Timing is everything in politics, and today the long-awaited Chilcot report lands like a hand grenade on an already fractured political landscape. It comes just as the deep divisions within the Labour Party caused by the Iraq war seem to have turned critical. It has even been suggested that Jeremy Corbyn intends to put his internal critics on the defensive by denouncing Tony Blair as a war criminal. John McDonnell’s evasive response when pressed on this point suggests that something like this is indeed under consideration.
The war crimes charge is not a new one. It has stalked Blair for thirteen years, so much so that he is said to arrange his travel plans on the basis of legal advice. Several attempts have already been made to initiate legal proceedings or make a citizen’s arrest. The charge has been repeated so often that it seems to have acquired the status of a self-evident truth. Although a court of law is the only place where this question could be definitively settled, there are in fact very good grounds for taking the opposite view. The likelihood is that a properly constituted court would find that Blair is not a war criminal at all.
The case for the prosecution appears straightforward enough. There are only two circumstances in which it is permissible to wage war under the UN Charter: in self-defence or with the explicit approval of the Security Council. Since neither condition was satisfied in the case of Iraq, it follows that Blair must be guilty of “waging aggressive war”, the same crime for which senior Nazi leaders were convicted at Nuremberg.
But the reality is much more complicated than that. International law is framed by custom and practice, not simply by statute. One of the most important factors any court would need to consider before reaching a verdict is state behaviour. What did the actions and decisions of the different governments imply about their real intentions and attitudes towards the invasion of Iraq?
A warmonger with international backing
The most compelling reason for thinking that Blair would not be convicted as a war criminal is that the international community did not treat him as such once the invasion of Iraq had been completed. On the contrary, the UN Security Council not only recognised the rights and responsibilities of the US and the UK as occupying powers under international law, it granted them additional authority to oversee Iraq’s economic reconstruction and political transition. In effect, the US and UK were given trusteeship over Iraq until self-government could be restored. Blair’s critics can’t have it both ways. Either the Security Council is the supreme decision-making authority of the international community or it isn’t. The fact that it was willing to mandate the coalition powers to act as its agents in Iraq after the war carries the very strong implication that it did not consider them guilty of a criminal act. Note that the relevant Security Council resolution was passed a month after the fall of Baghdad with no votes against and only one abstention – from Syria.
The position taken by the Security Council after the war was consistent with the ambivalence of its approach beforehand. This is something that also needs to be weighed in the balance. Iraq under Saddam was not analogous to Poland in 1939. It was a country controlled by a regime that had started two regional wars and used chemical weapons to murder its own people. By the time of the US-led invasion, it had already been responsible for the deaths of up to two million people. These horrific realities were fully reflected in the Security Council’s deliberations. Resolution 1441 passed four months before the invasion found Iraq to be in “material breach” of its disarmament obligations and declared it a potential threat to international peace and security. The only serious disagreement was what to do about it. Given Saddam’s track record and the international consensus that he remained a grave menace, it is grotesque to suggest moral equivalence between Tony Blair and Herman Göring, as some people are prepared to do.
A bad enough legacy
None of this absolves Blair of responsibility of initiating a catastrophic war by dishonest means. He claimed that the intelligence showing that Iraq had deployed weapons of mass destruction was “extensive, detailed and authoritative” when he surely knew that it was none of those things. Probably his greatest deceit concerned his motive for going to war. This had far more to do with his desire to win favour with the Bush administration than a determination to deal with Saddam. This breach of trust has poisoned politics ever since and formed part of the background to last month’s Brexit vote. It may yet break the Labour Party.
By far the worst consequence of the war was its impact on the people of Iraq. Estimates of the post-war death toll range between 150,000 and 600,000, although our perspective on this now needs to take account of the civil war in Syria. It was never likely that Saddam’s regime was going to come to a peaceful end. Perhaps all the invasion of Iraq achieved was to change the timetable of death and destruction. One final, enduring legacy of the Iraq war is, ironically, one that Blair’s opponents on the hard left undoubtedly welcome: it is the eclipse of Western power and authority. The “unipolar moment” seems like a distant memory as the US retrenches and the UK withdraws from international engagement. Unfortunately, the vacuum this leaves is being filled by the rise of authoritarian states and the return of power politics rather than a new democratic multilateralism. The worst of this may still be ahead of us.
The things for which Blair can be fairly blamed for are bad enough. We have no need to embellish the case against him with misplaced charges of criminality, nor would it be healthy to remain fixated with this issue. The Labour Party is in danger of destroying itself for a generation in the same way that the US Democrats did over Vietnam. If it is thinking rationally about its own interests, it should take the Chilcot report as a cue to finally move on.