Blair’s vincible ignorance

A Facebook post by the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, whom I knew many years ago at Oxford, prompted me to send him a short reply, which I think deserves further development here.

Responding to the Chilcot Report about Britain’s war in Iraq, Stephen commented, ‘I still respect Blair’s commitment to doing what he believed was the right thing.’ This echoes the excuse Blair himself has often given for his behaviour – ‘I may have been wrong, but I acted according to conscience’. As Blair said in his own response to the report, ‘Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein; I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.’

For simplicity’s sake, let us take Blair at his word, and accept that he acted in ‘good faith’, and that he did what he did because he sincerely believed that it was the right thing to do. Given the disastrous consequences of his decision, does the fact that he was acting according to conscience excuse him?

A good way of answering that question is to turn to Thomas Aquinas and the distinction he drew between ‘vincible’ and ‘invincible’ ignorance. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas asked whether it was sinful to obey an erring conscience. He answered that, ‘absolutely speaking, every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.’ In other words, if your conscience (which Aquinas defined as being the application of reason) tells you that something is right, then you must do it. If your reasoning subsequently turns out to have been wrong, you still won’t have acted sinfully. But Aquinas linked this conclusion to the concept of ‘invincible ignorance’. Aquinas wrote:

It is evident that whoever neglects to have or do what he ought to have or do, commits a sin of omission. Wherefore through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called ‘invincible,’ because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know; but not, if it be about things one is not bound to know.

Following this, Aquinas then asks, ‘whether an erring conscience excuses?’ He replies:

Now this question depends on what has been said above about ignorance … If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil.

Simply put, if you do something wrong believing it to be right, your error is excusable if you weren’t to blame for your own ignorance. But if your ignorance was your own fault, because you should or could have known what you did not, then the fact that you were acting according to conscience does not excuse your mistake.

So was Tony Blair vincibly or invincibly ignorant about Iraq? Could he, or should he, have known that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that the invasion of Iraq would lead to the collapse of government authority in that state and bloody civil war, and that the invasion would probably increase the threat of Islamic terrorism? Or were these all things that he could not have known, and which he should not be blamed for not having known?

The Chilcot report provides the answers. As I pointed out in my last post, the report makes it clear that the intelligence Blair received about WMD was not nearly as categorical as he pretended; he was warned that the Americans did not have a decent plan for the post-war occupation; and he was warned that the war would probably increase the danger from terrorism. But he chose to ignore these warnings. In other words, his ignorance was vincible. Consequently, the fact that he was ‘doing what he believed was the right thing’ does not excuse him at all.

Reflections on the war in Iraq and the Chilcot report

The report of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into Britain’s war in Iraq was published today. You can read the 145-page long executive summary here. For those of you who don’t have the time to read the whole thing (let alone the complete report), my summary of the summary is below, along with my analysis of it.

  1. Why Britain Went to War in 2003

Chilcot suggests that the main reason Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 was that Prime Minister Tony Blair decided that the United Kingdom should stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the United States come what may. Indeed, on 28 July 2002 Blair wrote a note to US President George Bush saying, ‘I will be with you, whatever.’

Blair preferred that the USA and UK not act unilaterally. Instead, he wanted them to gather international support for action against Iraq through the United Nations. Blair hoped that by standing resolutely alongside the Americans he might ‘influence’ them to go down the UN path. It also seems that he may have hoped that he could avoid war by persuading the UN to take a very firm stance against Iraq. The logic was that Saddam Hussein might back down if faced with the united opposition of the entire rest of the world. By threatening invasion, the UK could thereby prevent a war which was otherwise inevitable (given American preferences). The problem with this paradoxical logic was that a) Saddam didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and so couldn’t ‘back down’, and b) Blair couldn’t persuade the rest of the world to support him in the UN. But once it became clear that this support was lacking, Blair had committed himself to supporting the Americans, and so had no option but to follow through with his threats, and to wage war.

