The Travails of the Young War Criminal

15 December 2009

The Travails of the Young War Criminal

By Gwynne Dyer

Alan Watkins is my favourite British journalist. Well into his 70s now, each week he still produces an elegant and knowing column, usually about British politics. And with a casual understatement that you might easily mistake for irony, he has for the past six years regularly referred to former prime minister Tony Blair as “the young war criminal.”

That may seem a bit harsh, for never has an alleged war criminal seemed more sincere, more open, even more innocent. As he said about his 2003 decision to involve Britain in the American invasion of Iraq in his resignation speech four years later: “Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.” But EVERYBODY does what they think is right.

They may mean pragmatically right, or morally right, or even ideologically right, but one way or another people will find ways to justify their actions to themselves: even Pol Pot believed that his actions were justified. When people’s choices lead to the deaths of others, they must eventually be judged by more objective criteria than mere sincerity. That is now happening to Tony Blair.

Yet another public inquiry in Britain is now looking into the origins and consequences of Blair’s decision to attack Iraq, but it will not find him guilty of anything. It is what Conservative Party leader David Cameron called “an establishment stitch-up.”

It is headed by a retired senior civil servant, Sir John Chilcot, who sat on another inquiry in 2004 that found the intelligence used to justify the invasion “badly flawed” but somehow could not find anyone to blame for it. The other members of the Chilcot inquiry are a former ambassador, a baroness who was appointed to the House of Lords by the Blair government, and two historians, Sir Lawrence Freedman (who wrote speeches for Tony Blair) and Sir Martin Gilbert (who once compared him to Winston Churchill).

Yet the mere existence of the Chilcot inquiry has so shaken Blair that he has made an extraordinary admission. He admitted on 13 December that he would have invaded Iraq even if he had known at the time that the “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq was wrong.

“I would still have thought it was right to remove (Saddam Hussein),” he told BBC interviewer Fern Britton. “Obviously, you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat.” He seemed completely unaware that he was throwing away the only justification for his actions that might stand up before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Now, I realise that you must be wondering why I am devoting all this space to a discredited ex-leader whose country once played a minor role in the invasion of a middle-sized Arab country. The war is mostly over now, the dead cannot be brought back to life, and we have lots of new things to worry about.

Former president George W. Bush, the main author of the Iraq war, will never face a commission of inquiry about his actions, and Blair will have an easy ride when he faces the British inquiry early next year. Each man is doomed to go on justifying his decisions forever, for any alternate course of action would be too painful. So what’s the point in our raking over their choices and motives now?

The point is that there is a law, and they deliberately broke it. Since 1945, it has been a crime to invade another country: that was the main charge brought against the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. The new rule was written into the United Nations Charter, principally at the behest of the United States, and there are virtually no exceptions to it.

You have the right to defend yourself if another country attacks you, but you are not allowed to attack another country on the grounds that it has a wicked ruler, or follows policies you disapprove of, or even because you think it might attack you one of these days. No unilateral military action is permitted, and even joint action against a genuinely threatening country is only permissible with the authorisation of the UN Security Council.

The United States is a very different country now than it was in 1945, and under the junior Bush administration it announced a “national security” doctrine that directly contradicts this international law, arrogating to the US government the right to attack any country it suspects of harbouring evil intentions towards the United States.

It’s just the sort of thing that Britain would have declared when it was top dog in the 19th century, had there been any international law against aggression back then. But this is the 21st century, and Britain is no longer top dog, and there is a law now. There is even an International Criminal Court to enforce the law, although it never takes action against the leaders of rich and powerful countries.

Tony Blair will never face the ICC, and even the Chilcot inquiry will be gentle with him. But he started a war on false pretenses – there were no WMD – and at least 100,000 people died. He has now admitted that he would have started it even if he knew that the WMD didn’t exist (as he probably did). He is a war criminal.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“It is..Churchill”; and “Former…now”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.