The Chilcot Inquiry report really does look as though it’s only weeks away from publication, and Blair already out apologising for Iraq once again. Blair last did this back in October last year, when it also looked as though Chilcot was coming, and he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:
‘I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I also apologise, by the way, for some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime. But I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.’
This is an example of the ‘mistakes were made’ category of political apology, which the New York Times once described as a ‘classic Washington linguistic construct, used by Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, among many others. According to the Times: ‘The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.’
This kind of apology allows those who make it to lie without actually lying, or share responsibility so amorphously that no one is actually responsible. It can also serve to make those who make it seem better than they actually are, so that their ‘mistakes’ seem to be the product of overzealousness and good intentions.
Few people do this more easily than Blair, who cannot conceive of himself as anything less than a great man doing great things – even when the things he does turn out to be not that great after all. So no one can be surprised that he’s at it again, telling an audience at a Prospect event yesterday:
‘For sure we underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region and would take advantage of change once you topple the regime. That is the lesson. The lesson is not complicated. The lesson is simple. It is that when you remove a dictatorship out come these forces of destabilisation whether it is al-Qaida on the Sunni side or Iran on the Shia side.’
There are so many lies in this seemingly humble statement of contrition that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Firstly there are the references to the dark forces of evil that messed up what would otherwise have been a perfect success and a jolly good cricket tour. Then there is that use of the first person plural, which suggests that everyone, and therefore no one shared the misconceptions that Blair appears to be taking responsibility for.
In these circumstances, it’s worth recalling that there were plenty of people who did not ‘underestimate’ what would happen in Iraq, and who tried desperately to warn Blair of what would happen. In his history of the Iraq war, Jonathan Steele describes how six academic experts on Iraq, the Middle East and international security were invited to Downing Street to give their views to the man himself. According to Professor Charles Tripp, the author of a major history of Iraq: ‘ We all pretty much said the same thing. Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don’t imagine that you’ll be welcomed.’
Tripp later recalled how Blair responded with the less-than-insightful observation of Saddam Hussein ‘ But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?’ Tripp later declared himself ‘ a bit nonplussed. It didn’t seem to be very relevant’ and tried to explain to Blair that Saddam was ‘constrained by various factors.’
These arguments slid effortlessly off a man who Tripp described as ‘ a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour’ and who another academic described as ‘ someone with a very shallow mind, who’s not interested in issues other than the personalities ot the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc’.
Toby Dodge, another Iraq specialist, also remembered how he tried to challenge the ‘rhetoric from Washington’ which depicted Saddam’s regime as ‘separate from Iraqi society’. Dodge later recalled: ‘ What we wanted to get across was that over 35 years the regime had embedded itself in Iraqi society, broken it down and totally transformed it. We would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds.’
Blair received the same warnings from other quarters. In 2004 52 retired British diplomats, many of whom with years of experience in the Middle East, took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to Blair in 2004 condemning Britain’s failure to analyse what would happen to Iraq in the event of occupation, declaring:
‘All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case. To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.’
So it is simply not true to claim that Blair ‘underestimated’ the ‘forces at work in the region’. The truth is that he believed what he wanted to believe and only ever listened to advice that supported his own case. To say that such behavior is not statesmanlike doesn’t even begin to describe it. Blair acted like this because he was – and is – a dangerous and reckless ideologue who only listens to what powerful people tell him. His apology is just another lie and an obfuscation of the truth.
Blair is not entirely wrong though. He is not the only person responsible for the catastrophe of Iraq. There were other ‘ideologues’ and ‘utterly ignorant’ people who Charles Tripp later condemned the ‘ideologues’ for ‘playing out their games of democracy, diplomacy, of liberalisation’ in Iraq. Tripp also lamented the UK’s ‘criminal part’ in the war and occupation, declaring ‘ We didn’t say how we would ensure the Iraqis’ security, how we would give these people jobs, these poor people who have been struggling under the weight of something we partly created and to whom we owe a responsibility.’
No we didn’t, and it remains to be seen whether the Chilcot report will address this ‘criminal part’ or whether it will be content with the ‘mistakes were made’ version of history that Blair is currently spinning. But one thing is certain; Tony Blair will never acknowledge his role in an epic crime and historical tragedy whose consequences are still unfolding, and every apology that he ever gives will just be one more variant on the same lie.