By Matt Purple
It’s been a long, bruising, downhill tumble for Tony Blair.
In 2003, the center-left former British prime minister joined forces with the neoconservative Bush administration to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, an exertion that resulted in sectarian war, general chaos, and the rise of the Islamic State.
Since then, Blair has consistently defended the invasion, while rolling through painful briar patches of concession: the weapons of mass destruction weren’t there, the aftermath took longer than he anticipated, Iraq today doesn’t look like he expected it would. It’s a long way down from his pre-war claim that Saddam could mobilize a chemical or biological attack in only 45 minutes.
Still, give Blair credit: he’s shown far more introspection than his American counterparts (as late as 2013, Dick Cheney was still asserting that Saddam was a “potential source” of WMD). Now Blair is back, squinting in the sunlight of parliamentary scrutiny, with his most jarring admission yet.
“For sure, we underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region and would take advantage of change once you topple the regime,” he said at an event sponsored by Prospect magazine. “The lesson is simple,” he added. “It is that when you remove a dictatorship, out come these forces of destabilization, whether it is al-Qaeda on the Sunni side or Iran on the Shia side.”
Blair’s assessment is correct. When the Western coalition brushed aside Saddam Hussein, it failed to appreciate the extent to which he was the glue binding together Iraq, an artificial nation fractured along sectarian and tribal lines. Saddam’s deposal set off a chain reaction: first, Iraq’s Shias, long oppressed by Saddam despite constituting a majority, set out to achieve self-determination; next, the Sunnis retaliated with an insurgency that targeted both Shias and American troops; then the Shias countered with their own militias; and the country exploded into sectarian strife.
The bloodshed was briefly stemmed during the Sunni Awakening, when the United States bought off many of the warlords that it had previously clashed with. But the sectarian cleansings of then-Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki created an opening for the former insurgency, now refashioned as the Islamic State, which was welcomed back into Iraq by disaffected Sunnis. Today, American troops are returning, Iraq’s government is tottering, and the pacified and Jeffersonian Baghdad envisioned by idealists like Blair continues to prove a mirage.
Back to Blair, he also told Prospect that he tried to apply the wisdom of Iraq to the 2011 Arab Spring. “I was one of those that said, ‘Let us be careful,’” he said. “What did we learn from Iraq? We learned that once you get rid of the dictatorship, that is the beginning of a new chapter where all these poisonous forces and influences come out and start to disrupt the situation.”
But Blair doesn’t seem to have heeded his own wisdom. In August 2013, as “poisonous forces and influences” were emerging in Syria, he called for an intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “It is time we took a side,” Blair pronounced to the London Times, “the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy.” Blot out the “theocracy” bit and you could transplant that sentence to a pro-war op-ed from ten years earlier.
So maybe Blair did learn something from Iraq. He just didn’t apply it.
And don’t assume Blair’s British Conservative opponents are any better. Though Prime Minister David Cameron initially seemed promising, offering assurances that he was “not a naïve neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an airplane at 40,000 feet,” he was soon howling for war against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and Assad in Syria.
On the first, he got his wish, and today Libya is a failed state; on the second, the House of Commons decided it had finally had enough, and denied Cameron the authority to intervene in Syria, with MPs loudly heckling the prime minister (louder than usual, I mean). “It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action,” said an uncharacteristically chastened Cameron. “I get that and the government will act accordingly.”
Two years later, Parliament approved another motion to bomb Syria, this time with a different enemy in the crosshairs: the Islamic State. Meanwhile, British troops have been deployed to war zones from Afghanistan to Yemen to Libya, while a supposedly world-wiser Tony Blair stumps for more boots on the ground to fight the Islamic State. The refusal to change after Iraq continues to span not just the political aisle, but the Atlantic Ocean.
Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities and the deputy editor at Rare Politics.
This piece was originally published by Rare on June 9, 2016. Read more HERE.