According to Elton John, “Sorry” seems to be the hardest word. This is especially so for politicians. When you screw up, its often safer to hide until it all blows over rather than hold your hands up and apologise. The electorate rarely accept it and will more likely than not still hate you, or even worse, turn you into a laughing stock by autotuning your apology, playing it over some funky beats and releasing it on iTunes, a la Nick Clegg. If there’s one thing worse than being hated in politics, it’s being laughed at.
This is why when Tony Blair came forward last weekend to apologise for invading Iraq under false pretences, the world was shocked. Even if you’ve been living in a cave for the past twelve years, you’ll know that the Iraq War is Blair’s largest legacy. His decision to send troops in has been controversial ever since. With the Chilcot Report coming ever closer to being released, can Blair’s apology be seen as an admission of guilt?
Note that Blair apologised for intervening in Iraq on misleading evidence and for failing to sufficiently stabilise the region afterwards, the consequences of which we are seeing with the rise of ISIS. Blair did not however, apologise for toppling Saddam Hussein, and nor should he. Saddam was a tyrant who killed over two million of his own citizens. Removing him from office was justified. What went wrong was what followed.
Instead of making the Middle East the safer place it should have been without Saddam, we left almost as quickly as we went in, leaving the entire region destabilised due to the power vacuum we created. Although Blair has indeed apologised for this, acknowledging that the 2003 Gulf war probably did lead to the rise of ISIS, his words are too little too late. Europe will be dealing with the fallout of botched Middle East interventions for decades to come. Regardless of the outcome of the Chilcot Report, the greatest tragedy of the Iraq War won’t be going in under false pretences, but the humanitarian costs of our failed intervention. A whole generation, and a whole region of the world, will bleed for our mistakes. And no number of apologies can ever fix that.
Now, it would be very easy to use Iraq as evidence against liberal interventionism, but this would be a mistake. Interventions can be successful when they are executed properly. All we have to do is learn from our mistakes and we owe it to the world to do so. If we intervene in a foreign nation, it’s essential that we play an active role in reconstructing the state afterwards. If this costs us financially, so be it. No amount of money can outweigh the human costs of a half-baked intervention. If we’re not prepared to leave the people of a nation better off than when we arrived, whatever it takes, then we shouldn’t even go in in the first place.
Callum Shannon is the Chair of the University of York Labour Club.