Thursday, 28 January 2010

Tony Blair the scapegoat

The UK has been in frenetic anticipation this week of Tony Blair’s testimony Friday in front of the Iraq War show trial, er I mean, inquiry. The British media has been baying for a dramatic crescendo to the three week grilling of former cabinet officials who were involved in the decision to join the war. So far it's failed to deliver the “smoking gun” of conspiracy they’ve wanted. My inbox this week has been flooded with emails from activists and NGOs demanding this or that question be asked of Blair. Anticipation is so high that Channel 4 News actually spent 15 minutes last night doing a staged enactment of how the proceeding might go on Friday.

But despite the high theatre, the inquiry has failed to reveal anything too interesting. Given that the panel has focused so relentlessly on the accomplice rather than the perpetrator of the Iraq War, one could have expected similar results from an inquest of Austrian officials after World War II to “unearth the truth” about the invasion of Poland.

The British public has been demanding an inquest into why Britain went to war in Iraq for some time. At first it was supposed to be conducted behind closed doors, but Gordon Brown bowed to intense public pressure last year and agreed to have it be televised. Day after day this month the morning papers have recounted the various uninteresting details unearthed by the panel. This or that lawyer thought the war was illegal, this or that minister knew the war would be a disaster. But the big fish all along has been Tony Blair, and the public wants blood.

I’ve observed with curiosity this country’s obsession with casting Blair as the omnipotent villain in the Iraq story, and it’s always struck me as counterproductive if not downright naïve. In the UK the narrative goes like this: Tony Blair was a warmongering secret Catholic who became George W. Bush’s “poodle” because he shared his evangelical crusading zeal. Despite the fact that the vast majority of the British public was against the war, Blair dragged the country into the conflict by “sexing up” the dossier making the case for the invasion and lying to the public.

That storyline, of course, conveniently absolves the British public from blame and doesn’t require the country to look at the larger foreign policy foundations behind this decision. Casting Blair as the dictator who single-handedly led the country to war ignores the fact that the opposition Conservatives enthusiastically voted for the war in the parliament – a vote that wasn’t even close. Yet no Tories have been hauled before the tribunal.

So why would the British government opt to join a risky, possibly illegal war that the public was overwhelmingly opposed to? The reality is that they had little choice. Most likely, anyone sitting in that prime minister's seat in 2003 would have made the same decision.

Vassal Statehood

I have a French friend here in London who says every time he hears people refer to a “British foreign policy” he wants to laugh. “There’s no such thing as a British foreign policy,” he insists. “It’s just executed American policy.” He has a point. Britain’s foreign policy has been defined since the end of the Second World War by its so-called “special relationship” with the United States. During the Cold War this relationship served the UK well – it guaranteed the country protection against communist aggression while allowing it to keep defence spending relatively low, allowing the British to spend on generous healthcare and welfare systems. The close alliance with the United States also allowed the UK to project a veneer of power to the world as it slowly lost its global empire.

But after the Cold War ended in 1989, the UK never went through a re-evaluation period of its relationship with the US. The US, on the other hand, has moved on. The UK no longer has the strategic importance to the US it once had, and the “special relationship” that is so often referred to in this country exists only in the minds of British people. In reality, as The Independent’s Mary Dejevsky has pointed out, the “special relationship” is in fact a one-way ‘vassal state’ arrangement:
“Identifying our national interests so closely with those of the United States placed us in the demeaning position of having to change our foreign policy whenever the US elected a new administration, even though our own government was the same.”
And that is what happened in the Iraq War. It didn’t matter who was sitting in that prime minister’s seat when George W. Bush decided he wanted to topple Saddam Hussein. Because of the foreign policy orientation of the UK, it would have been extremely difficult to near impossible for any British leader to say no to war. The UK has maintained a fundamentally Atlanticist diplomacy since the end of the Cold War, failing to build strong foreign policy partnerships in Europe. While the main powers of continental Europe stood strong and refused to join the war, the UK had to do what its master decreed. The British public calls Tony Blair a poodle. But what they fail to grasp is that they were all the poodle, and they still are.

Of course Tony Blair technically had a choice about whether to join the war or not. After all, the UK is an independent sovereign nation. But to rebuke America by refusing to join the war effort would have been a revolutionary act in terms of foreign policy, requiring a complete rebuilding of Britain’s diplomatic ties. The British public makes the issue out to have been a simple question of yes or no. But it would have been an extraordinarily complicated and difficult decision for the UK to suddenly change direction and turn its back on 50 years of unfaltering alliance.

Show Trial

The testimony delivered to the Iraq War inquest so far has revealed relatively little except the fact that the British government had little to do with either the decision to go to war or the execution of the invasion. Testimony after testimony has suggested that the decision to go to war was a done deal well before the actual invasion. British lawyers have told of writing legal analysis concluding that a war would be illegal, and then suddenly seeing that conclusion changed after it had gone through analysis in America. Cabinet officials have told of being brushed aside and ignored by Bush Administration officials in the run-up to the war. And when asked about the actual execution and reconstruction, the panel has been met with a sort of collective shrug from the British officials. ‘I don’t know, we didn’t have anything to do with it’ is the main message. In short, there is little for this panel to find out because the UK didn’t do much decision-making in this process at all. The decisions were made in Washington.

Despite all this, it has only been British Labour officials who have been called to testify. Given that the Tories strongly supported the war, why have no Conservatives been called to testify? And given that the panel has determined that all the decisions were made in Washington, why have no American officials been called to testify? It seems to me that this entire inquest has laboured under the same fundamental misunderstanding of the factors that led to war that afflicts the wider British public.

Despite its lack of importance in the war’s decisions, Britain’s participation in the war was hardly inconsequential. Without the moral cover provided by British participation, the US never would have launched the invasion. Yet what did the UK get in return for its essential help? It was ignored and derided by American officials. Its warnings about reconstruction were given no heed.

Why has the British public not looked at the wider foreign policy foundations that led Britain to enter into such a lop-sided, counter-productive arrangement? By focusing so narrowly on the specific factors that led Tony Blair to pledge British support, the British fail to see the forest for the trees. In that way no lessons have been learned and nothing has changed. If a similar situation arose in four years time, I can guarantee you iy wouldn’t be long before Prime Minister Cameron signed up British forces to help the Americans in…god knows where…Iran? Yemen? Venezuela?

It’s a shame the Iraq War didn’t prompt a period of soul-searching in this country about their future in the 21st century. The UK is at a crossroads: it can continue to be an arm of American foreign policy or it can be an equal partner in a strong united Europe. But it is longer be independently powerful. I suspect facing that truth is too humbling for many British people to bear. But if they don’t confront the issue soon, then another Iraq War may be just around the corner. In the mean time, show trials like the one everyone will be riveted by Friday are just a cheap sideshow.


Eurocentric said...

Brilliant blog post. To be fair there were flashes of independence by the UK in the post-war (WWII) period: they did refuse to be drawn into Vietnam.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's right to let Blair off the hook because of larger foreign policy dynamics. He had a choice, he chose to participate in an illegal, immoral war. The blood of thousands of Iraqis are on his hands.

Jake said...

Sadam was a brutal tyrant and it is right that he was brought down. Tony Blair is a courageour hero for standing up for liberty and freedom, and he is a friend of the United States.