Battling to rebuff the criticisms in the Chilcot report on the war in Iraq, Tony Blair has repeatedly argued that the world and the Middle East would have been worse off if Saddam Hussein had not been overthrown in 2003.
“I sincerely believe we would have been in a worse position if we hadn’t acted,” the former prime minister insisted in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview on Thursday. “I don’t believe this struggle was in vain in the end.”
While it is impossible to know what would have happened if Saddam had stayed in power, it is possible to test Blair’s defense against evidence about global terrorism, the situation in Iraq and Middle Eastern instability.
Statistics endorsed by the US state department show incidents and fatalities of global terrorism rising steadily from 2004 to 2007, dropping from 2008-2012, rising again in 2013 and nearly doubling in 2014 to 32,727 dead. In 2015 fatalities caused by terrorist activity declined by 14%. More than 55% of terrorist attacks in 2015 occurred in five countries: Iraq, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The same statistics show that the highest numbers of terrorist attacks in 2014 took place in Iraq, by a wide margin. The increase coincided with the expansion of the Islamic State. The Chilcot report documents pre-war warnings about the risks of increased terrorism by Sunni extremist groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the precursor to Isis. The Baghdad government of Hayder al-Abadi is perceived as sectarian and deeply corrupt. Kurds, enjoying semi-independence in the north, are relatively happy, though now engaged in fighting Isis.
Iran’s role in Iraq has increased markedly since 2003, as predicted by the UK Joint Intelligence Committee. Its empowerment has fueled Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions across the region, with Sunni, western-backed Saudi Arabia leading the opposing camp. Chilcot is shot through with references to the role played by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, including its elite Quds force, in Iraq. Iran works closely with Iraq Shia militias, which have been accused of atrocities against Sunni Muslims.
Surveying the Middle East today, Blair said: “The struggle that is going on … is all to do with [this question]: can these countries get to religiously tolerant and pluralistic societies … to rule-based economies and democracy? What we did in removing Saddam had terrible consequences that we did not foresee … but when I look at [the region] today we moved with where the grain of the future is going to be.”
But that future is barely visible. The uprisings of 2011 saw the overthrow of four Arab leaders – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. With the partial exception of Tunisia, none of those countries are in a better condition than before; Libya and Yemen, wracked by war, are far worse. Experts dislike “counter-factual” or “what if” questions so it is impossible to judge Blair’s reasonable, though speculative, view that if Saddam had remained in place he would have crushed dissent.
Iraqis themselves often say they wish the dictator was still in charge because even that would be preferable to the current mayhem and misery. Most academics reject any causal link between the overthrow of Saddam and the short-lived advances of the Arab spring. Religious tolerance, democracy and pluralism are in desperately short supply everywhere, but especially in Saudi Arabia, a key ally for the US and Britain.
“Are we better off in Syria than we are in Iraq?” Blair asked. Raw statistics can give only a partial and superficial answer. The Iraq Body Count says 241,000 Iraqis died from March 2003 to the end of last year. According to recent estimates some 470,000 people have been killed in Syria and half the 23m population has been made homeless since 2011.
But it is also widely accepted that Isis, which now runs a self-proclaimed “caliphate” across both countries, expanded because of the post-war situation in Iraq and became a deadly player in the Syrian war. The absence of a coherent US and western policies in Syria, compared to determined backing for Bashar al-Assad by Russia and Iran, is widely blamed on the discrediting of western intervention because of the 2003 war.
Israel and Palestine
Blair made considerable efforts to ensure that the case for war with Iraq was bolstered by a US commitment to re-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, an issue that was rightly identified as a source of anti-western resentment and hostility in the Arab and Muslim worlds. That would, he told Bush “have a massive impact in Europe and the Arab world”. But little progress was made. Three wars over Gaza and one in Lebanon have taken place since 2003 and prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace are currently remote.
The long term effect of the Iraq war and the current Syrian crisis has been to undermine the standing of the US in the Arab world, where Barack Obama is treated with near contempt because of his efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran. Britain is perceived as an ineffectual junior partner to a discredited US.