Tony Blair’s not entirely unexpected resignation from his job as Middle East peace envoy last month – and the ensuing Twitter jokes about it – coincide with the UK release of a documentary film that firmly puts him and George W Bush at the centre of this century’s Middle East disasters.
Amir Amirani’s We Are Many, released in the UK and screened at the Hay Festival last week, tells us the story of how we went to war in Iraq, and simultaneously celebrates the biggest international anti-war demonstrations ever seen.
On February 15, 2003, millions of people in around 60 countries and over 800 cities marched in a coordinated effort to stop the impending war on Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration ever seen in London, with 1.5 million, in Madrid with 1.5 million, and in Rome with 3 million.
Despite this, the US, UK and their allies invaded Iraq in March 2003, three weeks before Hans Blix, head of the weapons inspections mission in Iraq, had been allowed to finish his job and fully confirm that Saddam Hussein was not hiding weapons of mass destruction.
Bush and Blair did not want Blix to finish his job, and they certainly did not care about the massive, democratic peace protests. What they wanted was to wage a war on Iraq in order to control its oil reserves, at any cost.
And the cost was huge. 4,491 American service members were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2014. Surveys vary about the number of Iraqis killed, and they range from 150,000 to over a million.
For Iraqis, the war not only destroyed the state and its political, military, social and economic institutions; it also decimated a society with a long-standing mix of ethnic and religious groups, some of which are now locked in sectarian struggle or even threatened with extinction. To this day, the film reveals, 25 percent of Iraqi children live with chronic malnutrition.
Through interviews with an impressive array of politicians, international lawyers, anti-war activists, journalists, former allied service members and a host of high-profile figures and celebrities, Amirani tells the story of Bush and Blair’s great lie.
I first got to know Amirani, the film-maker, a decade ago, when he was already talking about this project. Nine years in the making, the film is a labour of love. Indeed, in a panel discussion after the UK opening, Amirani said that he had started out “wanting to tell the story” but quickly moved onto “needing to tell it”.
And although it is a well-known story, due partly to the Chilcot Inquiry, it is right that a film should come along now to remind us. Clearly and concisely, through interviews with an impressive array of politicians, international lawyers, anti-war activists, journalists, former allied service members and a host of high-profile figures and celebrities, Amirani tells the story of Bush and Blair’s great lie.
Errol Morris’ 2014 film, The Unknown Known, consisting of an interview with Donald Rumsfeld, also touched on the subject of responsibility for the Iraq war. While it revealed the prodigious extent to which Rumsfeld was still willing to spin words, obfuscate and complicate matters in order to wriggle out of responsibility for taking the US and its allies into Iraq, it was not able to pierce his confidence, and he showed no trace of self-doubt.
Multiplicity of voices
Amir’s film offers a different perspective with its multiplicity of voices and its focus on the anti-war movement that gathered pace and exploded into the world’s biggest international demonstration.
We also hear many testimonies from those directly involved in policy, including Hans Blix, various politicians and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time, who makes the moving admission that he would gladly sacrifice his own freedom if the administration for which he worked could be punished for what it did.
We are offered a wealth of insight – and amusing anecdotes – from dedicated activists, who risked jail sentences and job losses. There is also an interesting perspective on the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which Egyptian activists in the film traced to the 2003 Iraq war protests, rather than to social media and the Tunisian revolution less than a month earlier.
Some of the anecdotes by pop stars, actors and business moguls sit uneasily with the dreadful facts of the story, and are perhaps over-emphasised at the expense of an overarching vision. For instance, Richard Branson’s attempt to fly Nelson Mandela to a meeting with Saddam to convince him to step down is interesting, but seemed like an unrealistic last-ditch attempt.
A more serious problem in the film is the insistence that the 2003 anti-war movement eventually led to real success because parliament voted against UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to enter war in Syria, which in turn influenced Obama to stay out of Syria.
It is certainly true that international legal procedures were followed in the case of proposed intervention in Syria. However, staying out of Syria in itself can hardly be considered a victory for the anti-war movement and the spirit of 2003.
State of ruin
Syria is in a state of ruin, and both the West, with its loss of appetite for war after Iraq and Afghanistan, and the UN Security Council failed to prevent war through negotiation, diplomacy, and sanctions. And even if this was too much to ask, the international community has failed to alleviate the suffering of millions of refugees, most of whom are women and children, made homeless and hungry by the conflict.
Nor has it provided adequate support to those neighbouring countries – Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon – who are hosting the Syrian refugees and creaking under the political, economic and social strain of it. A generation of children is growing up in refugee camps, without proper shelter, adequate access to water, sanitation and health services, and without education.
And, of course, after destroying the Iraqi state, the West failed spectacularly to provide a viable structure with which to replace it, leading to further conflict, the impoverishment of thousands and a vacuum that became particularly conducive to the proliferation of militias and extreme groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIL.
The film doesn’t mention any of this.
Still, what it does is both powerful and important. It goes a long way, through its array of different perspectives, to remind us of the biggest anti-war movement in the world and how it opened up the possibility of democratisation and popular mobilisation.
It also addresses the key issue of responsibility, showing us what a blunt instrument international law remains. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has so far mainly looked at cases involving leaders of African countries. Blair, however, still roams the world freely, earning millions from public speaking and advising governments, and – until this week – posing as a peace envoy.
Lana Asfour is a journalist based in London and Beirut.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.