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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 January 2019

New book deems Iraq war Britain's 'most failed outcome since Suez'

In Blunder, Patrick Porter looks back at the justifications used by Britain to take up arms and join America in its quest to topple Saddam Hussein

US President George W. Bush speaks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 08 April 2003 at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland where they met to discuss issues in relation with Iraq. AFP
US President George W. Bush speaks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, 08 April 2003 at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland where they met to discuss issues in relation with Iraq. AFP

It is 15 years since Saddam Hussein was captured by US troops. Given the numerous inquiries that have taken place, and the flood of histories, analyses and op-eds that have been written about the second Iraq War, one might well ask if we really need any more books on the subject. Yes, is the answer, at least after reading Patrick Porter’s well-researched, elegant and succinctly written “J’accuse” directed at the hawks and ­liberal idealists who led Britain into what he calls: “the country’s first military-strategic failure since the withdrawal from Aden in 1967, its largest-scale combat since Korea in 1950, its most failed outcome since Suez in 1956, and its most polarising campaign since the South African war of 1899.”

The devastating impacts of the Iraq war

The war was worse than a crime, says Porter (who in any case regards judging wars on a legalistic basis as too reductionist). It was a blunder that led to disorder, which led to bloodletting; the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands; the displacement of millions; sectarian warfare and the rise of ISIS; a blunder which, far from reducing the risk of proliferation, in fact taught other countries not to give up any weapons of mass destruction they might have. And all at a cost of trillions of dollars that would have been better spent at home in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Iraqi women leave the besieged city of Basra in, 2003, after British and American troops invaded Jerry Lampen
Iraqi women leave the besieged city of Basra in, 2003, after British and American troops invaded Jerry Lampen

Porter, a professor at the University of Birmingham and senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London, may find legal niceties too thin, but one senses he would make a great courtroom lawyer. He marries academic breadth and rigour – there are references to the imperial adventures of Philip II of Spain and the cautious tactics of the Byzantine Empire, and copious footnotes on every page – with a lively style and some inventive phrase-making. Of an interventionist liberalism that is unaware of “the coercive and violent pathologies” of its own tradition, he writes: “This is the imperialism that doesn’t know itself.” Earlier, he points out that Iraq possessed the world’s 12th-largest army and that Hussein could have prepared for a war of attrition. It was the fault of the “Bungler of Baghdad” that his capital fell after only three weeks.

'A decision in search of a justification'

He lays out in incisive detail how weak the case for war was, built less on “deception than self-deception”, on certainties that were not backed up by evidence, all so the go-ahead could be given to what he calls “a decision in search of a justification”. Porter enumerates not just one but several blunders, but the failure to scrutinise is chief among them. Not least: was it necessary to invade Iraq and topple Saddam? According to this book, that was never even the question. President Bush and then British Prime Minister Tony Blair (the latter no “poodle”, he argues) had decided they wanted to and had convinced themselves it was a moral imperative.

Saddam’s supposed possession of WMD was not the real reason. He quotes then deputy US defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz as saying it was only made the central basis on the grounds that “it was the one reason everyone could agree on.” Tony Blair let slip the real reason in a note to Bush days after the campaign had begun: “Though Iraq’s WMD is the immediate justification for action, ridding Iraq of Saddam is the real prize.” Whether Britain should have been part of the invasion – a role Porter makes clear the UK was in no way required to take up – is something he accuses Blair of “hardly weighing” at all. And as to whether the British PM was convinced that Saddam was the threat he made him out to be, Porter quotes the ­senior diplomat, Sir Stephen Wall, as saying: “Blair ‘didn’t ask a lot of crucial questions’ about nuclear capacity because he ‘didn’t want to’.”

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Another major blunder was the wishful thinking about how peaceful and democratic a post-Saddam Iraq would be. Not only was that an obvious danger at the time, as many of us said, but it was not true, as the US commentator Charles Krauthammer subsequently wrote in 2007 that “We midwifed their [Iraqis’] freedom. They chose civil war.” The invading alliance, says Porter, bore “culpability … for the structural situation. In the vacuum that invasion made possible, criminal activity, sectarian conflict and the Al Qaeda-backed Sunni insurgency all thrived.”

Neither does he have any time for the view that if only the US had left a more substantial force in the country for longer, then Shia vengeance against the Sunni minority that had ruled them for so long could have been forestalled. “If 160,000 troops at the height of the occupation were not enough to curtail the Iraqi state’s abusive behaviour, it is hard to see how a smaller force could have made a meaningful difference.”

Hard-headed realism

If a muscular liberalism that ignored the facts and believed in the inevitability of its own universalism is the villain of this book, then a hard-headed realism that is prepared to face an insecure world and cruel dictators such as Saddam with the tools of containment and counter-terrorism is the alternative that the author persuasively offers. Porter does not absolve Tony Blair of blame – far from it – but he correctly points out that many were in favour of the war before they thought better afterwards. Despite its title, the book is almost as much about the US as the UK; it is the unnecessary nature of Britain’s participation in the war, undertaken to retain an influence it has never been able to exert, that provides the focus on London.

The line that sums it all up most tragi-comically and poignantly was quoted at a conference on the Chilcot Inquiry into the war in 2016. Defending the decision to join the US in destroying a country, a top British civil servant had said: “If the United States is making a blunder, we must not allow them to make it alone.”

Updated: December 16, 2018 11:42 AM

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