Former British prime minister Tony Blair’s greatest failure was to agree to go to war without a political plan for post-invasion Iraq.
As the Chilcot Report was finally released yesterday after seven years, the details of how Blair and the then US president George W. Bush argued about how to legitimise their assault on Saddam Hussain’s Iraq with United Nations resolutions and their failed search for weapons of mass destruction, pale into insignificance beside their failure to offer any plan for how Iraq would rebuild itself after their invasion.
Bush and Blair’s real crime is their stunning irresponsibility of being willing to demolish a government (however dictatorial) with no preparation for anything to follow, so allowing Iraq to plunge into an entirely predictable series of civil wars, sectarian divisions and the chaos that has now spread far and wide across the region, leaving Iraq destroyed as a nation-state.
Nothing succeeds like success. If today’s Iraq was an inclusive state with a vibrant economy and its famous universities pouring out new ideas, which its companies were turning into business opportunities, and the government was working with its neighbours to grow investment and offer all its people a stable environment where they could seek their ambitions, then the hatred of the invasion of Iraq would be much less.
This picture of a normal country offering stable governance to its people may seem utopian in Iraq, but it is only after 13 years of the terrible aftermath of Blair and Bush’s invasion that such an ambition for Iraq has come to be seen as almost naively optimistic. As many politicians and regional allies of Iraq seek to help rebuild the state, it is important they do not give up and we all have to remember that such governance is a right of any people, and it cannot be regarded as hopelessly utopian. But these people of goodwill are trying to put something right that should never have happened.
Years after the invasion, Alistair Campbell, Blair’s amanuensis and confidante in office, made the shocking statement to me in an interview for Gulf News that Downing Street had only found out 10 days before the invasion started that the plan to reconstruct Iraq had been abandoned. With a disturbing lack of anger, he described how the political purpose for which British troops were going into battle had been abandoned, and Downing Street was effectively ignorant of what they were going to do when they got to Baghdad. He (and Blair) should have been furious that the British were taken for a ride by the American administration.
Chaos of the invasion
There had been a detailed plan led by the US State Department, using as many Arabic-speaking diplomats as they could find, working in coordination with the British Foreign Office, to provide Iraq with a temporary Arab-aware administration that would hand over to Iraqi civil powers and move on. This hopeful and constructive plan would have given Iraq an essential breathing space under which civil society leaders could emerge from decades of Saddam’s persecution, and the chaos of the invasion.
This plan never happened because Bush secretly agreed to axe any commitment to nation-building and gave responsibility for post-invasion Iraq to the Defence Department undersecretary Donald Rumsfeld. So the troops rolled into Iraq in what was a successful and relatively bloodless takeover, and then had no idea what to do. They were greeted initially with wild joy, and the Shiites making their first pilgrimage to Karbala in decades cheered the American troops lining the route.
But this welcome ended as the soldiers left in charge of an entire country, with no politicians in place, watched as the looting began, failed to establish any civil administration and the foolish Paul Bremer was appointed by Rumsfeld as Administrator of Iraq. He used his authoritarian powers to disband the millions-strong Iraqi army, creating a large number of militarily skilled unemployed men who loathed being cast onto the streets, and Bremer de-Baathised the civil service in a country where everyone who had any serious position had to be a party member regardless of their private views.
These two disastrous decisions combined with the lack of any legitimate government to lay the groundwork for the civil war that broke out leading to the decade-long occupation of Iraq and its current dismemberment into sectarian misery. It also offered Iran a golden opportunity as they saw the Americans demolish their greatest threats (Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east) giving Iran an exceptional opportunity to start its long programme of meddling in Arab affairs. In Iraq, the Iranians moved quickly to work with Iraqi Shiites and offer them support, which in time led to the extraordinary current state of affairs in which the Iraqi Army plays second fiddle to the militias, who may take some guidance from the Iraqi prime minister but will certainly listen to their Iranian backers with close attention.
The juggernaut of Bush’s neo-con American military machine might have invaded Iraq anyway. And its lack of planning would have created the Iraqi civil wars too. But Blair’s blind insistence that the British were bound to the Americans through right and wrong, made him (and Britain) complicit in the destruction of Iraq.