Analysis: This story reveals the folly of the often repeated mantra that showing strength and resolution is the best way of preserving peace. Unfortunately, all too often such displays of resolution instead produce war. The story also provides further evidence of the folly of the idea that by standing alongside the Americans, you can somehow gain some useful ‘influence’ over them, and thereby promote your own country’s national interests, whereas if you fail to support America you will damage those interests. As Chilcot points out

Had the UK stood by its differing position on Iraq – which was not an opposed position, but one in which the UK had identified conditions seen as vital by the UK Government – the Inquiry does not consider that this would have led to a fundamental or lasting change in the UK’s relationship with the US.

The alliances which Western nations forged in the aftermath of the Second World War have lasted so long that many people have lost sight of the fact that alliances are meant to serve a purpose not be an end in themselves. This is something worth bearing in mind in the context of current international tensions, including those between Russia and NATO.

  1. How the British Government Justified the War

The British government justified the invasion of Iraq by claiming that Iraqi WMD posed a serious threat to national security. Chilcot criticises the British intelligence services for failing to seriously consider the possibility that Iraq did not after all have any WMD. At the same, he makes it clear that Blair made the intelligence on Iraqi WMD appear far more categorical than it actually was. In his foreword to the infamous ‘dossier’ on WMD published by the British government in September 2002, Blair said firmly, ‘intelligence has established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.’ In fact, Chilcot says, ‘The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons. … Nor had the assessed intelligence established beyond doubt that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued.’

Furthermore, in the months after the dossier, Blair received information that contradicted his statements. For instance, in February 2003, the chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix stated that, ‘perhaps there was not much WMD in Iraq after all.’ But Blair did not change his assessments.

Blair also asserted a link between Iraq, WMD, and terrorism, even though his own intelligence agencies denied that such a link existed. In a speech to parliament in March 2003, Mr Blair said: ‘The real problem is that … people dispute Iraq is a threat, dispute the link between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and dispute in other words, the whole basis of our assertion that the two together constitute a fundamental assault on our way of life.’ The obvious implication was that Iraq might give WMD to terrorists and so threaten the UK. Yet Chilcot shows that the Joint Intelligence Committee assessed that there were no connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda and that there was ‘no credible evidence of covert transfers of WMD-related technology and expertise to terrorist groups.’

Analysis: There is plenty of blame to share around on this issue. Once they had made up their minds about Iraqi WMD, the intelligence agencies failed to consider alternative analyses even when evidence began to accumulate that their initial assessment was wrong. Blair then exaggerated what they said in order to make his case to the British public. That said, his exaggerations were clear at the time. As I pointed out in an article in December 2002, anybody who read the WMD dossier carefully could see that it didn’t actually say what Blair said it said. The British media are culpable for failing to point this obvious fact out and for allowing Blair’s deceptions to go unchallenged.

  1. The Legality of the War

Chilcot concludes that, ‘The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory.’ On 14 January 2003, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, gave Blair draft legal advice saying that UN Resolution 1441 would not by itself authorise the use of military force. According to Chilcot, when Goldsmith finally produced formal legal advice on 7 March 2003:

While Lord Goldsmith remained ‘of the opinion that the safest legal course would be to secure a second resolution’, he concluded (paragraph 28) that ‘a reasonable case can be made that resolution 1441 was capable of reviving the authorisation in resolution 678 without a further resolution’. Lord Goldsmith wrote that a reasonable case did not mean that, if the matter ever came to court, he would be confident that the court would agree with this view. He judged a court might well conclude that OPs 4 and 12 required a further Security Council decision in order to revive the authorisation in resolution 678. Lord Goldsmith warned Mr Blair (paragraph 29): ‘… the argument that resolution 1441 alone has revived the authorisation to use force in resolution 678 will only be sustainable if there are strong factual grounds for concluding that Iraq failed to take the final opportunity. In other words, we would need to be able to demonstrate hard evidence of non‑compliance and non‑co-operation … the views of UNMOVIC and the IAEA will be highly significant in this respect.’

