Tony Blair bombshell: how it reshapes the Iraq war debate

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s remarks about the Iraq war move us away from a legal debate to a moral one.

I was implacably opposed to the war in Iraq, yet I would like to thank Tony Blair, former prime minister of Britain, for saying days ago that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the “right” thing to do.

Why? It isn’t because I have changed my mind and now accept that the Iraq war was a good thing. It is because in speaking the language of “right” and “wrong,” and in airing his moral convictions in public, Mr. Blair has helped to elevate the debate about Iraq from the legalistic quagmire it was sinking into, and to return it to where it belongs: the realm of morality and politics.

Blair’s comments, made in a TV interview shown on Sunday, have caused a storm here. The interviewer asked Blair: “If you had known then that there were no WMD, would you still have gone on?” Blair replied: “I would still have thought it right to remove him [Saddam Hussein].”

Significantly, Blair added: “I mean, obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.”

This has led some people to argue, quite rightly, that Blair in 2002 was clearly looking around for “evidence” that might help to justify a course of action he had already decided on. He chose the “evidence” of WMD, but if he had known that those weapons did not in fact exist then he would have “used and deployed” different arguments to justify the war.

This suggests Blair did not actually have the courage of his convictions. He may have considered it “right” to remove Saddam – yet instead of trying to win public support for war on that basis, he cynically searched for some legalistic fig-leaf with which he might doll up his invasion.

However, it was not the slippery “different arguments” part of Blair’s interview that most riled observers here – it was his use of the r-word: “right.” This, commentators argue, shows that Blair is arrogant, deluded, and dictatorial.

In fact, Blair’s utterance of the r-word gives us an opportunity to move beyond the legalistic nitty-gritty about whether it was legitimate to go to war, and instead to discuss whether it was morally right or wrong.

For too long, the debate about Iraq has been conducted at a legalistic level. In Britain in particular, the war has become almost the exclusive concern of lawyers and legal advisers to the government, who bicker endlessly, sometimes in private, sometimes in public, about whether the war was acceptable under the stringent international rules governing military action.

There have been TV dramas about the “brave lawyers” who advised Blair that the war was illegal, and books arguing that America and Britain have flouted legal norms (most notably Philippe Sands’s “Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules”). Increasingly, antiwar protesters march under banners declaring “No more illegal wars” and “Blair is a war criminal.”

Meanwhile, the Chilcot Inquiry, named after its chairman Sir John Chilcot, kicked off in London at the end of November. Its remit is to examine and pass judgement on Britain’s role in the Iraq war. So far, the inquiry has explored mostly legalistic matters – with various former government advisers revealing that they were concerned about the war’s “legal status” – and is expected to continue down this lawyerly route.

There are many problems with debating Iraq in purely legalistic lingo. 

First, it is disingenuous.

Many of those who criticize Blair for breaking international laws supported earlier wars that were also, strictly speaking, illegal.

For example, Britain’s Observer newspaper, a stern critic of Blair’s law-breaking over Iraq, backed Blair’s and Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, even though that war also did not win the unanimous support of the UN Security Council, making it “illegal.” Although the “legal authority for intervening in the affairs of a sovereign nation state is disputable,” Kosovo is a “just war,” said the Observer in 1999. If campaigners think Kosovo was “right” and Iraq was “wrong,” they should say so, and explain why, rather than now hiding behind legalese.

Second, the legalistic debate about Iraq makes it an issue for experts only, for well-trained lawyers who know international law inside out. The public is implicitly elbowed aside as backroom men and women decide among themselves whether the war was within the rules.

And third, and most important, all of this legalism pushes aside burning questions about right and wrong, about democracy and sovereignty, about the effect the war had on people in Iraq and on international stability. What ought to be a moral debate, a human one, is turned instead into a fact-checking, box-ticking exercise in legalistics.

Has Blair changed this? I hope so. He says the war was right; I say it was wrong. Now let the debate begin.

Brendan O’Neill, a journalist based in London, is the editor of spiked, an online publication.

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