Open-faced, hand-on-heart, put a beard on him and you could take this for a devotional picture of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ! Is that what he thinks – my cross to bear, I did it for the sins of the world? Or is it only how he’s playing it – playing us? Perhaps for him the distinction is false: what works is what is; and that’s the end of it.
Tony Blair, who stepped down in 2007 after 10 years as UK prime minister, has been brought back to Basra and Baghdad by publication of the Chilcot Report – the much-delayed findings of a seven-year-long inquiry chaired by senior civil servant Sir John Chilcot, into Britain’s military role in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the subsequent occupation of Iraq.
Chilcot has reported that Blair chose to declare an unnecessary war. This means that the British troops killed in action, one hundred and seventy-nine of them, died unnecessarily; to say nothing of thousands of civilians slaughtered and more than a million Iraqis displaced in the sectarian chaos which ensued after the occupying forces dismantled the state of Iraq.
Anticipating strong criticism from bereaved families, immediately after the high profile launch of the Chilcot Report, Blair held his own press conference at Admiralty House (nice gaff if you can get it), in which he apologised for how much hurt the war had caused, but insisted that on the basis of what he knew at the time, he would do the same again.
Although he had plenty to say (the press conference went on for two hours), Blair’s brittle voice – his, but with the bass taken out – was reduced to a tremulous echo of the tracks he recorded previously, as prime minister.
But no one asks why Iraq came top of the target list post-9/11. At the time, Western leaders surely felt the need to verify themselves in a suitably spectacular way (naming their invasion ‘Shock and Awe’ is just one indication of its essentially theatrical nature). But why, when Al Qaeda terrorists had been identified as ‘networked’, ‘de-centralised’ and even ‘postmodern’, did Tony Blair and US president George Bush attack a regime such as Saddam’s, renowned for its highly centralised bureaucracy? Unless Iraq came top of the hit list not least because in its centralised, partially modernised aspects it resembled the discarded social structure and the semi-socialist architecture which Britain and America had only recently come to despise.
Iraq was not only in the wrong place at the wrong time; Saddam’s regime was the wrong sort of state. In the guise of going in to sort it out, the Anglo-American invasion served to unseat Saddam and un-state Iraq, to erase its distasteful development under the control of the Ba’ath Party, modelled on the modernist political institutions of mid-twentieth century ‘mass society’.
Thus the declaration of war on Iraq was also the disavowal of recent British history – a ghastly echo of the way Tony Blair’s New Labour had uncoupled itself from what remained of the centralised labour bureaucracy which characterised successive British governments throughout the 30-year period of consensus following the end of the Second World War in 1945.
Tragedy, then farce; but in this instance the familiar pattern has been reversed. If at the end of the 1990s there was something farcical about New Labour’s domestic regime (more Fool Britannia than Cool Britannia), when in the following decade the Blairite transition to a new mode of ‘governance’ was repeated internationally, as in the case of Iraq the consequences were frequently tragic.
In short, what the British government did to Iraq from 2003 onwards was the dark mirror of what the UK’s party of government had done to its own Labour parentage a decade before. And what now? If the logic holds, then the past 10 years of sectarian terror in Iraq must in some way be derived from wherever Blair took us to – to the ‘promotional culture’ in which it doesn’t matter if it’s true; only that it’s widely seen and seems to be effective.
Step forward so-called Islamic State, dark mirror of ‘what works’.