Despite this, Blair decided entirely by himself, without any references to the views of UNMOVIC and the IAEA, that Iraq was in breach of resolution 1441 and that the war would, therefore, be legal. According to Chilcot, ‘Mr Blair neither requested nor received considered advice addressing the evidence on which he expressed his “unequivocal view” that Iraq was “in further material breach of its obligations”.’

In any case, Goldsmith’s advice did not convince the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Boyce, or the Treasury Solicitor, Ms Juliet Wheldon, who demanded a more clear-cut answer about the legality of the proposed war. In response to their demand, Goldsmith changed his advice, and on 13 March he declared that ‘on balance, the “better view” was that the conditions for the operation of the revival argument were met in this case, meaning that there was a lawful basis for the use of force without a further resolution beyond resolution 1441.’


Chilcot doesn’t make a judgement about the legality or illegality of the war, but the picture he paints doesn’t make either Blair or Goldsmith look very good. The former appears to have prejudged the issue, while an argument could be made that the latter seems to have altered his advice to fit political convenience. Cabinet ministers also failed to discharge their duties properly. As Chilcot points out, none of them bothered to ask Goldsmith why he had changed his opinion so suddenly. If Britain had had more public servants willing to ask questions, as Boyce and Wheldon did, the war might have been avoided. Blaming Blair for everything isn’t a satisfactory explanation for how Britain got into this mess. This was a collective failure.

  1. Post-War Planning

Chilcot makes it plain that before the invasion the British government was well aware that the Americans did not have a proper plan for the post-war occupation of Iraq. According to the report:

Between early 2002 and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Mr Blair received warnings about: • the significance of the post‑conflict phase as the ‘strategically decisive’ phase of the engagement in Iraq … and the risk that a badly handled aftermath would make intervention a ‘net failure’ … • the likelihood of internal conflict in Iraq … • the potential scale of the political, social, economic and security challenge … • the absence of credible US plans for the immediate post‑conflict period and the subsequent reconstruction of Iraq

But, Chilcot says, ‘Despite being aware of the shortcomings of the US plan … at no stage did the UK Government formally consider other policy options, including the possibility of making participation in military action conditional on a satisfactory plan for the post‑conflict period, or how to mitigate the known risk that the UK could find itself drawn into a “huge commitment of UK resources” for which no contingency preparations had been made.’


This pretty much speaks for itself. What I think it shows is one of the dangers of doing things primarily order to please allies. The objective (pleasing allies) is fulfilled just by participating in the action (in this case war), regardless of whether the action succeeds. This removes any incentive for thinking about consequences, because the consequences aren’t relevant to the objective.

  1. The Impact on Terrorism

The invasion of Iraq was a product of the events of 11 September 2001, when Al Qaeda terrorists struck New York City and Washington, DC. It was the fear produced by those events, and the possibility that they might be repeated (possibly with the use of WMD), which allowed the American and British governments to justify the invasion. Yet when Chilcot asked the former head of MI5 Baroness Manningham-Buller whether the war in Iraq had increased the threat from Islamic terrorism, she replied, ‘I think we can produce evidence because of the numerical evidence of the number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and the correlation of that to Iraq and statements of people as to why they were involved … So I think the answer to your … question: yes.’


Manningham-Buller’s reply should hardly come as a surprise. Before the war, many commentators pointed out that it would probably make Britain less safe. Indeed, Chilcot points out that the British intelligence community warned Prime Minister Blair about this. For instance, a Joint Intelligence Committee report of February 2003 stated that, ‘Al Qaida and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq. The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti‑US/anti‑Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West.’ Once again, however, Blair chose to ignore the warnings. Having made up his mind, it appears that nothing would persuade him to change it.

In a statement to the Inquiry, Blair said, ‘I was aware of the JIC Assessment of 10 February that the Al Qaida threat to the UK would increase. But I took the view then and take the same view now that to have backed down because of the threat of terrorism would be completely wrong.’

