Why Blair went to war in Iraq: it wasn’t all irrational or dishonourable, but…
A comment on an earlier Ephems entry has recently made the valid point that Tony Blair’s decision that the UK would take part in the American attack on Iraq did have a certain amount of respectable motivation, despite its apparent recklessness:
I am much relieved to find you are conceding that Prime Minister Blair may have had some respectable reasons for his apparently reckless decision to support the American assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I continue to wonder exactly why he took that decision and have never felt content fully to accept the reasons offered to the press, Parliament and the public (I think I have that in the right order). I continue likewise to think a modicum of restraint is called for when criticising an incredibly difficult decision before all the main relevant facts are in the public domain.
There’s a lot in that observation. I have always thought (contrary to the view of many anti-war campaigners) that there was a respectable and honourable case in early 2003 for the use of force against Iraq on the assumption, shared by virtually everyone from Hans Blix, Chirac, Putin, Schroeder, Blair and Bush downwards, that Iraq had WMD, had failed to get rid of them, was thus in breach of numerous mandatory UN resolutions, and would sooner or later let some of the weapons get into the hands of international terrorists. It was a logical inference from those beliefs that the longer action to rid Iraq of its WMD was delayed, the more costly in blood and treasure that action would become. On the evidence then available these were all reasonable assumptions, and indeed it would have been reckless to turn a blind eye to them. However, Blair’s great failure lay in not having insisted from the outset, as an absolute and immutable condition of UK participation in the use of force against Iraq, that military action must have the prior approval of the Security Council in a new and explicit resolution. To go ahead without it was a plain breach of our international law obligations: it was, and is, an illegal war and its authors are war criminals. It’s no good Blair arguing that we couldn’t get UN approval because France would have vetoed any resolution that would have granted it: that’s a disgraceful lie, as anyone who takes the trouble to read the transcript of the relevant Chirac television interview must realise. The question of a French veto never arose, because there was never anything approaching a majority in the Council for approving the use of force at that time. Most Council members wanted to give Blix and his inspectors more time to complete their work before deciding whether the use of force would be justified as a genuine ‘last resort’. They were absolutely right. Blix might well have concluded, if we and the Americans had allowed him another month or two, that Iraq didn’t in fact have any WMD (as we now know to be the case). In that event there would have been no possible casus belli. Had Blix reported after completing his inspections that there probably still were WMD in Iraq which Saddam still refused to destroy, and that Saddam was still not cooperating with the inspectors, there would probably have been a unanimous decision by the Council to authorise the use of force. It’s a tragedy that we shall never know which way it would have gone.
Why didn’t Blair make explicit UN approval an absolute condition for our participation? There have been suggestions that he was pressed by his officials and advisers to do so and that there was some dismay in Whitehall and even in No. 10 when he didn’t. I suspect that there was a mixture of reasons. First, he had boundless and characteristic confidence in his ability to persuade the Council to act in the way that he ‘passionately believed’ to be right, through a blend of his personal charm, the proven effectiveness of British diplomacy (especially after the incredible triumph of getting unanimous support for resolution 1441), and the strength of the arguments as he saw them. I doubt if it even occurred to him that after every nerve had been strained to secure UN approval, at the end of the day he might fail. Secondly, like every British prime minister since Suez, Blair regarded it as a top priority in British foreign policy to stick closely to the Americans unless there were the most powerful reasons for not doing so: Eden’s failure to obey this imperative in 1956 had had catastrophic consequences for Britain and for himself. Thirdly, I strongly suspect that when faced with Bush’s and his neo-cons’ absolute determination to go ahead and topple Saddam with or without UN approval, and finding himself an American hero because of his sturdy and loyal support for US policy and for robust action to deal with Saddam, his nerve failed him, and he couldn’t bring himself to lay down a condition that would have been treated with incredulous scorn by both the Bush administration and American public opinion. Lastly, the Kosovo experience, in which NATO collectively attacked Yugoslavia without any vestige of authority from the UN, may have led Tony Blair to assume that he could, if necessary, get away with it again. The failure was undeniably cowardly (and ultimately disastrous); but when you have been the recipient of a standing ovation and prolonged cheering in a joint sitting of both houses of the American Congress, in the presence of the President and his entire Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff, perhaps it’s understandable that you hesitate to spit in their faces.
