Blair’s ‘Sorry’ Is Not Good Enough

The latest attempt to move on from the Iraq war was set out by Prime Minister Blair last weekend. He was quoted by the BBC as saying: “We do say sorry for all those people who have died, but I cannot apologize for taking the country to war.” In other words, he’s sorry for the tens of thousands of dead Iraqis1 (families machine-gunned in their cars at checkpoints or because they drove too close to some frightened and heavily armed American soldiers, innocent people killed by bombs or snipers because they refused to leave their homes at the behest of the occupying forces, or just those caught in the crossfire between the two sides) but they were a price worth paying, as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously declared of the Iraqis who died under sanctions.

Is “sorry, but it was worth it” enough?

In one sense, it may well prove to be so. Despite the much-discussed hostility toward Mr. Blair among UK voters over the decision to attack Iraq and the deceptive way it was sold to the British people (one remarkable Sunday Mirror/Observer MORI poll is quoted by the BBC as saying that “fewer than 25 percent of Labour voters want Tony Blair to serve a full third term … if reelected”!), it will be a real upset if Labour does not retain a substantial majority after Thursday’s election (once the likely legal disputes over postal voting fraud have been concluded). So Blair will probably be prime minister again, and although for tactical reasons there will be little immediate triumphalism2, that will be sufficient for an “accountability moment” for British politicians, as it was for Bush in America ("Bush Says Election Ratified Iraq Policy"). There are a number of reasons why a Labour victory (and thus, the reelection of Blair as prime minister) is overwhelmingly likely3. In fact, of course, Labour will have been reelected despite Iraq, but that won’t prevent the result from being used, in due course, to close down discussion of the issue.

To decent people, though, who are aware of the issues and facts, it will be a moral obscenity to see this argument succeed. We now know that Iraq was no real threat to us. We know that the Blair regime took inadequate and qualified intelligence information and presented it as being sufficient to justify conclusions that proved to be wholly incorrect. This was done in order to shore up declining popular support for the attack and to win a vote in Parliament on the decision to go to war. We know that the regime took equivocal advice on the legality of the attack in the absence of a UN authorization and presented it as a conclusion stripped of its caveats, in order to reassure those who doubted4. We know that, as a result of the decision to attack Iraq, tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis (men, women, and children) have been killed in the last two years, the infrastructure of the country has been destroyed, and ongoing violence kills 500 to 1,000 Iraqis a month, according to a Brookings Institute study quoted in the Australian Daily Telegraph on April 22. A full-blown civil war is certainly a possibility for the future, though those kinds of numbers hardly suggest peace and tranquility as it is. The reader should bear in mind that the population of Iraq is roughly half that of the UK, so the equivalent in the UK would be one to two thousand people dying violently each month. Meanwhile, Iraqis have been locked up and mistreated by the American occupying forces in huge numbers, based on little more than vague suspicions, and held in places like Abu Ghraib.

To show for all this, a supposedly democratic but actually sectarian and probably very unstable Iraqi government has been installed in place of the former dictatorship. We are expected to give the Blair and Bush governments the credit if, after all this, the luckless Iraqi people do eventually manage to find their way to peace and stability. If we are angry about what has been done, or question whether it was worth it, we are inevitably asked whether we aren’t pleased that Saddam is gone5, or reminded that this supposedly democratic government is in place. The correct political response to this disingenuous political question – to ask if the tens of thousands of dead Iraqis can be assumed to be “pleased” about it – is rarely returned with sufficient force.

Call me picky if you like, but I don’t believe that “sorry, but it was worth it” is good enough.

Blair should clearly have resigned when his original “weapons of mass destruction” justification was demonstrated to have been at best a misjudgment, and at worst a deliberate deception6. This would have allowed the election to be fought on other issues, rather than muddied by his trying to cling to power in order to be able to match his idol Margaret Thatcher’s three election wins.

One of the advantages of the British constitutional structure is that it does allow for the easy adoption of new requirements by precedent. A recent example has been the call by Gordon Brown for the precedent of the Commons vote on the attack on Iraq (for all it has been shown since to have been flawed by the deceptive information on which the government win was based) to be used for future decisions to take Britain to war. This makes sense, where we are talking about “elective wars” – i.e., wars the British government chooses to enter for reasons of national policy. The “royal prerogative,” whereby the prime minister can take military action on his own initiative, should remain, but only for necessary defensive action (against “ongoing armed attack” as the well-known phrase has it).

This distinction between elective wars and defensive wars is a useful and important one (it reflects the Article 51 exception in the UN treaty). When the UK is attacked, a prime minister has an immediate duty to take steps for the national defense. In contrast, when a prime minister decides whether to engage in an elective war, he is balancing the advantages as he sees them of a successful outcome of that war against the risks of failure and (more importantly, in the case of Iraq) the costs of war – in particular, the lives of servicemen and civilians. When he chooses to go to war, as Blair did in the case of Iraq, he is deciding that those lives are worth the policy benefits he sees as likely to flow from the war. He is saying that he knows innocent people will die (though he may not know how many), but those deaths are “worth it.”

