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Bush, Blair and the Chilcot report: the diverging fates of Iraq war orchestrators
As George W Bush goes about his usual routine this week of mountain biking around his property in Dallas, contemplating at his leisure the nuances of "compassionate conservatism", he will have a new activity to add to his schedule: wading through 2.6 million pages of the Chilcot inquiry report into the Iraq war.
As the British report is finally published on Wednesday after seven years of waiting, much of the attention will be focused on Bush's fellow Colgate toothpaste-using buddy, Tony Blair. But Bush's role as the ultimate commander-in-chief of the Iraq fiasco is also certain to be invoked in the report, and with it questions will resurface about his culpability.
The report will publish for the first time top-secret contact between Bush and Blair in the run-up to invasion in March 2003. The inquiry last year won permission to publish details of 29 notes from the then British prime minister to his American counterpart, though Bush's words in response will remain under lock and key.
The findings of the Chilcot inquiry will also provide a moment to reflect on the fate of the two wartime leaders. While Bush was the invasion's prime architect, and Blair his all-too eager henchman - lapdog as half the British people saw him at the time - their relative fortunes since stepping down from office would suggest the opposite relationship.
It is the sidekick Blair who has taken the greatest flak for the Iraq debacle. The former British prime minister in recent days has faced renewed calls for him to be impeached, while relatives of some of the 179 Britons who died in the war have demanded that he be put on trial.
Bush by contrast has been left largely in peace to pursue his tranquil approach to a post-presidential life. Though far more American military personnel died in Iraq than their British brothers and sisters - 4,497, according to the website antiwar.com - Bush is more likely to be accosted in public these days about his simulated nude appearance in a Kanye West video than about any enduring responsibility for the carnage.
And yet, it was Bush's decision to invade a sovereign nation without a United Nations mandate and with no up-to-date intelligence of an immediate threat by Saddam Hussein to attack the west with weapons of mass destruction. Bush may have had a team of loyal and ideologically driven neocon advisers goading him on - notably vice-president Dick Cheney and then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld - but the decision to dispatch troops was his alone.
It was, in the opinion of his biographer, Jean Edward Smith, a mistake of historic proportions. As Smith writes in his new assessment of the 43rd US president, the Iraq war was "easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president".
"Maybe Harry Truman dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was a contender," the author told the Guardian. "But the reason the invasion was worse than that was that by unsettling Iraq, Bush has unleashed the forces of Isis and terrorism that the world faces today."
He added: "Bush thought it was God's will - that he was exercising God's purpose in attacking Saddam Hussein."
To some extent, the two former premiers' trajectories have mirrored one another. Both Bush and Blair have tried to argue their way out of the catastrophe they caused and the untruths they repeated to their people by insisting that they acted honestly based on the information in front of them at the time.
"I have no disrespect for people who disagreed with me over Iraq. I simply ask them to conduct the debate on the terms of whether the judgment was right or not, rather than attacks on my conduct and integrity," Blair said in 2005, answering his critics over the so-called "dodgy dossier" that said, erroneously, that Saddam had the capability of striking Britain with WMD missiles within 45 minutes of a decision to do so.
Bush deployed uncannily similar language that same year to protest the same point. "While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began."
But the two men have differed in their approach to public criticism in the months and years since Blair departed Downing Street in 2007 and Bush the White House in 2009. The Briton came out fighting, facing his critics head-on in his 2010 memoir My Journey and in a series of set speeches.
But the results have been limited. Every time Blair has stepped onto the stage to defend himself, he has further inflamed his detractors.
The American, by contrast, has largely retreated from public life, hiding out in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas with his mountain bike and memories of highest office. Today he is enjoying a rehabilitation of sorts, partly as a result of the nostalgia that sets in with time, and partly under the influence of Donald Trump whom he has studiously declined to endorse and whose Tea Party style of conservatism has cast Bush in a flattering light simply by comparison.
On Iraq, Bush has left most of the posturing and self-justification to his Presidential Library. The museum, opened in Dallas in 2013, cleverly seeks to deflect criticism from its subject by inviting visitors to decide for themselves what they would have done had they been in his shoes.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who advised the US state department during the Iraq war, said Bush hadn't come off entirely unscathed from the invasion. He pointed to several congressional reviews of tactical mistakes that were made in the course of the war including failure to properly prepare for life after Saddam and blunders with intelligence.
But he went on: "There really hasn't been a debate about the morality of Bush's actions. Of course, we have discussed the consequences of the war, but the debate hasn't been charged with the kind of emotionality as it has in Britain."
Cordesman anticipated little fallout from the Chilcot inquiry report for the former US president. He said that at a time when the US is engulfed in its own furious and bitterly divided presidential election, "whatever Americans are in the mood for now, it's not someone else's partisanship".
[Source: By Ed Pilkington in New York, The Guardian, London, 06Jul16]
War in Afghanistan & Iraq
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