Blair’s deadly fantasy politics
At that time the British Empire straddled the world. Though Britain prevailed against the Kaiser’s Germany, the cost was crippling. The second war that the country fought against Germany between 1939 and 1945 left its empire in ruins.
It is a fateful coincidence that the 100th anniversary of the Somme has coincided with the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union and the publication of Sir John Chilcot’s report on the conduct of the 2003 Iraq war by former British leader, Tony Blair. If the First World War was fought to preserve British hegemony, British exit from the EU and the Iraq war may be seen as hapless efforts to recover the power that began to ebb away at that time.
The prime mover of the campaign to leave the EU, Nigel Farage, who has just resigned as leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, used to conduct tours of the Somme battlefield. Farage has refused to believe that the martial spirit manifested there has disappeared. That Tony Blair has been similarly infused with a sense of past British heroism is not in doubt. As prime minister he cast himself as a superman with mission to bring peace and justice to the world. ‘The starving, the wretched, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the streets of north Africa to the slums of Gaza: They too are our cause.’ Such were the messianic words with which he addressed the Labour Party conference in 2001, four years after leading the party to power.
The Chilcot report makes clearer than ever that Blair was a compulsive narcissist who rode roughshod over international law as he acted out a fantasy of being a world statesman. His narcissism is immortalized in the images that went round the globe in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003: Blair in blue jeans visiting the Texas ranch of his fellow (but vastly more powerful) narcissist, former US President George W. Bush. About to launch a war that would wreak havoc, the two men behaved like joshing stars of a Hollywood buddy movie.
The report confirms that in his zeal for personal glory Blair paid scant attention to the logistics of military action in Iraq. His energy went into selling the war, into making it appear that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein could deploy weapons of mass destruction against the UK in short order. Yet the report is an indictment not just of Blair but of the entire machinery of the British state: Government, intelligence services, army, the British media that, with few exceptions, accepted Blair at his own deluded valuation.
In imperial times the British displayed dazzling administrative competence: A small body of civil servants ran the British Raj in India. Now this fabled competence is in collapse. There are parallels between the shallowness of thinking behind the British intervention in Iraq and the cavalier way Nigel Farage and others campaigned for British exit from the European Union.
Just as Blair encouraged the belief that toppling of Saddam Hussein would instantly transform Iraq for the better, so the ‘Leave’ campaigners urged that exiting the Europe would bring immediate benefits. At the same time, Blair’s duplicitous presentation of the Iraq war has left a baleful legacy of public cynicism: Witness popular reluctance to credit ‘expert’ claims that leaving the EU would damage Britain’s interests.
Not that British competence has vanished. After seven years, Sir John Chilcot has delivered a 12-volume report on Britain’s role in the Iraq war that is nothing if not comprehensive. If it stops short of branding Tony Blair a war criminal, the report nevertheless demonstrates that the British political establishment is capable of subjecting itself to rigorous criticism. That is more than can be said of the Washington establishment — for what it is worth. And for the long-suffering people of Iraq it is worth very little.
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