Blair was a bit of a flibbertigibbet, Iraq and future interventions

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blairs former chief of staff, has given his first interview about life inside No.10 during the Blair government. For those unfamiliar with him, Powell (pronounced Pole) was amongst the former PMs longest standing consiglieres; he was there the day Blair entered No.10, he was there the day Blair left and outlasted Campbell, Mandelson and Blairs numerous policy heads (Mandelson called him Blairs echo). As a former civil servant and decidedly not part of the Labour machine, Powell has more credibility than most, in fact his older brother once served in No.10 under Margaret Thatcher.

While Powell has a lot of comments about life in No.10 and the character of the former PM, none of which will be too surprising for followers of British politics (the former PM had courage in spades the real test of political leaders, but was a bit of a flibbertigibbet when following through with decisions) his comments on the Iraq war are interesting. Asked about Iraq and liberal intervention, after admitting the mistakes that have been made, Powell continues

We should have been clear we were removing Saddam because he was a ruthless dictator suppressing his people. But the lawyers said there was no legal basis for proceeding on those grounds and so we would not be able to make the case as wholeheartedly as I would have liked.

The article goes on to say that, if anything, Powell believes we should be more rather than less willing to intervene elsewhere. Without commenting on whether this version of liberal intervention might stray dangerously into neoconservative military imperialism, its relieving to hear these words being spoken. In his speeches on Iraq after the invasion the former PM has continued to invoke the threat of WMD at the time and its link with terrorism arguments which were tenuous at the time and in hindsight seem somewhat ridiculous.

Liberal humanitarianism doesnt justify the war either (compare it to the principles the former PM outlined himself in 1999) and nor does it convey the true complexity of the legitimate and illegitimate reasons for invading Iraq, but it shouldnt be discounted as a doctrine. In the heady days of Blairs first term, Nato intervention was critical in driving the Serbs out of Kosovo and stopping the killing of Kosovar Albanians. In the light of Kosovos recent declaration of independence, we shouldnt forget the role that force played in reaching a just solution. No less important but less well known was the British forces decisive intervention in Sierra Leone first in scaring off Sankohs Revolutionary United Front and since managing to keep the peace.

The Iraq misadventure is a salient reminder of the danger of any war, particularly those which are poorly planned. War should always be an action of very last resort. But lets hope Iraq won’t prevent international leaders from being courageous when the situation demands it. Powells post facto rationalisation of what was a poor decision to invade Iraq aside, his and his former boss belief in the principles underpinning limited liberal humanitarian intervention deserve a continuing place in national and international debates.

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16 Responses to Blair was a bit of a flibbertigibbet, Iraq and future interventions

  1. Nico says:

    The record on interventions is so poor, the whole policy should be re-worked.

  2. Ken Parish says:


    I don’t think you can say that in such a sweeping way. In addition to the examples Seamus mentioned (Kosovo and Sierra Leone) there’s the earlier if at the time belated intervention in Bosnia, which also stopped the slaughter.

    And there are the interventions in East Timor and Cambodia, which both also stopped slaughter and stabilised the political situation.

    None of these interventions were perfectly planned nor resulted in utterly unequivocally superb outcomes, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue convincingly that any of those countries or the rest of us would have been better off if the interventions had never occurred, just as you’d be hard-pressed to argue that failing to intervene in Rwanda in the 90s was a great decision which we should applaud as exhibiting praiseworthy tough-minded realism.

    I think it’s more like Seamus suggests – there is a place for international interventions in failed states or to end civil war, but only if they are well planned, reasonably broadly supported by the international community and equally well-motivated (I don’t even think they need to be UN-endorsed as long as those attributes are present). The US/UK/Aust Iraq adventure had none of those attributes. Nor was it an intervention in a failed state or to stop a civil war.

  3. derrida derider says:

    The really interesting thing there was how close Powell came to saying outright what should be obvious to all – even the war’s supporters. That is, regardless of the expediency or morality of the invasion***, it was clearly illegal – there was never any imminent threat nor UN authorisation, which are the only legal grounds for war.

