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

7 Responses

  1. Malcolm McBain says:

    Very interesting. I tried to get some comment from the French about the veto story but only tried the Quai d’Orsay (I think it was). It was of little help, quite unlike the very revealing television interview with Chirac carefully translated into good English by the French Embassy in Washington. I wonder if the same report is available from the French Embassy in London?

    The French attitude as revealed in the transcript is certainly reasonable and to the credit of France, I think. Their account fails however to address the fact that the US/UK military believed their troops would face chemical and biological weapons when they invaded Iraq and that it would be physically impossible for them to delay the invasion for another month because of the impossibility of surviving within armoured vehicles while wearing all that awful protective (anti-chemical/biological) clothing in the heat of the desert. The US/UK force had already been deployed (at great cost) and had brought about the concessions from Saddam Hussein that Chirac described as a victory for the US/UK.
    I’m somewhat inclined to the view that Bush/Blair thought invading Iraq would enable them to present the Iraqis with a simple choice between freedom and democracy on the one hand and tyranny and repression on the other. There would be no doubt which they would choose. A modern Islamic state would thereby emerge leading to peace and progress in the Middle East. Alas, neither B has had any Colonial experience such as any old hand from India or Africa or the Gulf would have possessed a couple of generations ago.

    I still try to keep the flow of experience from past generations going through my oral history programme.


    Brian comments: The world will be permanently in even more turmoil than it is already if a powerful state is allowed to get away with attacking another country in breach of international law by advancing the Alice in Wonderland excuse that it has deployed its troops on the victim’s boders in readiness for the attack, and can’t delay the assault until it has been legitimised by the approval of the Security Council because of the discomfort that delay would cause the waiting troops. Deployment in itself was clearly legitimate in the case of Iraq in 2003, and probably added powerfully to the pressure on Saddam to re-admit the UN inspectors and to improve his cooperation with them, as Blix reported he had done. But it was the decision of the US and UK governments to deploy when they did: they knew and presumably took into account the risk that changes in the weather as the year progressed would create physical problems for their (our) troops: but when they found themselves unable to secure the agreement of the Council to the resort to force against Iraq on a timing convenient to Washington and London, they should either have postponed the whole operation by a year (probably six months would have been enough) or brought the troops home. If the police want to search a house during the night when the suspect is likely to be at home, but can’t get a search warrant until the next morning, that’s very tiresome and inconvenient for the police, but it doesn’t justify them in going into the house during the night and searching it without a search warrant.

    Your oral history programme is hugely valuable, and I hope it goes from strength to strength. But whether each generation of poilitical and military leaders will actually make use of it to draw lessons from past mistakes and to learn from the experience of their predecessors and of their predecessors’ public servants must be somewhat open to question!

  2. Brian,
    You wrote:

    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.

    And I’m sure such a case can be made out. But I’m not sure Blair is entitled to that “respectable and honourable case” defence.
    Of course it’s not possible to know for sure, but what troubles me is the dossier produced by HMG in September 2002. Blair signed the forward.
    It is beyond doubt that the WMD case in this document was “sexed up”. Both Hutton and Butler came to that conclusion. The troubling question is this. Why does HMG find it necessary to leave out all the caveats et.c the intelligence people had reported? And why later that year or earlier the following year,I forget which, did they publish the “dodgy ” dossier?
    I am drawn inexorably to the conclusion that Blair was, to put it as neutral as possible,uncertain about the WMD case, thus depriving him or your “respectable and honourable belief” defence.

  3. Brian says:


    I described Blair’s belief as ‘respectable and honourable’, but not everything that he did in consequence of that belief. I partially dealt with the issue of the sexed-up evidence in the section of my post (above) dealing with its misrepresentation. It was indeed unpardonable to ‘sex up’ the evidence in the way that was done: unpardonable and culpable, but sort of understandable. For the reasons I have speculatively described, Blair would have believed that the evidence, though thin, was accurate and pointed in the right direction, thus confirming the rightness of his conviction that the danger of Iraqi WMD falling into the hands of terrorists needed to be urgently nipped in the bud before it became too horrendously costly to tackle. He didn’t have enough confidence, however, that this logic would be accepted by public, parliamentary or Labour Party opinion as sufficient to justify a war in which British servicemen and women, and inevitably many Iraqi civilians, would be killed — a lack of confidence that was probably justified. The thinness of the evidence was an obstacle to getting general acceptance of what he ‘passionately believed‘ (great Blair phrase), indeed knew, to be necessary. So he yielded to the Faustian temptation to beef it up, and in doing so secured the support of the House of Commons and, initially at least, of much of UK public opinion, for the action which he felt strongly had to be taken. It was a case of the end being so vital, so urgent, that it justified almost any means: or, to put it more charitably, he chose what he saw as the lesser of two evils, the choice which is more often than not forced on political leaders.

    The greater evil was the alternative — accepting that he would not be able to convince public or parliamentary opinion of the need for the action he was absolutely certain needed to be taken, and having then to welsh on his firm commitment to Bush, being turned from America’s greatest and stoutest friend into a weak and cowardly traitor, above all failing to take the action in the face of a great danger that he was utterly convinced was necessary — which must have seemed unthinkable. He was already in too deep. The evidence had to be right, and if it was necessary to sex it up a bit for public consumption, that must have seemed a venial rather than a mortal sin. The lesser of two evils.

