Tony Blair took the decision to take part in the military intervention in Iraq in 2003 more or less on his own, and based it on very scant knowledge. Are there reasons to fear the same happening again?
The British Chilcot Commission has released a crushing verdict over former PM Tony Blair’s decision to stand side by side with the US in Iraq in 2003. How was it possible for such an important decision to be taken without serious consideration of its long-term consequences?
Prior to the presentation of the Commission’s report, John Chilcot expressed that its aim was to avoid that similarly important decisions could be made without thorough analysis, assessment and debate. Chilcot hopes that the report in his name will serve as a vaccine against unwise decisions on similarly important matters.
Clare Short was Secretary of State for International Development in Blair’s government, and left office in 2003 in protest against the intervention in Iraq. She is now concerned that, in the aftermath of the report, placing blame on Tony Blair will overshadow necessary reform of the decision-making system.
The decision was already made
The Commission makes it abundantly clear that broader consultation and involvement is needed. In Britain, the Prime Minister has unusually broad authority when it comes to the use of military force. The report reveals that Blair, as early as July 2002, ensured George W. Bush that he would support a military intervention in Iraq. So the decision had already been made, and the knowledge sought afterwards was only of the kind that would support this decision.
However, Blair’s decision was not first and foremost about Iraq. Neither was it primarily about NATO and the tight relationship between the UK and the US. Blair’s analysis led to the conviction that global stability was in peril, with new security threats as well as emerging great powers intent on challenging US power. The terror attacks on 11 September 2001 strengthened this conviction.
To counter these forces Blair found it critical to maintain US global engagement, and isolationist voices among US Republicans worried him. In his speech to the Parliament 18 March 2003, Blair claimed that the decisions about Iraq “will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation”.
The world according to Blair
Tony Blair has agreed with one of the Chilcot Commission’s points: He should have ensured a broader debate prior to the decision. One may question the usefulness of a more open debate on the basis for intervention, since the motivation behind the decision where really concerned with a different and much broader topic.
I still think it would have been useful. A broader debate might have led to the real motivation floating to the surface, allowing it to be thoroughly examined. It is a worrying sign that precisely Blair’s basic analysis of the global situation – so crucial to the decision that was made – has hardly been debated in the aftermath of the Chilcot Commission’s report, including in Tony Blair’s response.
Would a broader and more solid knowledge base have made any difference? For those of us who spend our lives analyzing war and peace, this is a very important question. The short and rather depressing answer is that this is questionable. The decision had already been made, and thus only information in support of this decision was sought.
Untrustworthy knowledge base
The knowledge base was not only selective – it was also untrustworthy. One obvious example is the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. This claim was of vital importance, despite reliable sources of intelligence claiming the opposite, and despite UN weapons inspectors not having made any concrete findings.
Intelligence information is – for good reasons – not public. Politically motivated selection of information thus becomes easier. Still: If the decisions made in London in 2002 and 2003 had been more broadly anchored – both in the government and in the parliament – a more varied knowledge base would have been brought to bear. It is of equal importance that the public debate, intense as it was at the time, is well informed. The interaction between inclusive decision-making processes and an informed public debate is likely to be the very core of “Chilcot’s vaccine”.
Knew about the risk of civil war
The Commission also highlights the lack of analysis of the post-intervention phase. It is merciless in its statement on the availability of reliable information about many of the ordeals that were to follow the intervention in Iraq. This includes the risk of civil war, the risk that al-Qaida might be strengthened, and the risk of regional instability and unrest. This knowledge existed, but did not carry much weight. It did not influence the decision of military action, nor result in any concrete plans for the post-intervention period.
From Blair’s viewpoint, this is not merely a case of the wisdom of hindsight. It is also wrong. The consequences were not foreseeable. Even more important, according to Blair, is that the world would have been a more dangerous place if Saddam had not been removed, and terrorism would have been just as prevalent – if not more.
Blair is of course right when he says that political change would have happened in Iraq and the Middle East even if the 2003 intervention had not happened, and in pointing out Syria as an example that non-intervention can have grave consequences. This still does not exempt him from thinking through the possible consequences of what he actively chooses to do. Even for those who still support the intervention, it is hard to understand why there were no plans to counter foreseeable negative outcomes.
Will history repeat itself?
Has Great Britain now received an effective Chilcot vaccine? Or will history repeat itself? This does to a large extent depend on what happens in the aftermath of the report: Will this mainly be a debate over individual responsibilities, or will the report’s conclusions force important changes in the decision-making structures?
Decisions about the use of military force are taken on a daily basis, both in Great Britain and elsewhere. What was unique about the Iraq decision was not that it was based on classified information, but rather that it unfolded over a considerable period of time, and that it was accompanied by a lot of public debate.
Most decisions of this kind take place under pressure and over short time spans, and get little public attention. The best vaccine lies here: In the awareness of the vulnerability that this creates, combined with inclusive political processes, open debate, as well as a solid and multifaceted knowledge base.