Chilcot: The Lessons of Iraq vs The Reality of Interventions


Chilcot’s exhaustive enquiry into the origins, undertaking, and consequences of the Iraq war has been published. In turn, this (rather less than) exhaustive analysis of certain of its conclusions seeks to explore two of the critical components of the faulty pre war decision-making process as identified by the report. It will propose that despite Chilcot’s pertinent and well meaning observations in this respect, and despite any prospective efforts to abide by those observations and incorporate them into our planning and strategizing for the purpose of future interventions should they occur, similar mistakes as those made in Iraq (not to mention Afghanistan and Libya) will most probably continue to be made.

What precisely then are the observations and recommendations referred to? They are, firstly, that ‘[W]hen the potential for military action arises, the Government should not commit to a firm political objective before it is clear that it can be achieved’. Secondly, and presuming that the achievability of the political objective as been recognized, that ‘[A]ll aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour’. One would no doubt agree that these are highly pertinent observations, and that any rational interpretation of the events surrounding the Iraq intervention and its consequences would support such recommendations. Indeed in theory I would absolutely agree, and a recent article of mine has identified similar themes to Chilcot in these important respects. But that same article also identifies certain crucial elements that will always infect the rational use of military power for the purpose of liberal intervention, regime change and stabilisation, and which will always have the potential to derail rational political processes and designs.

With regard to the first point, that relating to the ‘achievability’ of political objectives. The former soldier turned academic Christopher Bassford puts it best in some ways. Responding to the oft bowdlerized warning that ‘[T]hose who do not remember the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them’, Bassford adds the refinement that, then again, even those who do remember the mistakes of the past are still condemned to repeat them. Because that’s what people do. It’s an unhelpful aspect of human nature; not the fact that lesson’s can’t be learned (of course they can), but the notion that on this particular occasion they simply don’t apply (when of course they do). But although Bassford’s observation may have been intended as a throwaway quip, it is rooted in scientific realities. For the purposes of this post, it draws attention to the concept of Construal Level Theory (CLT), a field of psychology that examines how people cope with the challenge of forming evaluations of distant actions and outcomes and in particular the way that they evaluate the latter phases of a sequence of actions.

Obviously, the keen eyed observer will note that I’m not a psychologist. But thanks to the research of Aaron Rapport in his article The Long and Short of It: Cognitive Constraints on Leaders Assessments of Post-war Iraq the non-psychologist becomes immediately aware of how these cognitive processes really matter in relation to political actors choosing to use force for interventionist purposes, particularly when it comes to the objective of dismantling or altering political and social structures in target societies. By extension therefore, one becomes aware of the potential for Chilcot’s warnings to remain unheeded in future.

Essentially, Rapport’s research argues that there is a difference in the way that policymakers approach certain aspects of an intervention such as Iraq. The first is the ‘near’ problem, which in the case of Iraq was the initial military campaign and the process of regime change. This is generally assessed on the basis of feasibility i.e. can we do this? However, the ‘far’ problem, in this case the subsequent long-game involving the transformation of Iraq from totalitarian dystopia to functioning democratic and unitary state, is subject to different criteria. In this instance, the determining factor is one of ‘desirability’ i.e. how much do we want this to happen? According to Rapport’s analysis, when ultimate objectives are so highly prized, policymakers tend to focus almost exclusively upon the benefits that will accrue rather than the intricate steps necessary to make them happen. As his conclusion states, this had the effect of encouraging overly-optimistic assessments of the political conditions that would exist in Iraq in the late stages of the intervention, a laissez-faire attitude that was not reflected by those involved in the short term planning relating to the initial military invasion and potential humanitarian crisis that was expected to follow. Simply put, the more distant the event, the more likely policymakers are to attribute positive outcomes to it. This has obvious implications for the mechanics of intervention, and the likelihood of political actors failing to properly conceptualise and resource the ‘long-game’ due to their over-optimistic belief in the satisfactory conclusion of their ultimate grand designs.

Chilcot’s second observation, that relating to the requirement for ‘all aspects of the intervention’ requiring the necessary ‘debate, calculation and challenge’ is similarly problematic. ‘All aspects’ of an intervention must, by definition, include that point subsequent to initial military operations. Yet, as my article points out, military interventions of the type engaged in by the West recently tend to transform the known into the unknown. The demolition of Ba’athist Iraq and the toppling of Ghaddafi released a vicious, swirling, directionless mass of competing ethnic groupings, tribes, sects, gangs, militias, warlords, terrorists and foreign elements, each with their own peculiar local, regional, national and transnational allegiances, alliances, economic interests and political aspirations. The notion that policymakers could have accurately considered and debated the innumerable permutations that may or may not have arisen is laughable. Donald Rumsfeld may have got many things wrong on the subject of Iraq, but his much derided articulation of ‘unknown unknowns’ i.e. ‘things you don’t know you don’t know’, perfectly highlights the problem facing those seeking to abide by Chilcot’s recommendations. Because what Chilcot is advocating in reality is that policymakers and their advisors, both military and civilian, must ‘debate, calculate and challenge’ not only the unknown, but potentially the unknowable too.

Image: Tony Blair and George W. Bush at Camp David in March 2003, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, via wikimedia commons.


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