You don’t have to read much of the political comment on this blog to discover I am no great fan of Tony Blair. I am certainly not of the view everything he did was terrible – introducing the minimum wage, the tax credit system for the low paid and implementing the Human Rights Acts were among some of his better policy decisions.
Along with various positives ran less benign legislation. For example the introduction of student tuition fees and the handing over of tertiary education to market forces, deeming education beneficial only insofar as it provided monetary recompense. There was the even worse introduction of swathes of anti-terror legislation that served primarily to curtail basic freedom and liberty for most and has been outrageously used against harmless protestors, preachers and public speakers repeatedly ever since. And then there were the various foreign policy disasters: Afghanistan and Iraq among the most egregious and almost universally reviled.
It is fair to say that I would add my voice to those who decry the whole Iraq debacle. From the trumped up claims of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, to the sense in which we were simply following the lead of America, and even the botched intervention itself; I struggled (and still struggle) to make sense of why we went in at all. Various rallies and marches and whatnot were all staged, but to no avail. In we went.
Nearly 14 years on and Tony Blair is now being pursued on charges of war crimes, along with Jack Straw and Baron Goldsmith. The current Attorney General – Jeremy Wright – is arguing that the war crimes charges simply don’t stand in UK law. Nonetheless, this has not stopped some of the families of servicemen killed in the Iraq War, along with Gen Abdul-Wahid Shannan ar-Ribat, former chief of staff of the Iraqi army and now living in exile, from seeking to bring private prosecutions against the former PM and senior Labour colleagues. And I must say, I have great sympathy with them (not so much the exiled general – Ba’athist Generals deserve no sympathy).
Yet I teach English to an Iraqi Kurd – a former peshmerga fighter – who loves Tony Blair. Among the first things he said to me was that he loved the UK and he loved Blair. He believes our former Prime Minister is a wonderful man because he got rid of Saddam Hussein. I suspect my friend has absolutely no knowledge of the introduction of minimum wage or the dreadful abuse of anti-terror legislation. And, frankly, I suspect he wouldn’t care even if he did know about them. To him, Tony Blair is the man who toppled the dictator who used chemical weapons against his people. Whatever we may think of the invasion from the comfort of our Western European democracy, my Kurdish friend has a decidedly different view having been in the midst of it.
The point is not that Tony Blair should stand trial, necessarily. Nor is the point that Tony Blair is truly a wonderful man, there is a body of evidence apart from this one decision. It is just to say that the issue is eminently more complicated than we might like to presume. Few people are out and out warmongers and few citizens relish the idea of sending soldiers to war. Most people recognise there will be times war is inevitable, times when it is unfortunate but necessary and times when it can (and should) be readily avoided. It is also obvious enough that the immediate aftermath of war rarely resolve all of a country’s ills. It is also worth bearing in mind the Middle East has a fractious history and there is no guarantee that diplomacy would not lead to similar chaos as the post-war effect (see here, for example).
The point is that things are rarely as simple as our Western, UK-centric view permits. To me, the Iraq War was a disaster and the chaos that ensued an inevtiable consequence of our decision to go in. To my Kurdish friend, it was liberation from a malignant dictator who attacked his own people and humanitarian compassion demanded his removal. Which of us is right? It is hard to say. The issue is much more complicated than we allow for in discussion. It may just be worth stopping and thinking about that the next time we want to call Tony Blair a war criminal.