Iraq: not the first British disaster … and it’s unlikely to be the last

DR CHRIS TUCK

After seven years, the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war finally has been released. Its conclusions are an excoriating critique of the limitations in British strategy and policy in 2003. The inquiry has identified a raft of issues: that war was not the last resort and that alternatives to military action were not fully explored; that the public case for war was built on evidence that did not reflect the uncertain nature of the actual intelligence; that the government was woefully unprepared for the post-conflict context; and that, in the end, Britain failed to achieve its key objectives. There may be many consequences. The Chilcot inquiry may reflect, as Sir Martin Gilbert has hoped, ‘an important milestone in government willingness to confront contentious issues’; or it may result in, as Alex Salmond as called for, the beginning of a ‘political reckoning’ for those most associated publicly with Britain’s decision to go to war. But Phillipe Sands, QC, has noted that the inquiry’s crucial role should be to ensure that ‘lessons will be learned that will allow us to make sure it never happens again’. Lessons undoubtedly will be identified, but whether they make another Iraq debacle impossible is more doubtful.

The eminent repeatability of the events of 2003 is evident when one examines two overarching themes identified by the Chilcot enquiry that weave themselves throughout the detail of the government’s decision-making over Iraq. The first is internal in nature, and it concerned the government’s decision-making processes; the second is external, and it was the priority accorded in British calculations to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

In terms of government’s decision-making processes in 2003, Chilcot notes their informality and ad-hoc nature. Cabinet often was informed of decisions rather than debating them. The inquiry identifies, in consequence, that there needed to be a ‘collective discussion by a Cabinet Committee or a small group of ministers’ on a number of crucial issues, including the political and legal implications of recourse to military options, and the potential difficulties in the post-conflict situation. In future, Chilcot recommends the creation of ‘a more structured process’ to ‘probe and challenge’ government options. Indeed, in such structures as the National Security Council, Britain already has more refined security policy decision-making mechanisms than existed in 2003. But it is doubtful if such changes would effect any revolutionary improvement in the quality of British strategy-making. The challenge for the Blair government in 2003 was the operation of two pervasive policy influences: uncertainty and beliefs.

There is generally in international relations an enormous gap between what decision-makers actually know as objective fact and what they would need to know to make fully considered, rational decisions. Decision-makers fill this gap with beliefs: beliefs about what it is right to do; beliefs about what will work and what the outcomes will be. Chilcot identifies Blair’s belief that Saddam Hussein was ‘a monster’ and that his regime represented a threat. This was reinforced by a set of ‘ingrained beliefs’ in government that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction and that he would continue to develop them. Blair needed to make policy decisions but faced such uncertainties as the qualified conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and competing perspectives on the nature of the post-conflict context. Political crises typically short-circuit formal decision-making processes and reduce the size of decision-making groups. Facilitated by the nature of British political system, which accords great informal powers to the Prime Minister, Blair did what many British Prime Ministers before had done, and took the lead in driving foreign policy. From a 2003 perspective, he also had perceived successes in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Afghanistan to support belief in his judgement. Blair has noted in his memoirs that in acting over Iraq he was doing what he believed was ‘right morally and strategically’. In conditions of uncertainty what is believed to make strategic sense often becomes a function of what a decision-maker believes that it is right to do. Tinkering with government decision-making processes cannot eliminate in the future the uncertainty problem; nor eliminate the psychological factors that have such an important bearing on crisis decision-making.

Shaping Blair’s belief in the necessity of action was the second theme: the influence of the United States on British policy considerations. The Chilcot report concludes that the UK’s relationship with the US was ‘a determining factor in the Government’s decisions over Iraq’. This influence is a long-standing theme in British foreign policy. But what the inquiry also illustrates is that, time and again, British influence over US decision-making was minimal. Britain’s shift towards involvement in the Iraq war was influenced powerfully by the Blair government’s belief, as Chilcot notes, that supporting the US over Iraq was necessary in order to sustain cooperation in other areas; and that the UK could best influence US policy towards Iraq ‘from the inside’. But generally, Blair’s government proved unable to exert a decisive influence on the US – indeed, the reverse was true: by prioritising relations with the US, British policy was forced by degrees into alignment with that of the US. As Chilcot illustrates, despite Blair’s post 9/11 commitment that the UK would stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US, he was keen on reigning back the US focus on military options, preferring instead a gradualist approach that would maintain international support and that might at some point look towards regime change. Progressively, however, in attempting to reign the US back, the UK was instead simply dragged forwards. Blair’s long note of 28 July 2003 included the phrase ‘I will be with you, whatever’. This phrase was contained in a missive whose general thrust was a desire to slow the US’ moves to the military option; but it also expressed a general truth about the realities of the British position. The Chilcot inquiry notes that, in 2003, Britain should have adopted a more questioning attitude. But whether, especially post-Brexit, Britain would be in future be more willing to risk a rift in Anglo-American relations is a matter of debate.

The specific issues identified by the Chilcot inquiry are a devastating critique of the Blair government’s handling of the Iraq crisis in 2003. However, it would be unwise to assume that the roots of the problems identified are new or that in the future they won’t be open to repeat. The decision-making difficulties that manifested themselves in 2003 reflect pervasive problems in foreign-policy decision-making relating to uncertainty. Equally, the priority placed upon the ‘special relationship’, and the influence therefore on the UK of US policy priorities, is a long-standing theme that is likely to endure. These factors can generate great policy difficulties but they do not make failure inevitable. For a war fought on questionable legal foundations, for example, see Kosovo in 1999; or for policies driven forward by Prime Ministerial fiat, see the Falklands War in 1982. Blair has argued that his decisions over Iraq were taken ‘in good faith and what I believed to be the best interests of the country’. It is entirely possible that this is true; but, unlike in Kosovo and the Falklands, Blair’s great problem is that Britain lost.

Image: Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi during the G8 Summit in Évian, June 2003, via wikimedia

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