The Iraq Invasion of 2003 was a catastrophe of historic proportions. Not only did it destabilise the whole Gulf region at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, but as a demonstration of America's military might post-9/11, it has had precisely the reverse effect.
What was designed to be an exemplary war has been more deleterious to US foreign policy than Vietnam. The horrors of Abu Ghraib, policies of illegal torture and rendition, have done America’s soft power influence in the world untold damage. Meanwhile, the biggest crime – the abject failure of post war planning – led to the majority of casualties through insurgency and sectarian civil war, trillions of dollars being wasted, and the conditions which have now bred Isis.
Having said all that though, Jeremy Corbyn was wrong to even suggest on Tuesday that Tony Blair could face war crimes trials for this. The Iraq invasion was not like the 1970s, when Kissinger and Nixon waged a secret carpet-bombing campaign against Cambodia without congressional approval. Incredible as it may seem with up to a million protesting in the streets in the spring of 2003, the second Iraq war was (if you can trust the polls) supported by the majority of the population. More importantly, since Parliament is sovereign in our democracy, it was voted for by a majority in the House of Commons.
Of course, the reply to this is that Parliament and the people were lied to – the evidence was sexed up: ergo, Blair is doubly guilty of an illegal war, and lying to parliament and people. And this is where the war crimes trial fantasy falls apart.
I don’t believe Blair and Bush deliberately lied about weapons of mass destruction: I think it’s much worse. I think they deceived themselves in a feedback loop of false intelligence, happily amplified by Dick Cheney and the Department of Defence.
If there was a US or UK conspiracy to use WMD as a pretext to topple Saddam, why not go the whole hog (as in the Bay of Tonkin incident that provoked the US invasion of Vietnam) and plant some chemical or biological weapons? It would have been a piece of cake compared to the elaborate conspiracy that preceded it. Using the logic of Occam’s Razor, the current evidence points much more convincingly to incompetence and self-delusion.
But let’s imagine that Blair knew he was lying, and the long awaited Chilcot Report proves the pretexts for invasion were conscious confabulations. Under what law is Blair charged?
The Iraq War: A timeline
The Iraq War: A timeline
1/16 11 September 2001
Terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda use hijacked aeroplanes to kill 2,996 people in attacks on the east coast of the US.
2/16 12 September 2001
Tony Blair promises George W Bush that the UK will support the US, whatever the President decides to do.
3/16 25 March 2002
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, warns Blair that invading Iraq would be legally dubious.
4/16 June 2002
Tony Blair asks defence officials to outline options for UK participation in military action against Iraq.
5/16 24 September 2002
The government publishes a dossier about the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A foreword by Tony Blair states that Saddam Hussein’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. It is subsequently alleged that this dossier was “sexed up” for political reasons.
6/16 2 October 2002
Congress authorises President Bush to use military force against Iraq.
7/16 8 November 2002
UN Security Council passes resolution 1441, insisting that weapons inspectors be allowed back into Iraq and calling on the regime to give up its WMD or face the consequences.
8/16 18 July 2003
David Kelly, an expert in biological warfare, is found dead after being named as the source of quotations used by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan to suggest that the dossier of September 2002 had been “sexed up”. Lord Hutton is appointed to chair a judicial inquiry into his death.
9/16 13 December 2003
Saddam Hussein is captured near Tikrit, after nine months in hiding.
10/16 2 March 2004
Bombings in Baghdad and Karbala kill nearly 200 people: the worst attacks since the fall of Saddam.
11/16 14 September 2005
Bombs in Baghdad kill 160 people and injure more than 500.
12/16 30 December 2005
Saddam Hussein is executed.
13/16 28 May 2009
The last British combat troops leave Iraq.
14/16 24 November 2009
The Chilcot inquiry holds its first public hearing.
15/16 2 February 2011
The Chilcot inquiry holds its final public hearing.
16/16 21 January 2015
Sir John Chilcot confirms that his report will not be published before the general election in May 2015.
War crimes trials are reserved for egregious acts of aggression and territorial conquest. This is particularly the case when it comes to crimes against humanity, where civilians are deliberately targeted. Take the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, in which 8,000 men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica over a single weekend. Or the Hutu governments extermination of 1 million Tutsi’s in Rwanda over a couple of months. Even though there have been atrocities by British and US troops in Iraq, there is absolutely no indication these were in pursuit of a political decision to target non-combatants.
Many argue, quite cogently, the Iraq invasion was "illegitimate" without a second UN Security Council vote. But to my knowledge this is not the same as being "illegal" in accordance with any war crimes convention in international law. (Kofi Annan indicated in 2004 it "it was not in conformity with the UN charter" but that is a very different thing.) If so, why hasn’t such a case ever presented itself in any jurisdiction in the last 12 years? (If I’ve missed something let me know in the comments sections below).
None of this is any way a justification for the Iraq invasion, a war of choice, which turns out to have been unjustified by any rationale of pre-emptive self-defence. We may metaphorically believe that this is a "crime", but law is not the same a morality or even social justice. And it would have a very dangerous unintended consequence for those who believe in reducing military violence. The role of The Hague and the International Criminal Court in pursuing would-be genocidal leaders is too fragile and important for its deterrent effect to be undermined by a political show trial.
Many are understandably aggrieved that our leaders can commit errors of such proportion without being held to account. But a legalistic judicial process doesn’t necessarily lead to transparency, or accountability. If we want to hold Blair’s foreign policy to account the right forum is the leadership hustings, political debate, and ultimately the ballot box. That might actually prevent a disaster like the Iraq invasion happening again. The imaginary satisfaction of seeing Blair in the dock of some non-existent court room will not.
Peter Jukes is an adviser and writer for Byline . To read more of his work: https://www.byline.com/journalist/peterjukes/column