Published: 09 March 2006
It was only to be expected that the US neo-cons who provided the intellectual framework for the Iraqi invasion should now be distancing themselves from its outcome. What choice do they have, considering the consequences? But to argue, as most of them do, that they still support the original decision to invade but now accept that the follow-through was badly handled is not only specious, it is dishonest.
The failures of the occupation of Iraq were the direct result of the way it was decided to invade in the first place. You can't separate the two as if one was the result of one judgement and the other of a different set of assumptions. The US went to war, and Britain went along with it, out of a belief that regime change in Iraq could be used to reshape the whole Middle East:9/11 was used as the occasion, and presented to the American public as the reason, but it was not the cause. Nor was the desire to overturn a tyranny and better the lot of the Iraqis.
If it had been, then the invasion would have been organised with a proper post-war plan of reconstruction and development. Instead, such plans as had been worked out by the State Department were binned, and all decision-making moved to the Pentagon, precisely to keep them firmly in the hands of Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neo-cons.
The invasion was undertaken under the blithe belief, held by its architects and apparently by Tony Blair on this side of the Atlantic, that it would all be a simple and quick affair, in which a grateful civilian population would rush to thank the invading troops, and would bring about spontaneously a brave new world of democracy that would then export itself to all Iraq's neighbours.
Anybody suggesting that it was all a bit more difficult than this, and that you had to understand the Iraqis on their own terms and not just as instruments of Middle East policy, were simply brushed aside by the very same people who are now claiming that, while the initial intentions were good, the follow-through was all wrong and nothing to do with them.
Tony Blair in that sense can be counted as one of them. He believed in this neo-con version of the Victorians' vision of the white man's burden. According to those around at the time and the records of meetings that have come to light, he never asked whether there was a proper post-invasion plan and, if not, why not. Why should he? We were going along with the Americans, it was their show and he would get the kudos of overthrowing a dictator.
That is the real dishonesty of the way the British Prime Minister is trying to spin the story now. Much has been made of his interjection of religion on the Parkinson show on TV last weekend. And he did indeed - very carefully, it should be added - bring God into his account. But whether the Prime Minister's views are, or are not, fundamentally informed by his Christian beliefs, as his friends keep suggesting, is beside the point. There is nothing in his actions on Iraq, or on any other subject, that would have been different if he had been an atheist.
No, religion was introduced as part of a much more subtle and, I think, insidious narrative that he is now weaving around his decision to go to war. This is that the decision was finally a matter of judgement which he wrestled with and which he finally made in good faith. Others might disagree with the judgement but only history will ultimately decide whether he was right to overthrow a tyrant or not.
It sounds plausible, moral even. But it's not true. The charge against Tony Blair is not that he made the wrong judgement but that he never properly made the judgement at all. He took the gravest decision a political leader can make and went along with Bush because supporting America seemed the right thing to do and becauseit was actually much easier to do so than to face all the problems that a refusal would have brought. It would have taken far more courage to refuse Bush than to join him.
Blair certainly thought regime change in Baghdad was a good thing, but he never set out even the most basic plan of aims and means. He undertook the act of war without considering the alternatives and without weighing up the consequences. Having gone along with Washington from the start, subsequent actions - how to deal with the Labour backbenchers, what to do about the UN, how to sell it to the public and how to approach its legality - were treated essentially as management questions, not issues to be considered for their own sake.
If the Prime Minister ever wrestled with his Christian conscience, it never showed. Blair is not a man given to self-doubt or receptive to the doubts of others. Being Prime Minister, Tony Blair told Parkinson, was all about "making decisions". But leadership is about judgement. And where Iraq was concerned, Blair made the one without exercising the other.