A failure of strategy in Iraq

Tony Blair

I have already reported in an earlier blog entry on the Chilcot inquiry about flaws that emerged in the strategy of using the threat of invasion to press Saddam Hussein to disarm, principally that the military forces deployed to back up this threat could not be kept on stand-by indefinitely. There was a timetable and deadline implicit in the strategy that was never made explicit and was never agreed by the UN Security Council. Saddam Hussein’s slow but nevertheless real submission to the process of inspection brought this strategic problem to the fore and broke apart the alliance against him.

The evidence session with Tony Blair today has revealed another fundamental error in British and American thinking. The assumption was that they would have to fight and defeat the Iraqi armed forces, and then install a successor regime that would be broadly welcomed in that country. They underestimated the scale of the resistance they would meet: how come secular Baathists and religious Islamists could make common cause against the invader? The answer is the seductive appeal of nationalism, a parallel form of ideology that cuts across other kinds of political concern. (Ironic that, in view of the Bush administration’s own attachment to and pronouncements on nationalism.)

Moreover, they underestimated the willingness of their sworn enemies to oppose them. As Tony Blair said, “It was the introduction of the external elements of AQ and Iran that really caused this mission very nearly to fail.” He went on, “The conventional wisdom, if you like, at the time, was that you might get elements of the revolutionary guard playing about, but basically the evidence was that Iran would more or less have a watching brief to see how it would play out but it had no interest in destabilising [Iraq].”

But have announced a war on terror, why the surprise that terror fights back? Having declared that Iran was, like Iraq, a member of the axis of evil, why the surprise when Iran plots revenge? Isn’t that exactly what a member of the axis of evil would do? It would be hardly evil if Iran had simply sat back and done nothing.

There appears to have been a monumental failure of empathy behind this strategic mistake. The assumption was that Britain and America were at the centre of everything, and that other countries mattered and acted in relation to that centre. The idea that other countries have their own views of the world and their own reasons for acting and do not look at things through Anglo-American eyes has been learned the hard way. If, that is, it has been learned at all.

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I repeat, and juxtapose, a couple of quotes that have appeared previously on this blog, to give an illustration of the point I make above.

“We must establish what sort of world we want to live in. We want to live in a multi-polar world, that is to say with several large groups with relations between them as harmonious as possible, a world in which Europe, in particular, has a role, a world where democracy expands, where the United Nations plays a role – in our view, the central role – of providing a context and impulse for this democracy and this harmony …”

Jacques Chirac, 10 March 2003

“Structural questions about the United Nations and the European Union are secondary to those around future relations with the United States. Partnership is infinitely preferable to the French desire for a rival pole of power, which could revive the dynamics of the Cold War.”

Tony Blair, 25 March 2003

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