FOUR years after its last hearing concluded, six years after it was commissioned and twelve years after the war began, the Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s participation in Iraq may be nearing the light. Sir John Chilcot, its chair and a former mandarin, today announced that his report (all 2m words of it) would be made public in June or July next year. That it has taken so long is ludicrous. Despite Sir John’s protests—one member of the inquiry became ill and died, American authorities were reluctant to co-operate and targets of criticism have been slow to reply with their comments—even David Cameron today said he was “disappointed” at the new delay and appeared to suggest that the inquiry should complete its work before next summer.
Whenever it finally appears, the report’s judgment of Tony Blair is unlikely to be positive. The former prime minister seemed to get his apologies in early in an interview with CNN recorded in the summer but only broadcast three days ago. In an unusually contrite performance, he acknowledged that some of the intelligence on which the case for war rested had been wrong and that there had been “mistakes” in the planning for the conflict and its aftermath. Recently leaked White House memos appear to confirm that members of the Bush administration believed in 2002, before Parliament ruled on the matter, that they had an assurance from Mr Blair of Britain’s participation in an invasion of Iraq.
Yet whatever the final report says about this particularly thorny question—and all the others—one thing is certain: the former premier’s political opponents and critics will not be satisfied. Mr Blair’s decision to take Britain into Iraq was popular at the time, but with the grim rhythm of fatalities and sectarian violence following the invasion the public gradually changed its mind. He did, it is true, lead his party to a solid victory (its third, having never before won a second) in the 2005 election. It was only after the Labour leader stood down, in 2007, that the opprobrium really built up.
Today it inundates him. Across much of the country’s political landscape, including most of the left and some of the right, he is held personally and exclusively responsible for everything that went wrong in Iraq—much more so than George W. Bush is in America. The possibility that any of his errors were honest attracts knee-jerk incredulity; his argument that another decade of Saddam might not have served the Iraqi interest goes ignored. In places the real domestic and foreign successes of his premiership are rendered almost irrelevant, if not overtly unattractive, by their association with “Bliar” (as the placards childishly put it). Tonight the BBC broadcasts a radio programme by Peter Oborne, a long-standing Blair critic, not only preempting the Chilcot Report but, with a fraction of the evidence available to Sir John and his team, summarily declaring Mr Blair guilty of the crimes of which he is accused.
The jets of bile that spurt forth whenever Mr Blair’s name is mentioned have all sorts of bad outcomes. First, they mean that the probably messy reality of the former prime minister’s decision (supported, let it not be forgotten, by his cabinet, his MPs and the voters who later reelected them) is smothered in an unthinking hatred. Surely the victims of the war deserve a more sophisticated and nuanced account of, and response to, his actions? Whatever Mr Blair and others got wrong, let the Chilcot report explain and illuminate it, and let public debates proceed from there.
Second, the sneering assumption—often voiced as if it were somehow original or considered—that everything about Mr Blair is tainted by the failures of his most notable foreign policy decision obscures a broadly realistic, compassionate and reformist approach to government from which all main parties should learn (tellingly, their sharpest figures, like George Osborne and Andrew Adonis, continue to do so).
Third, and perhaps most relevantly to current policy debates, the genuinely insightful foreign-policy doctrine that—however imperfectly—informed Mr Blair’s over-credulous dealings with Washington in the run-up to the Iraq conflict goes utterly tarred when in fact it deserves a more qualified criticism. The Labour premier was confident in the merits of liberal intervention during this period not out of faith but out of the hard-learned lessons of Kosovo; lessons that he set out in his Chicago speech of 1999, that he applied in Sierra Leone and which remain relevant to this day. The scorn poured on these in the light of the horrible mistakes and failures of the Iraq conflict are especially prominent in the gormless claim—common among supporters of the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn—that the decision by the House of Commons not to intervene in Syria in 2013 “stopped” a war there.
Alas, the eventual publication of the Chilcot report—bound to be critical of Mr Blair (and insofar as this criticism is well-founded, rightly so)—will accentuate all three of these unfortunate outcomes. Every admonishment of the former prime minister will be seized on as proof of his straightforward malignancy and corruption. Every concession to his good intentions will be decried as proof of a pro-establishment stitch-up. Every comment by the man himself will be “spin”. The victims of this unthinking response will not include Mr Blair, who is rich, lawyered-up and, it might be added, has handled his own PR remarkably poorly since leaving office. But they will include those who most need a clear-headed assessment of the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War: the injured, the bereaved, those in Britain who would benefit from an electorally competitive Labour Party and—as unpalatable as this is to many—those around the world whose protection and well-being depends partly or wholly on a militarily active and internationalist Britain now and in the future.