One of the many tragic consequences of that failure was that we shall never know whether Bush would have gone ahead with the attack on Iraq without British participation and support. Public opinion polls in the US at the time were registering a majority in favour of military action against Saddam, but only if America was acting with respectable allies – and British participation conferred the most persuasive possible respectability. The polls indicated a majority against military action by the US acting alone. If Britain had stood aside and argued for more time for the UN weapons inspectors before launching an attack, others such as the Italians and Australians might well have followed suit, especially if this had reflected an agreed EU position. There would have been intense pressure on Bush to hold back and wait for Blix’s verdict, in the hope of then gaining UN authority and, with it, British and other international participation in the attack and subsequent occupation. But it didn’t happen, and so these speculations about ‘what-if’ remain just that – speculation.
The other almost equally serious charge against both Blair and Bush is that they misrepresented (probably to themselves, as well as to public opinion in both their countries) the evidence of Iraq’s possession of WMD as strong and convincing when that evidence, as we now know, was actually thin, sketchy and largely unreliable. Bush did it because (as he never really sought to conceal or deny) the WMD issue wasn’t his main reason for deciding to topple Saddam, but he seems to have recognised that it was the only justification for the use of force capable of gaining UN approval, regarded by the Americans as a nice bonus if the Brits could deliver it, but not as in any way essential. Blair presumably did it because he was by that time too firmly committed to the Americans to back out, and it was too late to start laying down a condition (UN approval) that seemed increasingly unlikely to be satisfied, anyway for several weeks or months. Moreover, it seemed inconceivable that the evidence, however thin, could actually be wrong. That would have implied that Saddam had destroyed the WMD that he had undoubtedly possessed earlier, but that he had done so secretly, deliberately forgoing the opportunity to demonstrate to the UN and international opinion that he had in fact obeyed the demands of the UN resolutions, thus escaping from UN sanctions and the threat of military action against him which, if it materialised, would almost certainly spell the end of his régime and probably also of his life. Such apparently irrational behaviour by Saddam would have – indeed did – seem incomparably more improbable than the alternative hypothesis: that Iraq still had WMD, was determined to conceal them from the UN inspectors, and was therefore in serious breach of the mandatory resolutions of the Security Council. Such evidence as was available, even though thin, pointed to the latter hypothesis rather than the former. Only one voice with any claim to be heard, that of a former UN weapons inspector, the controversial Scott Ritter, was raised in support of the first proposition, that Iraq no longer possessed WMD, but his was massively outvoted by all the other authoritative voices saying the opposite. It was not irrational or perverse to base military action on the hypothesis that Iraq still had at least some of its WMD: but in the way it was done, it was illegal; and it turned out to be wrong.
Blair’s record in the run-up to war doesn’t show him to have been reckless, irrational, or dishonourable, at any rate in terms of his motivation. But it was a chapter of errors, failures of nerve and judgement and timing, of miscalculation of what the Security Council and international opinion generally could be persuaded to swallow, and of impatience. And for these failures a terrible price is still being paid.
Postscript: Immediately after posting this piece, I received a message recommending an interesting and important article in the Boston Review by Stephen M. Walt, the academic dean and Professor of International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The article, a critical review of American foreign policy across the board with numerous cogent recommendations for its reform and improvement, is well worth reading for its own sake; I mention it here because its main passage on the way the Bush administration handled the attack on Iraq (and how different things might have been if it had been done differently and more patiently) is remarkably accurately echoed in what I have written above, even though I had not read the Walt article when I wrote it.
26 September 2005