Calling The Iraq War “Illegal” gets us precisely nowhere in avoiding the same mistakes

With the publication of the Chilcot Report, debate around the Iraq War and its consequences will take on a renewed relevance (“debate” in this case meaning making the same arguments that have been made for the last 13 years only louder and to a larger audience). However, Chilcot is unlikely to change much: it will do little to alter the opinions of those who supported the war on the grounds that it was the moral thing to do to remove a tyrannical dictator, and (since it won’t be recommending the trial and public humiliation of Tony Blair) will seem nothing more than a “whitewash” to those convinced the war must be blamed on oil/war-mongering/Tony Blair being evil/corporate greed (delete as appropriate).

Minds have already been made up. From Corbyn’s cowardly tentative case against Blair (“Is he going to be tried for it? I don't know. Could he be tried for it? Possibly”) to Tim Farron’s confident assertion last year that the war was “illegal” to Alex Salmond’s bizarre attempts to “impeach” Blair - by submitting him to trial by the House of Lords using an ancient law unused for over 200 years. The legal case against the war is flimsy at best, and the chances of any prosecution are almost non-existent.

One has to question whether those criticising the war for its alleged illegality would be content with a different situation in which it was clear from the beginning the invasion perfectly complied with international law. More likely, “illegal” simply means the writer was against the war, which is in itself is fully understandable. In which case, a far more convincing argument would be based on the specifics of the invasion, rather than an opportunistic and selective application of international law - Corbyn and the more extreme SWP and Stop the War Coalition crowd seem only to care about international law when applying it to evil imperialist Western governments, not when working with their “friends” in Russia or Iran.

Whatever conclusion one eventually comes to, surely it must be a considered and reasoned, even reluctant

To reduce the story of the Iraq war to an oil-grabbing, unprovoked invasion of a peaceful and happy country is to do the more reasonable arguments on all sides - and the Iraqi people - a disservice. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 presents Iraqi life as stable, happy and undisturbed prior to the invasion and is representative of many of the more unbalanced arguments against the war. It completely ignores the genocidal gassing of Kurdish villages, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Shi’a Muslims, the forced disappearances, the use of chemical weapons, the torture prisons and concentration camps.

The Left also seemed to abandon its own when turning a blind eye to the brutal suppression of trade unions and labour organisations, a trend which continued even after the invasion when Iraqi trade unions appealed for “the occupation” to continue and for protection from Islamist violence - what they got back from the British Left was the Stop The War Coalition’s notorious declaration that it supported resistance against the “occupation forces” through“military struggle”. Whatever conclusion one eventually comes to, surely it must be a considered and reasoned, even reluctant, position: more like Ariel Dorfman and less like George Galloway. Just as few should cheer a military invasion, even if they supported the policy, few should cheer the decision to leave a genocidal dictator in place, even if that was the position they eventually found themselves supporting.  

dismissing Blair as a one-dimensional “war criminal” is totally inaccurate

Despite all of this, it is hard to dispute that the Iraq War was a disaster. If we are to learn from it, simplistic, generalising “anti-West” arguments must be rejected. The Iraq War completely destabilised the region, unleashed a new wave of terror and violence and utterly failed in its objective to make us safer. We must try to understand how this happened rather than subscribing to SWP-esque explanations of western greed.

Perhaps worse, or at least more dangerous than being a “war criminal”, how did Blair come to believe so whole-heartedly his arguments - to the point where he overstated his case and omitted caveats when passing on intelligence to the House of Commons? How were we led to war on grounds which turned out to be false, without any semblance of a plan for rebuilding Iraq? How did such a toxic culture of groupthink prevail at such high levels of government? Why was Blair so ready to accept uncritically the intelligence and follow Bush into a war in a region both leaders knew so little about? How have the richest nations and oldest democracies in the world been unable to adequately support and protect a democratic government in the country and region they dismantled so completely?

Illegality and criminality has nothing to do with this; dismissing Blair as a one-dimensional “war criminal” is totally inaccurate and gets us nowhere in avoiding the same terrible mistakes again. The strongest arguments against the invasion rest on its regional destabilisation, the unimaginable death and suffering it caused - and continues to contribute to - and the problems of sending British troops to die in a faraway country on the whim of a President and a spineless Prime Minister who doesn’t want to look weak in front of him. The selective and cynical application of international law is a distraction and offers no-one any help at all.

Dom Waters

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