Wars of choice

As Tony Blair embarks on his long farewell tour, we can see just how much the British prime minister’s legacy has been affected by his reckless collaboration in US President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. After a decade at the helm, Tony Blair leaves Britain a leading force in Europe in terms of its economy, education system and social development; but Britain is also an important player on the world stage – in a role far bigger than its size would warrant. But above all this hovers the deep shadow of the war in Iraq, a war that gave the world (and primarily a large part of the British electorate) the impression that Blair led his country into a tragic adventure for no reason other than to provide support for an invasion that the Americans had already decided on. If we think back to the months before the war began in March 2003, it is evident how desperately alone the United States would have been without Britain. It was Blair who – with his debating union air – articulated Bush’s arguments far better than the American president himself. At the time, British officials were at pains to stress that, behind the scenes, Blair was pushing Bush for progress on the Palestinian issue. In the end, it appeared that Bush either did not care for the Palestinian issue or did not want to upset Israel in order to give Blair the chance to silence his critics with a serious effort to solve the Middle East’s most intractable problem. On a second front, the US administration made much of supposed British corroboration of US intelligence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Recently, through the «Downing Street memo,» we learned that from July 2002 (at least) the British government was aware that the intelligence regarding Iraq’s weapons was being manipulated to fit with the policy that Washington was pushing. At the same time, massive demonstrations in London and other European capitals were making it absolutely clear that any government choosing to go to war would be doing so without having convinced a large section of the public. It must be noted that Blair did press the Americans to get backing from the United Nations before taking action against Iraq. And Bush did try to placate his British ally – sending then Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Security Council for that ill-fated presentation of America’s case against Iraq. When the rest of the international community remained unimpressed, and UN backing was denied, Britain was the leader among a handful of countries that joined American forces in the invasion, giving Washington the opportunity to talk of a «coalition of the willing.» Blair gambled his legacy on the traditional friendship between Britain and the USA, the «special relationship» as the British like to call it. With his unquestioned dominance over his country and a definitive role in European affairs, why did a politician of Blair’s brilliance feel the need to go against the wishes of his own electorate and also risk the unity of the EU (if we recall early 2003)? The answer may be very simple: Maybe he thought he would win the gamble, that the Iraqi tyrant would be overthrown, the hidden weapons of mass destruction found, and Blair and Bush would secure their place in history as the men who made the world a safer place. Maybe he was the victim of bad intelligence and worse advice – as turned out to be the case in the USA as well. The catastrophic combination of messianic leadership and obsequious advisers leads even the greatest democracies to the follies of autocratic regimes. Maybe Blair truly believed that it was necessary to invade Iraq, drawing on his experience from the international intervention in the Balkans, where he played a leading part in getting the USA to lead the charge against Serbia and its president, Slobodan Milosevic, in 1999. Maybe he thought Iraq would be as easy a target. But whenever a leader decides to start a war – rather than stand and fight one that he cannot avoid – he would do well to remember the fate of the Roman Crassus, who in 55 BC raised an army to attack the Parthians. A member of the triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey, Crassus simply wanted to achieve wealth and glory similar to that of his illustrious colleagues. So unpopular was his campaign that a tribune cursed Crassus and his army (an unprecedented force of about 40,000 men) as they left Rome for what turned out to be a series of humiliations and eventual annihilation roughly where today’s Iraq lies. Looking at the woes of Bush and Blair, today it seems that the worst punishment for those who lead their nations to unnecessary wars is the Furies they face at home.