04 September 2010

Tony Blair’s next adventure

There are three elements of the BBC interview given by the loathsome Tony Blair on 1 September, following the launch of his memoirs, and associated press reporting, which caught my attention:

(1)  He did not foresee the “nightmare” that would unfold following the invasion. As the report in The Guardian, 31 August 2010, put it (see here):

"I can't regret the decision to go to war," he writes in A Journey. But he adds: "I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded, and that too is part of the responsibility. The truth is we did not anticipate the role of al-Qaida or Iran. Whether we should have is another matter; and if we had anticipated, what we would have done about it is another matter again."

(2)  He regretted the loss of life but was unrepentant about the invasion – he still believes it was the right thing to do, in spite of the massive loss of life.

(3)  He opined that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons and we (the West) should be prepared to confront Iran militarily if need be to prevent this.  

My reactions to this:

(1)  For Tony Blair to fail to envision, let alone “guess”, the nightmare that would unfold following the invasion of a middle-income country over half the size of New South Wales, with its well-known religious and communal problems, a country already suffering the consequences of over a decade of sanctions, is an extraordinary failure of imagination and judgement on his part.

(2)  Aside from that, to the extent that the claim could be taken at face value, it indicates that Blair either had the wrong advisers or, more likely, he wasn’t listening to them. When it comes to matters of war and peace, Prime Ministers are not supposed to “guess”, nor are they required to.

(3)  I wouldn’t take the claim (or anything else that Blair says) at face value. I think that the issue here is that he was a fully paid up subscriber to the Paul Wolfowitz view that the invasion was going to be “a cakewalk”, and the Donald Rumsfeld view that “we don’t do nation-building”. One of the many things for which Tony Blair must take full responsibility is the fact that he plunged the United Kingdom into an illegal war for which there was no planning for the occupation phase.

(4)  While nominally accepting responsibility Tony Blair also attempts to duck it by blaming the post-invasion chaos on al-Qaeda and Iran. It was much more about spontaneous internal chaos due to an abject failure to plan for the basics of internal security when the invaders became an occupation force with all the responsibilities under international law that that entails. What did he expect? Did he think it would be like the liberation of Paris in 1944, with the girls throwing flowers onto the tanks? And did he really think that al-Qaeda and Iran would fail to respond to the fact that their enemy had taken up residence, and in so doing made a target of itself?

(4)  Tony Blair’s protestations that he had no idea of the aftermath should be read against the comments of Paul R. Pillar, who served as the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 and is now Director of Graduate Studies in the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. Writing in the March/April edition of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, Professor Pillar says:

In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community’s own work was politicised.

Pillar went on to say:

 If the entire body of official intelligence analysis on Iraq had a policy implication, it was to avoid war – or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath.  What is most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions of recent decades.

So Pillar was warning to prepare for a messy aftermath, but Tony Blair could not “guess” that this state of affairs might occur.

(5)  Blair’s concern for the casualties of the war is couched in extraordinarily (but characteristically) narcissistic terms. As reported by The Guardian in the article cited above:

Blair writes of his anguish about how families of the fallen may not understand his pain at the loss of so many lives. "Do they really suppose I don't care, don't feel, don't regret with every fibre of my being the loss of those who died," Blair writes as he pays tributes to coalition soldiers and Iraqis who lost their lives.

Blair’s description of his “anguish” seems over the top to me, and is classic politician speak, of a piece with “this is the toughest decision I ever had to make” etc. – easy to say after the event, but it does not prevent them from insouciantly putting people in harm’s way.

I also have the impression that Blair is much more “anguished” about the British fallen than he is about the dead Iraqi civilians, more than 100,000 of whom suffered violent deaths as a direct consequence of the invasion and its aftermath (see Iraq Body Count here). Valuable as it is as an indicator of the awful consequences of the war, that number is only a partial count of those whose deaths are reasonably attributable to the invasion. It takes no account of people who perished as a result of infrastructure and service failures: drinking contaminated water, living with raw sewage in the streets, lack of electricity, gas and water, dying of preventable or curable diseases because of breakdowns in the medical and hospital systems etc.

(6)  I have no wish to see a nuclear armed Iran, but who the hell is Tony Blair to be prescribing what defence measures taken by sovereign states are “acceptable”?  The last time Tony Blair was proclaiming that the acquisition of (alleged) WMD was unacceptable was when he was lining the British people up for their wonderful adventure in Iraq, an adventure on which his great and glorious US ally has spent $US 700 million and counting installing a Shi’ite regime in Baghdad and enhancing the regional power and influence of that very same Iran whose nuclear program is “unacceptable”.

(7)  Who is going to pay for this next great adventure upon which Tony Blair would have us embark? The United States is broke, and President Obama is (rightly) turning that country’s attention away from foreign adventures and towards domestic priorities like repairing the economy.  France and Britain are so strapped for cash to spend on defence that they are talking to each other about pooling combat support assets like in-flight refuellers, and are certainly looking to spend less rather than more on defence. The same story can be found elsewhere in Continental Europe. I don’t think that a military confrontation with Iran (66 million people living in a country the size of Queensland) is on anyone’s agenda at the moment, even though in a subsequent post I shall describe some rather alarming ruminations about this coming out of Israel. Anyone who thinks such a confrontation (including a pre-emptive strike) is a good idea is, frankly, barking mad.

(8)  As I recall it, when Tony Blair stepped down as Prime Minister of Great Britain he was going to bring his messianic attributes to bear on solving the Israeli-Palestinian question once and for all, as the Quartet’s Middle East Peace Envoy. Since then he has essentially been missing in action on that issue, although he still maintains a suite of offices atop the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. This week, when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas were meeting in Washington, under the watchful eyes of President Obama, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, where was Tony? Why, out promoting his book, of course.

Fortunately, nobody listens to Tony Blair any more.

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