“I also apologise for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime.”
Such was, in part, Mr. Tony Blair’s proverbial blue moon of an apology for domino-kickstarting the warpath which, some argue, gave way to the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (so called despite prodigiously being neither particularly Islamic nor, by the most liberal estimate, a state). Now, to suggest that an apology is enough to erase having slept in George W. Bush’s bed for the better part of 2002-2009—a dreadful affair for many reasons, and not all of them political—in the run-up to, and during, the Iraq War, is as patently ludicrous as Dick Cheney announcing a post-retirement career interning at Greenpeace and moonlighting with PETA. Blair’s apology was never going to absolve him.
But Mr. Blair did apologize, even while knowing (perhaps better than anyone) that his apology wouldn’t find the reception expected of as public an apology as his. Why, then, did he do it? He’s not stupid—contrary to what might be suggested by neglecting a plethora of evidence denying Iraqi WMD-possession—nor are politicians readily given to public apology. So what’s happening here?
To think it was the persistent persuasions of guilt that drove the former prime minister to acknowledge the “mistakes in planning” would be fanciful, optimistic—wrong. More realistically, one might note that Mr. Blair—as The Times pointed out—is conscious of the fast-approaching release of Chilcot report, the British public inquiry into the country’s involvement in the Iraq War. Considering the Chilcot will be published “almost certainly next year,” Mr. Blair seems to believe that if you can’t beat them, at least get in a few punches ahead of time: early, CNN-wrapped punches, ostensibly sincere defenses of his person and decisions.
Yet however skeptically one regards Blair’s apology, it cannot be denied that it’s a rare event that a politician apologize, especially as publicly as Blair did it.
Politicians are, by virtue of trade, not apologetics. And when ever-so-rarely they do “apologize”, it’s in clever doublespeak they—or an invisible coffee-glugging aid somewhere—pored over to shift the blame from the apologizing party to the offended one. In 2006, when now-secretary of foreign affairs John Kerry (at the time a senator) said that when students “make an effort to be smart” they can “uh, do well,” he followed by quipping: “If you don’t [make an effort to be smart], you get stuck in Iraq.”
The comment raised the hackles of many a uniformed lad and lass, and Kerry had to apologize in the aftermath, saying: “I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform.”
That is to actually say: “I’m sorry you were touchy. We can move on now that I’ve apologized.”
And Mr. Blair’s apology was tellingly similar. “I can say that I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong,” Blair said during his CNN interview. So he doesn’t apologize for supporting Bush’s “crusade” (Dubya’s own Freudian slip) in Iraq, even while allies France and Germany opposed the invasion; he apologizes, rather, for the fact that the “intelligence was wrong” and, since he didn’t compile or present such evidence, technically he’s not to blame. In 2003, then-president of France Jacques Chirac said: “For us, war is always the proof of failure and the worst of solutions, so everything must be done to avoid it.” One can only conclude that Mr. Blair did not understand French.
Why don’t politicians own up to their mistakes and just apologize? The first guess as to why politicians don’t apologize is probably the preponderantly correct one: the politician’s public-domain, calcium-fortified ego wedges an impasse between her/him and the apology, or the prospect of it, and so the apology never materializes; not a true apology, anyway.
Barbra Kellerman, of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, explains in Harvard Business Review that politicians don’t apologize for a different reason: they practice an opportunistic, calculated, selective approach to political apology. “Refusal [of politicians] to apologize can be smart,” she says, “or it can be suicidal. Conversely, readiness to apologize can be seen as a sign of strong character or as a sign of weakness.” Apologize when the public doesn’t really think you should and you appear weak. Apologize when public opinion starts demanding your admission of wrongdoing, and you potentially salvage a political career.
Mr. Blair, then, apologized because the circumstances forced him to. Seeing the Iraq whose infrastructure he helped decimate by a decade-long excision, and then seeing the same Iraq be easily—and expectedly—pried open by a gang that hates being called by the Arabic acronym for its name (Daesh), all this must have contributed to Blair’s concession to apology.
But more importantly for Blair himself, at this stage in his residence in the political stage—which only persists insofar as he and his British cohorts are still being investigated, or else he’d be golfing with Iraq buddy Bush—the former prime minister realizes that there will soon come a day when he has to defend his legacy from what seems an impending onslaught not just against him, but also “former head of MI6 Sir Richard Dearlove, and the head of the joint intelligence committee, Sir John Scarlett,” among still others expected to face the cannon’s mouth when the Chilcot investigation finally concludes. By this token, Blair’s apology was because he recognized his mistakes on some level; the level of shielding himself from them.
Yet Blair’s apology might have come, also, for the most common reason (mentioned above) for the absence of apologies from politicians: Blair’s politician’s ego. Apart from waging an early defense to preemptively strike possible future incrimination, the Blairian ego could not permit such an irreverent tarnishing upon itself as the Chilcot report promises, and moved to counter.
If Blair’s apology was intended to sway public opinion favourably, it didn’t achieve its goal. Instead it reminds us that politicians dispense apologies for the same reason they sprinkler-shower lofty promises: as means to an end.