war on the rocks

A Failure of Ideas: Revisiting Tony Blair’s Legacy in Iraq

December 20, 2018

Patrick Porter, Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018).

The case against the Iraq war now looks blindingly obvious. First there was the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible reason for the invasion. Then came the bloody occupation and violent sectarian unrest. Finally, there was the rise of Islamic State and the war in Syria, which would not have happened without the invasion led by the United States and abetted by Britain.

In the West, many prominent backers of the war have recanted; the few who continue to defend it look lonely and desperate. Of the two leading pro-war political figures, former U.S. President George W. Bush is diminished abroad and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair a running joke at home. America has now elected two presidents who opposed the war. In 2013, the United States and Britain balked at military action against the Assad regime in Syria in large part because they feared repeating the mistakes of Iraq.

So do we need another explanation of the folly unleashed on Iraq in 2003? Hasn’t the lesson been learned?

Patrick Porter’s Blunder argues that, as clear as the retrospective case against the Iraq war has become, it was also clear in prospect, because the war was above all a failure not of execution but of ideas — ideas that remain entrenched in Western foreign policy thinking. For Porter, the argument that the war was strategically, legally, and morally defensible but poorly managed will not stand. His aim is to demolish the case for launching the war in the first place so that the same arguments cannot again be employed to justify such a reckless course.

Porter amply succeeds on those terms. His demolition is comprehensive because, rather than caricaturing or dismissing the pro-war case, he takes it seriously. This really ought to be unexceptional — if you want to refute an argument, first take the effort to understand it and present it in the strongest possible way — but it’s surprising how rarely analysts and political commentators do this. Porter is also generous to the man commonly cast as the villain in the story of Britain’s war in Iraq: Blair. Unsurprisingly, Porter charges Blair with grievous errors of judgment, but he also points out that Blair “fully confronts the decision and accepts responsibility.” Those who scapegoat Blair conveniently forget that the war had majority support in parliament and the nation. It was Britain’s war, not just Blair’s.

Still, if Britain’s war was a failure of ideas, those ideas emanated almost entirely from Blair. Porter decides to focus his book on Britain’s role in the war largely because, one senses, Blair so perfectly represents the “belligerent liberalism” that is Porter’s real target. The author argues that for Blair, regime change was an ideology. Breaking and then remaking foreign nations on liberal principles was the only way to eliminate threats and secure world order. Blair saw war as an instrument of reform, and he wedded this martial welfare policy to a grossly inflated assessment of the terrorist threat and of the links between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction-armed “rogue” regimes. The British prime minister also convinced his country that preventive war to overthrow such regimes would be quick and decisive. He made the absurd claim that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein posed a risk to the entire world order, and in a speech excerpted in the book, even argues that poverty, environmental damage, and the ravages of disease could not be tackled while terrorism and rogue states remained a threat.

He was tragically wrong about all of these things, and Porter is unsparing in his judgment. But is his case against Blair complete?

Porter’s counter to Blair’s bellicose liberalism rests on a classically realist approach to statecraft which places the national interest at the center of calculations but also “rejects amorality.” It is, Porter says, a humane but skeptical doctrine centered on the idea that world affairs tend toward competition and conflict and that cooperation tends to be “difficult, impermanent and fragile.” There are no permanent solutions to security threats, and war is a hammer rather than a scalpel, to be used sparingly in the pursuit of narrowly defined interests rather than distant, utopian goals. If there is an altruistic element to such realism, it is only in the instinct to minimize harm.

Here Porter perhaps fails to see the full implications of his stance. He only ever damns Blair’s Britain for supporting the war, not for failing to act against it. Given that Porter’s case against the war is so comprehensive, and that his classical realism allows for the minimization of harm, why does he stop short of arguing that Blair should have done more to prevent or even mitigate a clearly foreseeable disaster? Granted, given Blair’s enthusiastic rush to follow Bush into war, outright opposition was a long shot. But in such an expansive treatment of Blair’s worldview and Britain’s role in instigating the war, it would have been interesting to explore a universe in which Britain acted as the loyal opposition.

Porter does briefly play with the notion of U.K. opposition to the war. In one passage, he suggests, “In a counterfactual universe, Britain may not have been able to prevent the invasion of Iraq. But the price for trying may not have been as steep, nor as lasting, as feared.” In this counterfactual, the point of opposing the war was not to actually stop it but to save British blood, treasure, and honor. Britain’s relations with the United States would be damaged in the short term but would eventually recover, Porter argues, just as France’s did.

It is true that, over the long run, France paid no price for its opposition, but the fact that Porter sees this as a recommendation for France’s position reveals the limits of his “harm minimization” principle. France’s opposition to the war was cheap and superficial; it was not prepared to sacrifice anything for its anti-war position. If France has taken its own opposition seriously, perhaps it should have been prepared to really get in America’s way, thus risking a long-term breach in order to prevent a disastrous war.

Of course, France had little with which to coerce or frustrate Washington, and in any case the United States seemed set on its course. But if the war could not be stopped, doesn’t Porter’s principle of minimizing harm at least demand that opponents of the war try to shape the kind of war Washington intended to wage? Porter repeatedly says there was a middle way between regime change and doing nothing. He calls it “vigilant overwatch,” but that’s a fairly accurate description of the pre-war status quo. Washington would never have stood for a mere continuation of that policy.

Back in February 2003, weeks before the invasion began, just war theorist Michael Walzer made a bolder proposal — he wanted France to stage a “little war” to prevent Bush’s big war. Extend the no-fly zone over the entire country, tighten sanctions and inspections, and position substantial ground forces in the Gulf, he recommended. France alone may not have gotten very far with Walzer’s idea, but with Britain’s support, such a proposal might have had a chance. For France, it would have required putting skin in the game rather than moralizing from the sidelines. From Britain and Blair, it would have required some imagination and a more realistic appraisal of the threat Saddam actually posed.

Blair, in other words, had alternatives that might have reduced the scale of the disaster, but Blunder reveals that he was blinded by bad ideas to any alternative policy course. Indeed, so comprehensive is Porter’s case against the war that the reader is left wondering if it is enough to criticize Blair only for failing to keep Britain out of it.


Sam Roggeveen is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute. He is a former senior analyst at Australia’s peak intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, and founding editor of The Interpreter.

Image: Paul Morse