantify the cost of our policy there? Or doesn’t that meet the criteria required for us to feel good about our non-interventionism in the same manner as the Iraq Body Count website relentlessly and justifiably quantified the cost of intervention in Iraq?
I don’t have any problem acknowledging that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (or more correctly, post-invasion policy) inflamed ethnic and sectarian conflict within Iraq to near-catastrophic levels; I do wish the peddlers of the received wisdom could reciprocate by acknowledging the similar consequences of non-intervention in Iraq under Saddam and now in Syria. Finally accepting that there is no ‘smoking gun’ to prove their favourite thesis of Blairite mendacity would also be helpful when confronting events unfolding seven years after Blair’s departure from No.10 Downing street. Endless re-runs of the hysteria surrounding the failure of the Hutton inquiry and every inquiry since to confirm their prejudices just doesn’t cut it.