    That Solicitor-Generals and the like could be found to say otherwise says more about the corruption of public servants in those democracies than anything else. And with a million Iraqis dead both expedience (pour encourager les autres) and morality demand that the war’s promoters face war crimes tribunals (“conspiracy to wage aggressive war” was the wording of the charge against the Nazis). Fat chance of that of course.

    *** Let’s not use euphemisms – “intervention” sounds like the stern talking-to you might give an alcoholic friend.

  4. derrida derider says:

    Opps – please fix tags for me

  5. James Farrell says:

    All I can say is, I’m glad it’s not the other Powell who insists on that pronunciation. Cole’n Pole would be too much.

  6. James Farrell says:

    By the way, there’s one too many ‘http’s in the Guardian link.

  7. Marks says:


    OK, so say we agree that deposing Saddam was illegal.

    Is a legal system that allows someone to act as Saddam did to his people one to be supported?

    Do you have a suggestion of a way that for example the atrocities in places like Sudan and DR of Congo can be legally stopped?

    Personally, I think that while sitting back wringing one’s hands over the literal holocaust in sub-saharan africa over the past generation may be legal, such inaction is so morally reprehensible that legal considerations are really quibbles.

    I am reminded of Pontius Pilate at this point.

  8. Fred Argy says:

    Marks, I might be sympathetic to the idea of deposing a very bad ruler, provided we are consistent in defining a baddy (i.e. our baddy friends are included) and the intervention is done under mandate from the Security Council or at least a the great majority of its members. Given the double standards of the US Governments in the past (especially in central and South America) and even recently (in the middle east), I really doubt that your idea is a feasible one.

  9. Ken Parish says:

    As we now know, Saddam didn’t have WMD. He was certainly a brutal ruler, but hadn’t killed large numbers of his own people since the crushed uprising in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. In fact Saddam probably wouldn’t have ranked in the Top 10 Brutal Dictators List of the early 21st century, truth be known. Does that mean that the US should have carte blanche to invade any of those above Saddam on the list if they feel like it?

    Moreover, experience since the US invasion of Iraq tends to suggest that the extent of sectarian division may well mean that any government would need to adopt rather more heavy-handed methods than we in the West feel comfortable about. There is compelling evidence that the current Al Maliki government has been passively acquiescent if not complicit in large numbers of Shiite militia murders of Sunnis, not to mention the feact that over 1 million Sunni Iraqis are now living as refugees in Syria and other adjoining countries. How would Al Maliki stand in the brutal dictator stakes against Saddam given those sorts of figures?

  10. Point of information:

    Jonathan Powell’s surname is pronounced as is Colin’s.

    His brother Charles, who worked for Mrs Thatcher, was the one who pronounced HIS name as “Pole” – it seems this was the historical pronunciation which Charles chose to revert to for some reason! To be blunt it always seemed rather affected to most of us here in the UK.

    Anyway it’s Jonathan Powell as in Colin Powell.

  11. Marks says:


    I guess my view of this is analogous to the situation of domestic violence a century ago.

    Domestic violence existed, and response to it was spotty to say the least. So we dithered through changing the cultural ‘laws’ that had authorities stopping at the front door because it was a ‘domestic’. We dithered through calls for provision of shelters for victims of violence. (The usual suspects of – let’s not encourage them by letting them in). We worked through that though by making violent behaviour illegal (not only in the strict sense of ‘legal’, but also in the cultural sense as well).

    So, from a theoretical framework for going forward, I guess I am suggesting that:

    1) The behaviour of most of the petty dictatorships with human rights crimes should be illegal if it is not already. We need to focus on the unacceptability of human rights abuses.

    2) The provision of shelters and asylum should take second place to making violence stop in the countries in which it is happening.

    3) In the same way that police can come in to stop domestic violence, so too should human rights abuses be able to be subject to intervention.

    Now I know that I am whistling against the wind here – but then so was anybody who wanted a stop to domestic violence practices in western society a century ago.

    I also agree that the approach to Iraq could and should have been better – but I do not miss Saddam one bit.

    Just a by the way question. Is it certain that no WMD existed, or just that no one has been able to find any?

    Reason for asking is this. We know he had them (used them on the Kurds), we know he did not account for their destruction to the satisfaction of the UN observers, so how do we know they are still not hidden somewhere in Iraq (similar size to France last time I looked)?

