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Blair’s defence of the Iraq War shows that the Middle East is still grossly misunderstood

by Cemal Burak Tansel on July 27, 2016

The long-delayed publication of the Iraq Inquiry fundamentally undermined the British government’s political, legal and strategic justifications for backing the US-led invasion of Iraq and highlighted former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s role in the run-up to the war. The media’s portrayal of the Inquiry and the personal nature of Blair’s response risks reducing the decision to go to war to a personal failing of Tony Blair, when the invasion materialised in a context shaped by broader geopolitical and economic calculations. There is, however, one striking element in Blair’s written statement which bears greater scrutiny as it projects a misconception of the Middle East that is shared by far too many Western policymakers.

Blair’s defence of the Iraq War is shaped by a familiar narrative of the Middle East. In Blair’s vision, the Middle East emerges as a region that remains impervious to change. His Middle East is a region where the primary lines of conflict are drawn not by political, economic and social struggles, but by ancient hatreds; a region where peace and order can only be maintained by the already-established strong regimes (unless, they are perceived as ‘threats’ to the West), and any type of popular protest or effort to hold political powers accountable are seen as terrible dangers that could create ‘chaos and instability’. In Blair’s view, the only viable way to democratise the region is through intervention, either through direct military action or an orderly regime change dictated by the interests of Western powers. In short, Blair’s response invokes an Orientalist understanding of the Middle East that refuses to acknowledge the lived realities of the region and subscribes to a policy that treats the Middle East as an appendage to the economic and political exigencies of the Western world.

Among the myriad mistakes of the government identified in the Inquiry, it is only the ones related to the ‘planning and the aftermath’ that Tony Blair is willing to accept. The Chilcot Report concludes, in a rather understated manner, that ‘the UK’s pre-invasion planning and preparation for its role in the Occupation of Iraq was not sufficient’. In response, Tony Blair curtly admitted that they ‘should have approached the situation differently […] especially in hindsight’, as if a broad range of scholars, governments, experts and intelligence agencies had not explicitly warned that the invasion would result in disaster and would bolster, not hinder, extremism. Given the scale of human suffering, infrastructural destruction and the long-term economic and political crises the war has caused, admitting that the Coalition was not sufficiently prepared for the invasion is not an apology, but a statement of fact. When it came to taking responsibility for the arguably more central question of the decision to go to war, however, Blair was defiant and unwavering. His response to the report reveals that, far from ‘understanding’ the arguments against war, or the suffering of Iraqi and British personnel as he has claimed, Blair still operates within a worldview that replicates the same type of misjudgements, misconceptions and mistakes that gave birth to the invasion of Iraq in the first place.

We can easily trace the building blocks of this narrative in Blair’s written response to the Chilcot Report. Blair first argues that Iraq would still be mired in conflict today had Saddam remained in power; an assertion that significantly downplays the extent to which the invasion destabilised and fractured Iraqi society. He further urges us to entertain a ‘counter factual’ scenario in which he asks, what would Saddam do if he were to face the same popular protests that many Middle Eastern regimes confronted during the Arab Uprising? Blair’s answer is blunt: ‘In that case the nightmare of Syria today would also be happening in Iraq except with the Shia/Sunni balance inverted. Consider the consequences. Even if you disagreed with removing him at the time, be thankful we’re not dealing with him or his two sons now’. To someone unfamiliar with the history of the US/UK relationship with Iraq and the region in general, Blair’s condemnation of Saddam might give the impression that Western powers have always treated the dictator as an enemy and that, if Saddam had been in power during the 2011 uprisings, he would have caused more bloodshed trying to cling onto his power, as opposed to negotiating an exit à la Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak. This ‘counter factual’ could only be seen as a valid comparison if we completely ignore the fact that Western powers have often shifted their attitude towards authoritarian and dictatorial regimes in line with their broader interests—a flexibility Blair himself displayed vis-à-vis the rule of Muammar Gaddafi. The US and UK not only actively encouraged and reinforced Saddam’s dictatorship as a bulwark against the Iranian Revolution, but they continue to support other similar authoritarian regimes in the region, often in ways that directly endanger the forces that genuinely struggle for democracy in those countries. Blair might be happy about not ‘dealing with [Saddam] or his two sons now’, but his actions in office and the historical record of US/UK foreign policy reveal that Western powers have engaged with and continue to establish alliances with other non-democratic regimes.

The fundamental problem in Blair’s response is his claim that the world is a safer place thanks to the overthrow of Saddam and the crushing of the terrorist threat that was supposedly nestled in Iraq. Blair goes to extraordinary lengths to justify this claim, including the argument that in 2010 (before the outbreak of the war in Syria), Iraq was ‘relatively stable’. In the ‘relatively stable’ Iraq of 2010, 4,167 civilians died according to the conservative estimates of the Iraq Body Count project. The reason Blair focuses on 2010 as a benchmark date is to solidify his claim that it was the Arab Uprisings that created the real instability in the region: ‘It was in Syria after the Arab Spring that AQ became ISIS, headquartered itself in Raqqa, Syria where we failed to intervene (…) where more have died than in the whole of Iraq’. It is at this juncture that Blair’s Orientalist narrative once again kicks in and absolves him (and his decision to go to war) of the responsibility of the region’s current state. In his ‘summary’ recommendations of what should be done in the region, Blair states that ‘[t]he danger of revolution or regime change in any country where Islamism is likely to be a major factor in the aftermath, is that once the dictatorship is removed, no matter how abhorrent, elements of extremism will move into the vacuum to cause chaos and instability’. This ‘danger’ leads him to argue that ‘if possible, evolution or an agreed process of change is better than the overthrow of the existing order without agreement. That is why when the Arab Spring began, it would have been better to have tried to agree processes of transition in Libya and Syria so as to control the aftermath and make change without destroying stability’. No matter what the local circumstances, histories and the balance of political forces are, Blair’s roadmap for democratisation in the region is still an external intervention, designed in a way to allow Western powers to ‘control the aftermath’. With this statement, Blair shows considerable antipathy for the democratic forces in the region as well as the prospects of democratic change from below. In short, Blair’s response demonstrates that he still does not understand the dynamics of the Middle East and that he is not in a position to offer a roadmap for the people struggling for democracy in the region.

In the House of Commons debate on the report, David Cameron argued that ‘we should … learn the lessons of what happened and what needs to be put in place to make sure that mistakes cannot be made in future’. If British policymakers want to avoid making the same mistakes, they should read Blair’s response carefully and dispense with the deep-rooted and dangerously erroneous conception of the Middle East that continues to plague Blair and many of his contemporaries.

Cemal Burak Tansel
Cemal Burak Tansel is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the editor of States of Discipline: Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of Capitalist Order (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017) and has published peer-reviewed research articles in the European Journal of International Relations, New Political Economy, Review of International Studies, Globalizations, South European Society and Politics and The South Atlantic Quarterly.
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  • Jack
    July 30, 2016 at 3:10 am

    Excellent analysis! Absolutely I agree the strategy is clearly to concede the technical failings of post-war planning and defend the political position of intervention, albeit with a remorseful technical concession about pre-war intelligence.

    The only point that I think needs to be emphasized is that as late as 2014 Blair was still advocating military intervention to overthrow Assad (I don’t know if he`s changed his mind since) while at the very same time he was supporting the military overthrow of the democratically elected government in Egypt. Definitely Blair has a “clash of civilisations” image of himself as a crusader for freedom when he gets carried away with his own rhetoric. However, that ignores the fact that his principle backer in the region is the House of Saud, which is the global sponsor of sectarian salafism, whose geopolitical project he is basically financed to sell in the west.

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