x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Another kind of vanity: we should not focus exclusively on the misdeeds of Bush and Blair

Saloon Tony Blair's stock has been so badly battered that today one could be forgiven for marvelling that he ever enjoyed a reputation for honesty.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

In December 2003, The New Yorker published an exhaustive and incredibly detailed account of the suicide of the British government scientist David Kelly. After 15,000 words, the reporter, John Cassidy, offered a note of prognostication: Tony Blair, he suggested, "may never regain his reputation as an honest and straightforward man". Cassidy, of course, was correct. But the former prime minister's stock has been so badly battered that today one could be forgiven for marvelling that he ever enjoyed a reputation for honesty. The inquiry into the death of Kelly - who had criticised the so-called "dodgy dossier" to a BBC journalist - may have marked the beginning of the sharp decline in Blair's popularity, but his fate was probably sealed with the initial decision to take Britain into war alongside the United States. The disastrous conflict that ensued ground Blair's reputation into dust, irreparably so.

Last week the "combat mission" in Iraq came to an anticlimactic end, a milestone celebrated in the media with the full knowledge that it was of little consequence: 50,000 American troops remain in Iraq. A day later came an even bigger artificial event: the publication of Blair's memoirs, released into the maw of the kind of media circus that the British have refined into an art. Blair's critics at the British papers seized on the opportunity to continue beating a man whose only good press, in the past three years, has come from not being Gordon Brown. His astronomical earnings since leaving office figured prominently; Blair's canny decision to donate proceeds from his memoir to a military charity brought yet another round of abuse; and the book itself has been rubbished by a string of reviewers as a monument to Blair's undiminished self-regard. Critics in Dublin were even less kind: a crowd of them threw eggs at Blair as he entered a bookstore, but he dodged them as effortlessly as the Chilcot inquiry.

That Blair should remain unrepentant about his decision to assist the destruction of Iraq has not come as any surprise. The sins of the Iraq war planners were vanity and arrogance: an indifference to competing opinions and an assured overconfidence about their right to intervene in the lives of innocents by the million. But is it a shock that Bush and Blair might have displayed such flaws of character? The president of the United States is commonly described as the most powerful man in the world, and the prime minister of Great Britain cannot be far behind on the list.

We live in an age of easy moral outrage, and while it would be hard to argue that Blair doesn't deserve all this disdain, and more, the desperate desire to see him bowed in contrition would appear to reflect some deeper urge for a clean and clear verdict on a very messy conflict. No serious person today doubts the error of invading Iraq, and those who continue to maintain that "removing Saddam" amply justified the conflict only embarrass themselves. But castigating Tony Blair for his misconduct, however satisfying, does nothing to address the reality of prolonged violence in Iraq.

As Nir Rosen reports in this week's issue, a fragile stability continues to take hold inside the country. Rosen, a fierce and unyielding critic of the war who has done some of the bravest reporting in Iraq, nevertheless suggests that the once-feared insurgency has been stripped of much of its power; that while incidents of violence and death still dominate the headlines, the country's bloody civil war shows no signs of reopening.

Yes, Iraq has no government, but the contours of the coalition are clear and only the haggling remains. In Britain and America, to observe these things looks like vindication for Bush and Blair, but it is no such thing: their war was a moral and political disaster, but to focus exclusively on their misdeeds, rather than on the fate of Iraqi civilians today, is only a further kind of vanity.