I have sometimes wondered whether I should retrain as a psychologist. I would love to get inside the mind of one man: the man who took Britain to war five times, culminating with Iraq. Tony Blair. The critics – those genuinely opposed at the time and the disingenuous who switched sides after – proclaim the former prime minister to have been a liar, a poodle or a Manichean madman. They focus on the road to war, the fraught period between his cosy chats with George Bush at the president’s Texan ranch in April 2002 and “shock and awe”, the bombing of Baghdad, 10 years ago this month. They hark back to the attorney general’s legal advice, the “dodgy dossier” and the non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The “who knew what when” question has been chewed over in successive inquiries, the latest of which, led by Sir John Chilcot, is still to deliver its verdict. More important, and less investigated, is the effect Iraq has had on the world since the war began. That is the subject of my BBC Radio 4 documentary, in which I speak to people closely involved in the military intervention and the occupation that followed, including Blair himself. The lessons are salutary. Iraq has left its mark across global politics. It changed the balance of power in the Middle East, to the advantage of Iran – the West’s bigger enemy. It damaged America’s self-confidence and its willingness to become involved in far-flung conflicts. It has further undermined the credibility of the United Nations. As for Iraq, alongside haltering moves towards democracy, the war unleashed sectarian violence that had previously lain dormant. Emma Sky, an expert parachuted in to help the occupying forces, recalls the early hopes: “Iraqis had suffered for a decade under sanctions, before that it had been the Iran-Iraq war, the Kuwait war and all they’d lived with was turmoil and increasing poverty. So when America arrived in Iraq, they thought, wow, our country is going to turn into Dubai overnight. They could just see that they were going to be wealthier, buildings would go up everywhere and their economic well-being would increase.” Or this, from Rory Stewart, now a Conservative MP, then a Foreign Office official: “I went out as someone who had served in the Balkans so I knew that international interventions were often very messy and muddled and I thought that one shouldn’t expect too much. But I thought it wouldn’t be difficult to outperform Saddam.” It is easy to point to the mismanaged first six months as the cause of the problems. The US-led interim administration was a bickering mess. The removal of Iraq’s security and political elite spawned disgruntled and heavily armed militia. Bomb attacks were taking place daily. Sectarian tension was rising, while the failure to find WMDs further undermined the original case for war. It would also, as Stewart points out, be misleading: “The problem was so deep that if we hadn’t made those mistakes we would have made other mistakes.” To my surprise, Tony Blair agreed. “Of course you can always say ‘if you’d done this, or if you’d done that then it might have been improved’,” he told me. “What I think is a fallacy and I think a very profound one is to believe you would then have had an intervention like Kosovo or Sierra Leone. The differences between those two interventions and Iraq or Afghanistan lie not in the nature of the planning or the decision making, they lie in the nature of the country itself and the forces at work within it.” That is some admission: Blair now says that he and those around him had underestimated the complexity of Iraq. In our conversation, Blair returned to the issue repeatedly. If only the Brits and Americans had known then what he knows now about the sectarian divide. “The biggest single lesson out of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere is once you lift the lid off these very repressive regimes, out come pouring these tribal, ethnic and, in particular, religious influences.” The most important difference between 2003 and 2013, Blair maintained: “is a recognition that once you do lift the lid off – as you can see in Syria today or Yemen or Tunisia, Libya, wherever, Egypt – a fresh set of problems begin. Now in my view that doesn’t mean to say you leave the regimes in place, by the way, but it does mean you have got to be prepared for a far longer engagement.” It was intriguing to hear, after all these years, a little contrition, or at least caution, in his voice.
Back then, when I pointed out in my book Blair’s Wars that his previous four military interventions had instilled in him an over-confidence and excess of zeal, Blair was less than thrilled. It bears remembering in the months leading up to the invasion Blair received no shortage of advice from experts, warning of the potential conflagration. They were dismissed as defeatist. Instead, the protagonists predicted a virtuous circle – the removal of the tyrant Saddam Hussein would beget Western-style freedom and prosperity. It was expressed with certainty. Imagine if, in all the emotionally charged speeches in Parliament and at the UN, Blair or Bush had said the following? “It’s going to be a long slog. Getting rid of the dictator will be the easy bit. I can’t guarantee we’ll get very far promoting democracy, but we’ll do our best. As for the region as a whole, it’s possible that will unleash all kinds of problems. But still, on balance, it’ll be worth it.” When things started going wrong, Blair switched tack, insisting that it was too early to tell. Iraq, he said, would need a decade. Now that time is up, his position is: no matter how bad a state Iraq might be in, keeping Saddam in power would have been worse. That is politics by the counter-factual, the “what if” school of thought. Just as “democracy promotion” and “nation building” – to use the jargon beloved of diplomats – did not happen the way they were meant to inside Iraq, the war also did not achieve its broader goal for the Middle East. The idea was that Iraq would serve as beacon and power broker. The real winner has been Iran. This might not have been inevitable, but it was always likely. Iraq has a Shia majority and, thanks to the democratic vote, it now has a government close to Tehran. As Sir Kieran Prendergast, a former deputy to Kofi Annan at the UN, told me: “I don’t know whether the Iranian government kneel down to pray, but if they did they should have been kneeling by their bedside every night in thankfulness to the Bush regime for the huge boost which the Iraq war gave to the standing of Iran in the Middle East.” So what is left of the principle of humanitarian intervention, a noble idea that galvanised Blair after the West had done nothing to stop the massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s? It has not been extinguished, but the ambitions have been sharply reduced. The West has intervened in Libya, mainly through air strikes, and in Mali, with a French-led ground force. The United States has supported both decisions, but its military involvement is highly limited. As American forces leave Afghanistan, President Obama talks of a decade of war coming to an end. Increasingly, the US is relying on unmanned drones: warfare shorn of the sensitivity of soldiers brought home in body bags. Politicians and the public are largely insulated from its effects. Drones can deal with terrorist cells. They can take people out, but they cannot build nations or better systems of government. Meanwhile, the West sits on its hands as tens of thousands die in Syria. I could sense Blair’s frustration as he lamented the failure to intervene more robustly. And that is surely the starkest conclusion of all. America’s appetite for boots on the ground is no more; the British military has been scaled back. The UN is gridlocked. And memories of failure are raw. Iraq may turn out to be the last intervention of its kind and its scale in our lifetimes.
‘How Iraq Changed the World’ is presented by John Kampfner and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 next Tuesday at 8pm