Invading Iraq: Tony Blair’s real motivation
12 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Center for American Progress

I haven’t read the dozen-odd volumes of the full Chilcot Report, but I can recommend the 150-odd page Executive Summary. It’s a valuable document and a welcome affirmation, in troubled times, of the principles of accountability on which representative government must be built. But it has serious flaws.

The Executive Summary suggests that in the 12 volumes of seemingly obsessive detail, Chilcot and his colleagues have missed arguably the four most important points about the whole sad story of Britain’s decision to help America invade Iraq.

The first concerns Britain’s, and especially Blair’s, prime motivation. The Report takes more or less at face value, and never seriously contests, the Blair Government’s position that their fears about Iraq’s WMD were indeed the primary reason for deciding to invade Iraq. This is at least highly contestable, and I think almost certainly false. It is not that they did not genuinely believe Iraq had WMD: all the evidence seems to confirm they did, and hence did not lie about it.

But Chilcot doesn’t convincingly explain why Blair might have decided that the risks posed by Iraq’s WMD had suddenly become so serious as to warrant the extraordinary costs and risks of invasion and regime change. It isn’t enough simply to say that 9/11 had changed perceptions of risk, because there never was significant evidence of connections between Saddam and al-Qaeda. If nuclear terrorism was the fear, the danger of al-Qaeda getting WMD was much higher in Pakistan. So why suddenly turn on Iraq?

The best and simplest explanation is that the WMD were merely a pretext, not a reason, to invade Iraq. That explains why Blair and others were so insouciant about the intelligence gaps: the intelligence was not driving their decisions. It was just being used to explain those decisions to the rest of us.

So what was the real reason? My hunch is the truest answer for Britain is that Blair invaded Iraq in order to assert, in the curiously edgy post-9/11 world, his view of the way the world should work, and of America’s, Britain’s, and his own role in it. He wanted to assert a triumphalist vision of a post-Cold War world order framed by American power, with Britain in a central role as its primary helper, and with he, Blair, providing the moral courage, intellectual heft and inspirational leadership.

If so, then Chilcot lets Blair off far too lightly, because his failure wasn’t, as Chilcot suggests, to pursue what might under other circumstances constitute a legitimate strategic objective in a muddled and incompetent way. It was to launch a war in pursuit of a vain delusion of national and personal power.

Second, Chilcot doesn’t clearly recognise how vain that delusion was, because the Report doesn’t face up to the nature of Britain’s and its allies’ failures. It suggests that with better planning and policies, and a few more resources, things might have gone much better; and that Blair’s vision of rebuilding a stable pro-Western Iraq might then have been realised. In other words, Chilcot shares Blair’s own view that failure in Iraq was a matter of poor execution, not of a fundamentally flawed conception.  

That is, in a sense, to share Blair’s central delusion: that the West, underwritten by American power and guided by British statesmanship, has the capacity to take over a country the size of Iraq and transform its national life and political institutions to match our interests and values, at a price we’re able and willing to pay. The most important lesson of Iraq, and of Afghanistan, and Libya, and Syria, is that this is false. Such massive efforts of political transformation require resources on a scale and over a timeframe that no country in the West, including America and Britain can or will commit.

Third, Chilcot gives a lot of attention to Blair’s epic struggle, and failure, to achieve a UN mandate for the invasion. But is doesn’t seem anywhere to address the deeper question: what difference would a UN mandate have made?  The invasion and occupation didn’t fail because it was illegal without a UN mandate, and it wouldn’t have succeeded any better if the elusive second UNSC resolution had been secured.

Finally, in so starkly blaming Blair for poor decision-making, Chilcot seems to let many others off too lightly. Blair must of course be held responsible for the many failures—and as I have suggested, those failures were even deeper than the report suggests. But he wasn’t the only person in Whitehall responsible for British policy. Under the time-honoured principles of Westminster-style cabinet government, his Cabinet colleagues shared that responsibility.

So it’s their fault—as well as Blair’s—if they went along with him, just as it’s their fault as well as Blair’s if they didn’t demand and exercise their right and responsibility to dissent if they did not. They shared his responsibility and they must all share the blame. Some might say that that isn’t how things are in the contemporary ‘presidential’ model of Westminster government that operated under Blair. But Iraq shows why that model doesn’t work, and needs to be fixed. Chilcot fails to draw that vital conclusion.

And the blame should be spread beyond Cabinet too. Blair’s senior civil and military advisers didn’t share his and his cabinet colleagues’ responsibility for the final decisions, but they did have a plain duty of their own to give prudent, carefully-considered and well-informed advice, and to give it as forcefully as necessary to make sure the message got through.

And what of Australia? We seem content to assume that there are no lessons to be learned from the decisions for war made in the decade after 9/11 by our Governments, Labor and Coalition, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. But all of the failings in British policy-making had their echoes in Australia, and we’ve taken no steps to recognise and understand them. So don’t be surprised if we repeat them.