    As I say, unpardonable, but in a way understandable.


  4. Tony says:

    I think the line between bad judgement, unpardonable behaviour and dishonourable and dishonest behaviour is often very fine indeed. I suppose we will never agree, but I place Blair on the other side of this line. Though of course he was unlucky. I don’t suppose for one moment he could have forseen Dr Kelly’s demise, without which he would be home free and clear. At least for thirty years or so!
    From sunny Sicily.

  5. I think there is a lot of pompous wordy pontificating and pointless hair splitting that incredibly ignores what is starkly obvious to most who can read and use the internet.

    Blair is a scoundrel and a liar who at no time ever had or has since produced a shred of credible evidence to support the claimed “emergency” of Iraqi threats.

    Iraq was on it`s knees under brutal sanctions and on the end of regular assault from the US and assistants.

    The invasion was a ruthless and murderous grab for the control over the resource assets of the nation and seems intent on destroying everything good and noble that these God forsaken people may have still had in their possession.

    Can you guys be serious!

    Brian adds: Well, that’s certainly one interpretation. I don’t think however that it explains the unanimous view of every single one of the 15 governments on the Security Council and of Hans Blix, the Chief Weapons Inspector, right up to the moment of the US-UK attack on Iraq (and indeed for some time afterwards) that there were WMD still in Iraq and that they represented a threat to international peace and security, as repeatedly and formally declared in a succession of Security Council resolutions, including res. 1441, passed unanimously by the Council. It’s possible of course that the governments of Russia, China, France and Germany (and the other ten Security council members as well) were all secretly in league with George W. Bush and part of a global conspiracy to deliver Iraq’s oil to American control. But it doesn’t look to me very likely. Moreover one predictable effect of the American attack on and occupation of Iraq, with numerous allies of varying degrees of commitment, has been sharply to reduce Iraq’s oil production and its availability for purchase by the oil-hungry United States. The reduction has contributed to the dramatic rise in the world price of crude and consequently of the price of gasoline at Americans’ pumps, causing cries of pain throughout the US. I agree that one of the many motives for US Iraq policy was to improve the security and reliability of US access to its vital oil supplies (in no sense a surprising or improper aim) but I don’t think it is sufficient on its own to explain the chain of events leading up to the war, unless you accept that the Bush administration, like every other western government, genuinely believed that Saddam still possessed WMD and that even if Saddam didn’t develop and eventually use them, creating mayhem and insecurity throughout the middle east, it was almost inevitable that sooner or later some of his WMD would fall into the hands of international terrorists who wouldn’t hesitate to use them against the west. I don’t think that this set of beliefs and the entirely rational fears which followed from them can easily be dismissed as deliberate deception, especially as it was so very widely shared.

    None of this however can excuse the embellishment (‘sexing up’) of the evidence for Iraq’s possession of WMD, even if Bush jnr., Blair, and the rest genuinely believed that Iraq did still possess them: still less can it excuse the unpardonable resort to the use of force before the Security Council was ready to authorise it. Those reckless acts disgraced their perpetrators. But those are separate issues from the question of the reasons for Bush’s and Blair’s conclusion that force had to be used. Some at least of those reasons were rational and responsible ones. It was the way in which they then proceeded to act on them that deserves the most vigorous condemnation.

    PS: I think that these are important questions that call for serious debate. To describe discussion of them as “pompous wordy pontificating and pointless hair splitting” doesn’t add anything useful to that debate. No-one is compelled to read it, still less to contribute abuse to it. But I don’t intend to have you metaphorically ejected by the bouncers from the conference chamber by deleting your comment. Not this time, anyway!

  6. Brian, I have researched the energy issue for many years and believe the greatest problem the oil cartels have is the world is absolutely awash with energy reserves.

    Iraq had to be controlled to stop the “undisciplined” flow of oil from that reserve.

    Oil shortage rears are a fallacy that has been peddled for decades to manipulate the profits achieved.

    In Australia we had a number of “intelligence” insiders spill the beans that the information never, I repeat never, suggested any type of alarming threat as was dishonestly presented by the hyped media and political war chants.

    I can hardly believe that a person of your experience could not have sought wide opinion and a complete comprehension of the agenda and source of this hyped propaganda because millions who read and learn on the internet had discovered the truth of the “evidence” at the time it was presented.

    I genuinly stand by my judgement of the previous comments.

    If we had more focus on the political realities that can be found if one removes the blinkers then those many tens of thousands of innocent in Iraq would be alive along with the troops who have lost their lives.

    These questions are deadly serious Brian and need urgent attention from brave and honest men and women.

    To split hairs on judgement of Blair`s behaviour, given all the facts, just appears bazaar to me.

    When are you going to hold him accountable?

  7. Prometheus says:

    An interesting question raised here is why we are still maintaining a gluttonous dependence on primitative fuels like petroleum in the first place when it has been proven that automobiles can run more effectively on fuels like ethanol which can be manufactured from waste products that we throw away.

    Personally, I would move on from oil and let the primates in the middle east eat sand fricasse, sand casserole and of course the inevitable sand sandwich.