So, we know now what most of us thought we knew, which is that the Iraq war was undertaken because America wanted it and because Tony Blair wanted to stay in with America; not much to surprise us there. Victory has many fathers, and had things gone well, then many would have been claiming the credit; given that it did not, defeat, or at least this level of failure, ensured the opposite – that no one would claim paternity.
I began my academic career by studying the very first Anglo-American occupation – Operation ‘Torch’, the invasion of French North Africa in November 1942. I came to the conclusion that it was ineptly planned in terms of the follow through because no one on either side had bothered to think about the politics of the aftermath of a successful invasion. So, when it transpired that one of the Vichy leaders, Admiral Darlan, was in Algiers, the Americans cut a deal with him and then wondered why the press in America and Britain, and the Soviets, all complained that they were dealing with a Nazi collaborator. The same thing was true of planning for the 1944 D day invasion, when, again, the Allies planned to govern France and found that the French wanted to govern themselves- and went ahead and did so. Much the same failures marked the Iraq invasion. Over-sanguine assumptions about how an invasion would be received, and over-optimistic calculations about how the invaded territories would be governed. So, whatever Chilcot implies, there is nothing new about the failures of Bush and Blair here. Churchill and Roosevelt were very fortunate no one conducted an 8 year inquiry into their conduct of those operations; none would have escaped whipping.
Blair did nothing that most post-war Prime Ministers have not done – he decided that at all costs Britain must keep step with America; Churchill started that line, Macmillan restored it after Eden broke it at Suez, and Thatcher and Blair perfected it. Those who think Britain should have an independent foreign policy, but who also distrust the EU, have a duty to explain just how such a foreign policy could be run in the absence of cooperation with the USA. Unilateral disarmers and pacifists are at least consistent, those who want a truly independent policy need to remember Eden’s attempt – and failure.
It was Blair’s misfortune that the American regime he was cooperating with was as incompetent as every other American regime. My own suspicion is that having too many political scientists and too few historians in State is not a help. You can model all you like, but real people never conform to the models – as any historian would tell you. It appears neither State nor the Foreign Office possessed experts literate in the complex religious make-up of Iraq; they made the assumption they were dealing with people as uninterested in religion as themselves; maybe Bush and Blair should have been aware of this? As so often, the experts over-estimated the support they would receive from the people of the invaded country, and made the mistake of imagining there was some fledgling democracy waiting to break out of its shell. They did what so many Governments have done, they listened to exiles whose knowledge of their own country was out of date and coloured by the view that their country was crying out for them.
So, even before we get on to specifics. there is little here that has not happened before, so before saying ‘lessons should be learned’ we might wonder why, since these lessons were already there, no one had learned them? If you know no history, it will bite you – and they knew none, and it did.