  12. Seamus, you said:

    “Liberal humanitarianism doesnt justify the war…” and that humanitarian interventionism is NOT part of Blair’s 1999 Chicago speech. I read it as exactly the opposite. He said:

    “We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other counties if we want to innovate. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”

    Call it what you will – liberal humanitarianism, interventionism … it’s been clear where Blair stood, at least since 1999, and probably before that.

    The issues now are all around the edges of Iraq – its legality, trust in politicians and leadership and their true motives, and whether or not we actually LIKE them! The reason for most of this is that the general public (guided by the press) don’t want to hear the true message: that there are people out there who do NOT share western values and who would as soon shoot a peace negotiator in the back after having sat down with him and agreed a way forward.

    CLEVER leadership and negotiating is required with such people. Don’t ask me how – but I believe we would be naive to think it is not going on right now with possibly ALL of the main terrorist organisations.

    As for Marks comment on WMDs – yes, I have long wondered this too. Saddam knew for a long long time that Blix and the UN were in Iraq on the search for WMD. He’d have been a fool if he hadn’t hidden them. Of course if we found any now, the press would tell us they had been planted by the Americans!

  13. Bill Posters says:

    So, to recap the theme of comments, it’s not that liberal interventionism doesn’t work; it’s just that it’s never been done properly.

    Sounds familiar.

  14. That’s VERY debateable. In recent years, I’d have thought Sierra Leone was a successful intervention. Kosovo – possibly – and in the long run, probably.

    David Miliband has some thoughts on this at his site, as, of course, do his commenters!

    We are the fourth largest economy in the world and the “mother” of modern democracy. The very idea that we should NEVER intervene where human rights or the future of world peace are threatened is a negation of everything we used to stand for.

  15. Marks says:

    Can I speculate here?

    Just suppose that France and Germany had helped in Iraq with troop commitments equal each to that of the UK. Would it be possible, given the positive results of the surge, that Iraq would now be a success story, with far less deaths due to AQ and Iranian weapon supplies?

    Of course France and Germany did not help in this case.

    A further speculation. If the US had only looked to its own interests in the pacific in the second world war and concentrated on Japan, France and Germany would be different places now methinks. Now that was a successful liberal intervention by the US.

    Perhaps that is why some politicians in France and Germany did stand by – a dictator with a moustache who invaded other countries, gassed minorities and tortured people in concentration camps. Why should Germany or France have a moral view of that, is a question that pops up in my mind?

  16. You are right, Marks. There is little doubt that France & Germany’s lack of military aid in Iraq has NOT helped. And the USA and Britain are right to feel somewhat put out by this. Chirac’s argument then was that it would not be legal without the 2nd resolution. But he wouldn’t, it is said, support the invasion, even if there had been a fresh Security Council mandate. The ‘no threat’ argument.

    Germany, though not taking Chirac’s hardline approach, has a cushion – its fallback position (the ‘non-military Germany’ post WW2 stance – allies’ imposed). So their input is limited, and justifiably so, to them at least.

    I feel we have to move on from there now, and stop being afraid of the past German propensity to start world wars. They should not continue to use that as an excuse for opting out of the world’s problems. And we should trust them enough to make that possible. Once Blair is EU President, he’ll keep an eye on them! –

    The question of “legality” of Iraq without the 2nd resolution is ongoing, of course, and is yet unsettled. Were earlier SC resolutions sufficient to provide that legality? Resolutions which Saddam had ignored for twelve years – (or even more – I’d have to check this). The British government certainly saw a second resolution as belt & braces rather than as a legal requirement.

    And you are absolutely right about the USA in the second world war. Without US intervention, I am not convinced that we Brits would have done it in the end. Of course some would say that that was different because of international agreements between allies.

    I suppose we can go round in circles on this – if only – but what if etc. In the end, to me it comes down to the bigger picture of knowing who are our friends and who are not (and that is NOT to say that friends are always constant. They are NOT, and that is another component of the complexities).

    The recent poll of Iraqis satisfaction is positive news. Nice to see SOME positive news.

    Perhaps we won’t hang Blair & Bush after all!

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