How decent of Britain’s former prime minister, Tony Blair, to apologise for invading Iraq in 2003, as some of Monday’s headlines told us. Apologising would be further than either of his accomplices, George W Bush or John Howard, has gone.
Except, of course, that Blair did no such thing.
Read the fine print and you’ll see he apologised not for the invasion itself but for the way it was carried out. Like Bush and Howard, he cannot bring himself to admit that the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign state was simply wrong.
Does it matter, all these years later? Would an apology make any difference to the 224,000 people, military and civilian, who have died needlessly in Iraq as a result of the invasion? Would it refund a cent of the $US800 billion plus in direct funding that the US alone has spent on that war?
No, the damage is done. But a full and realistic admission of the errors involved would be immensely useful.
To admit a mistake is the first step in avoiding a repeat. We mustn’t continue to blunder blindly from one catastrophic misjudgment to another.
Militaries conduct ‘‘lessons learned’’ exercises after each battle in an effort to save lives and do better in future battle. Why are the topmost strategists exempt from learning lessons?
Like Bush and Howard, Blair did admit that the so-called intelligence they based the war on was wrong. Bush has said he was ‘‘surprised’’ when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Howard said he was ‘‘embarrassed’’. But Blair did go further than Bush or Howard have gone in conceding that the Iraq invasion set off a chain of consequences that includes the rise of the so-called Islamic State, the apocalyptic terrorist movement that has declared a caliphate over an area of land bigger than Britain.
Asked if the allies’ attack on Iraq was the ‘‘principal cause’’ of the rise of IS, the former British leader said: ‘‘I think there are elements of truth in that. Of course, you can’t say those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015.’’
John Howard had earlier rejected the suggestion of a causal link. He told interviewer Janet Albrechtsen that to suggest IS is ‘‘purely or predominantly’’ a result of the invasion of Iraq was a ‘‘false reading of history.’’
Blair has gone further in admitting error because he’s the leader under most pressure. The Chilcot inquiry is about to report on the war, and is known to contain criticism of Blair’s decisions.
Bush and Howard are under no pressure because there has been no official inquiry into the war in the US and Australia. In Washington and Canberra, we are more concerned with protecting the egos of politicians who supported the war than we are in protecting the lives of soldiers to be sent into future wars.
In Canberra, both main parties are committed to protecting another sensibility too – an inquiry into the Iraq disaster could be seen to be a reflection on US leadership and the alliance, and no mainstream politician wants to risk offending the US.
The Abbott government ordered a royal commission into a ceiling insulation program that killed four people but no Australian government will countenance any official inquiry into the West’s biggest avoidable strategic and humanitarian blunder of the past half-century.
The truth is that the Bush administration conceived the war not as a mere piece of preemptive conflict to disarm Iraq but as a grand strategic turning point for the entire Middle East.
Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, described the post-9/11 moment as a time of ‘‘enormous opportunity ... to create a new balance of power that favoured freedom’’. And his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said that that day created ‘‘the kind of opportunities that World War II offered, to refashion the world’’.
That was the grand aim. And the invasion certainly succeeded in refashioning the world and changing the balance of power.
But it did not favour freedom. Quite the opposite. Iraq is a ruin. And the Arab spring ended in springtime not for freedom but for theocrats, fascists and dictators.
The first big winner is Iran, the traditional enemy of Iraq. No longer held in check by Baghdad, it is expanding to become perhaps the dominant regional power. The Ayatollah Khamenei sends his regards to the West.
Second, the fascists of the Sunni resurgence – Islamic State and the other terrorist movements – that were provoked by Shia repression in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Al-Baghdadi sends his regards to the West.
Third, Russia. Like Iran, like IS, Vladimir Putin too sees opportunity in the chaos that was set off by Western bungling. Russia is reasserting itself in way unseen since the Cold War. Putin sends his regards to the West. And the biggest losers are stability, security, and the interests of the West.
The latest issue of the journal of the American foreign policy establishment, Foreign Affairs, is titled ‘‘The Post-American Middle East’’.
The US-led venture into Iraq resulted in chaos. The cost of trying to operate in that chaos has frightened the US into retreat. US retreat has left a power vacuum. The vacuum is being filled by the true enemies of democracy. An apology wouldn’t even begin to cover it.
Peter Hartcher is international editor Sydney Morning Herald