He could have gone down as one of the great Prime Ministers of all time, a man who took over a fractured and beaten political party, won three consecutive elections and as the Prime Minister that brought peace to Northern Ireland. These are enormous achievements for any politician but instead he will be damned as a man who led his country into an unnecessary and illegal war, some allege he is a unrepentant war criminal lacking only a trial and a cell. I am speaking of course of Tony Blair and the Chilcot Report, longer in its gestation than the war it reported on, which firmly hammered the final nails into the coffin of Blair’s reputation.
Blair was blessed, perhaps cursed, to be in power at one those fulcrums of history, narrow windows of time where one era gives way to another. At the turn of the 20th century the long post war boom was still in flow and the Cold War was over. Wise men spoke of the ‘End of History’, liberal democracy and capitalism was to be the fate of humanity. America stood at the pinnacle of the world order, its wealth and military might beyond challenge. In the view of respected historians like Nial Ferguson, it was unique opportunity to rid the world of petty dictators and rogue states; after all, there was no Soviet Union to stand in the way and China was still a fledgling superpower, twenty years from being a serious rival. Then came 9/11. The American public thirsted for revenge and George W Bush, was on open door to the aggressive neo-imperialist ideas of his Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President, Dick Cheney.
The ease with which the Taliban was swept out of power in Afghanistan encouraged the next step and Saddam was on Bush’s radar. The Iraqi dictator had humiliated Bush the Elder by refusing to fall from power and arguably cost him the 1992 election, even worse, he sent a hit squad to kill the ex-President during a visit to Kuwait. Deposing Saddam was personal for George junior and 9/11, which Saddam had nothing to do with, gave him all the excuse he needed. Bush was upfront about regime change from the very beginning but Blair knew that the British public would not buy that so a non-existent threat was hyped up to justify what was otherwise a war of naked aggression. Predictably, it all ended in tears. Pandora’s Box was opened, unleashing various violent groups, each more barbarous and murderous than the one before. It is now a rare country in the Middle East that enjoys peace and scarcely a week passes without terrorists killing scores, somewhere in the world.
The invasion of Iraq was a poorly thought out, crack-pot scheme. Expert advice that did not fit the picture of a populace that yearned for a foreign invader to set them free was set aside. Little thought was given as to what would happen next – the invasions of Iran and North Korea presumably, had British and American troops been welcomed as liberators, but why did Blair get involved in the first place?
The American alliance has been the keystone of British foreign policy since 1941 but Harold Wilson resisted joining America in the folly of Vietnam. It seems Blair was flattered that the most powerful man in the world valued his friendship and support. It is hard to resist the conclusion he was dazzled, even seduced by the trappings of the presidency and the immense power that goes with it. His eagerness to be America’s best friend became slavish devotion. Rather than the power behind the throne, Blair became Renfield to Bush’s Dracula, Igor to his Frankenstein.
In secular Britain few contemplate the role of religion in this sorry saga but Bush was an evangelical Christian and Blair, if not yet a devout Catholic, was well on the way to becoming one. Bush is on record as saying God told him to invade Iraq. Tony, it seems believed him. Such was the enormous hubris of these two men, they believed they were doing the Lord’s work and launched a modern crusade to rid the world of evil, but Arab Muslims only saw only a crusade of the old, medieval variety.
Blair’s interminable, self-serving presser in the wake of Chilcot, shows he has learnt little. The performance, and with Tony it is always a performance, was vintage Blair – his voice creaked with emotion, and his hands emphasised his points in the same old way; the speech had all the sincerity, real or faux, that he could muster. He had acted in good faith, the world is a better place for his actions he insisted. But no one listens anymore. People made up their minds a long time ago. Every word he says is presumed to be a lie.
The verdict of history will fluctuate as it always does. In a few decades time he might be respected in the same way that cynical old war-monger Henry Kissinger is by some, but his immediate future as the most despised Prime Minister of modern times is assured. He is more hated even than Margaret Thatcher, for at least she retains a dedicated cult following whereas Blair’s few acolytes diminish by the day.
He should forget about the rubber chicken circuit or playing the elder statesman and retire to Palm Springs. His biggest decision could be whether to catch the Early Bird at Denny’s where occasionally, another elderly diner, thinking he looks familiar, will approach him for a photo – not because he was a British Prime Minister – nobody in America cares about that – but because he will be mistaken for an actor, maybe Pierce Brosnan or one of the staff at Hogwarts. After he forces his trademark grin for the photo, Tony will wait for Stacey to bring the check, and think back to his glory days at Camp David when he and George shaped the future of the planet and dream of what might have been. He never for a second will doubt he was right. He will see himself as a tragic figure, like Icarus, who ignoring advice, flew too close to the sun, only to lose his wings and fall back to earth.
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam