Bush, Blair and the Chilcot report: the diverging fates of Iraq war orchestrators

Tony Blair has faced calls for impeachment for the 2003 invasion, while George W Bush has largely avoided responsibility, which published inquiry could change

As George W Bush celebrates his 70th birthday today, an occasion marked by a six-foot tall birthday card in the lobby of his presidential library in Dallas, he will have a rather unconventional present to enjoy: 2.6m words of the Chilcot inquiry report into the Iraq war.

The timing of the much awaited British report could not have been more awkward for the 43rd US president. His official website was inviting well-wishers to sign a virtual birthday card at precisely the moment that he was being chided over the Atlantic for having ignored British warnings about the handling of Iraq after the invasion.

The report also publishes for the first time the details of 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.

Much of the Chilcot report focuses on Bush’s fellow Colgate toothpaste-using buddy, Tony Blair. But the American president’s role as the ultimate commander-in-chief of the Iraq invasion is strongly invoked by the inquiry team, which describes the overall mission as a strategic failure.

The findings of the Chilcot inquiry 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 beimpeached, 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 beaccosted in public these days about his simulated nude appearance in aKanye 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.

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