The least a man in such a position ought to be required to do is to sacrifice his own position, along with the lives he is prepared to sacrifice. A British prime minister who chooses to take the country into an elective war should be required to resign thereafter. If he believes in the action so strongly that he is prepared to see innocents killed for it, he should be prepared to take this step.

The British system does not involve the election of a prime minister by the people, but the election of 600-odd members of Parliament to represent the people of Britain. Those MPs then choose one from their number to be prime minister. Though it is human nature to regard oneself as indispensable in a job, no individual ever is actually as important as he or she believes. Likewise, though it is human nature to overstate the importance of the individual at the top, the replacement of one prime minister by another will never necessarily be bad for the UK. Going to war voluntarily should be a difficult decision. Let us make sure there can be no question that a prime minister who chooses to do so really does believe the price is worth paying.


  1. The Lancet study published last October showing 100,000 deaths as a conservative estimate of the direct or indirect consequences of the attack, with violence as the largest single cause of death, remains the best estimate available. Of course, the U.S. and UK governments declined to attempt any sort of count because they knew the figures could only harm them politically, and they (evidently rightly) calculated that most of the British and American people wouldn’t care enough about the deaths of foreigners to force them to keep a count.

  2. See this week’s Observer article; “Iraq, the Secret U.S. Visit, and an Angry Military Chief.” Quote:

    "A growing number of ministers are now arguing for an extended diet of humble pie, even if Labour is returned with a healthy majority. There must, they argue, be no triumphalism, and not just over Iraq: too many voters are angry and disillusioned about issues ranging from public services to immigration.

    "’If we get back with a reduced majority, we cannot have a scintilla of arrogance: he’s got to show he’s clocked it,’ says one senior minister."

  3. Most people still insist that Iraq is very low on their list of priorities in choosing how to vote. Domestic issues loom larger. For most, it seems either they simply base their vote on their own material self-interest (and they see the Labour Party as the best choice for this), or they claim they have to vote Labour to preserve various aspects of the welfare state. Apparently slightly more funding for the welfare state at home weighs more heavily in these people’s shriveled social consciences than responsibility for the mass killing of foreigners in far away countries. Furthermore, the British electoral system is currently heavily biased against the Conservative Party – the Electoral Reform Society recently noted that the Conservatives “need to lead by something like four points to draw level in seats, and by about nine in order to enjoy a bare overall majority.” Combined with a low turnout, this means that the Labour Party needs the active support of a surprisingly small number of people to win power again – they only received 10.7 million votes in 2001, and this gave them 412 seats out of 659 in the Commons. Furthermore, the main supposed opposition party, the Conservative Party, failed to carry out its proper role in the case of the attack on Iraq, and supported the government. Those who opposed the attack therefore have to go to the third party, the Liberal Democrats, or various other fringe parties, to find a positive home for their vote.

  4. The legal issue is – or should be – actually a lot simpler than the lawyers (inevitably) would have it. This country formally agreed to renounce war as a tool of national policy when it signed up to the UN Charter. We agreed that we would only go to war if the war was explicitly authorized by the UN. The only exception was the obvious one of necessary defense, which was set out in Article 51 of the treaty. Since then, the difficulty of getting UN authorization for the use of war as a tool of national policy has rankled with many, and there has been much trying to wiggle out of the commitment by claiming there are other legal issues. “Humanitarian intervention” has been one popular rationalization, as in the Kosovo attack. Another, as in the case of the U.S./ UK position on Iraq, has been to try to pretend that authorization has actually been given despite the UN specifically refusing to give it. Thus, the contortions and absurdities discussed in the recently published attorney general’s advice, where he had to try to take seriously the U.S. and UK regimes’ absurd contention that it was necessary to go to war to enforce compliance with UN resolutions, when the UN itself declined to authorize the attack, or the frankly stupid and blatantly self-serving American position that it is for states to decide when a UN resolution has been breached, rather than the UN itself. At least the attorney general dismisses the laughable “unreasonable veto” argument that was put forward by the Blair regime when it was asking the Commons to support the attack on Iraq despite the failure to secure UN authorization.

  5. One commentator suggested the following parallel for the “aren’t you pleased that Saddam is gone?” tactic. A man, having seen a poisonous spider on the wall of the garage, disposes of it by driving the family car into the wall, destroying the spider along with the car and the garage. When the man’s wife remonstrates with him, he angrily retorts: "I have to infer from that statement that you would be happier if that spider were still crawling up the wall.”

  6. Papers disclosed in this weekend’s Sunday Times further confirm that Blair had personally promised George Bush in April 2002 that he, and Britain, would support the intended attack on Iraq. ("Blair Planned Iraq War From Start")

This article originally appeared at