This sort of argument – ‘We can’t let terrorists dictate our actions’ – is very common, but not very good. The stated purpose of the war in Iraq was to make Britain safer. If instead it was likely to make the country less safe because it would increase the threat of terrorism, then invading Iraq was contrary to the intended purpose. Strategy is about matching means to ends. Unfortunately, due to an obsession with ‘not giving into terrorism’ and the like, politicians all too often lose sight of their ends and so act in a counterproductive way. The invasion of Iraq is a prime example.

Baltic Conundrum

CBC International has published an interview with me about Canada’s decision to deploy troops to Latvia. You can read it here:

This is the second of two articles by CBC on the subject, entitled ‘Canada’s Baltic Conundrum’. The first article is available here:

During my interview, I was asked if there was anything that people were missing. Thinking about it afterwards, I felt that my answer wasn’t the best I could have given. What I would have liked to have added was that Russia’s decisions to annex/re-unite with Crimea and to provide support to the rebels in Donbass didn’t come out of the blue. Rather, they came after months of violence in Kiev, the unconstitutional overthrow of Ukraine’s president, and then several more months of intense combat between the Ukrainian army and Donbass rebels, which resulted in significant civilian casualties. You shouldn’t imagine, therefore, that Russia is just going to invade Latvia out of nowhere. Something very drastic would have to happen beforehand, and it is very hard to see how the conditions of Ukraine would be repeated in the Baltics. Context is all important, and it is all too often missing in discussions of Russian behaviour.


Crackpot theory no. 8: ‘Influence’

Although an official announcement has not yet been made, it seems certain that the Canadian government has decided to send a battlegroup to Latvia as part of a NATO mission to ‘deter Russian aggression’. According to the CBC, ‘The deployment would be a “core” contribution, meaning that Canadians would fill the slot permanently until NATO dissolves that force … It would require the army to rotate one of its infantry battalions and a headquarters — perhaps as many as 500 troops — into the position once every six months.’

The idea of ‘Russian aggression’ is by now a given fact in security circles, and it is quite possible that the Canadian establishment really does believe that Russia poses a mortal threat to Canada’s security, and that defending Latvia is a vital national interest. But NATO’s European members have about two million people in their armed forces, plus thousands of tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, and so on. 500 Canadian troops aren’t going to make a tangible difference to Latvia’s security. Canada’s leaders must be aware of this. So why are they sending troops there?

The answer lies in the peculiar notion the Canadian military industrial academic complex has that participating in such missions gives Canada ‘influence’ over its NATO allies, and in particular over the Americans. We are not actually going to Latvia because our presence will make any difference to Latvia, but because we think that being there will ingratiate us with the United States and so allow us to win some concessions from our friends on other issues which matter to us. Thus, Carleton University’s Stephen Saideman wrote in The Globe and Mail:

Canada would be seen as playing a similar, if not entirely equal, role to the big heavy hitters in the alliance. It would give Canada a much more visible role in Europe, which would give Canada more heft within NATO discussions. …  Second, Canada has been under much pressure over the years to spend more on its defence. Participating in this effort would quell those calls for a while. … Third, the members of the European Union have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada. Helping out a number of European countries, both those who would be defended in the East and those who would be happy to have Canada take this role (Norway and Denmark at the very least), might be leveraged into more support for the deal.

So, let us test this theory that participating in NATO missions gives Canada tangible and worthwhile influence over its allies.

Influence consists of getting others to do things they would otherwise not have done. So, which of their policies have our friends changed in a manner favourable to Canada as a result of its other recent military actions? I can’t think of any. Perhaps Professor Saideman is correct and Canada has had ‘more heft in NATO discussions’, resulting in minor changes in this or that paragraph of some NATO document, but not in any noticeable way which has obviously affected the lives of the average Bob or Jo in Saskatoon. The good professor expresses the hope that Canada might benefit in trade negotiations, but there is no evidence of such linkage having worked in the past. Canada’s prominent role in the war in Afghanistan didn’t help it in any way convince the Americans to make concessions on matters such as soft wood lumber and the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps somebody out there can provide a concrete example of how participation in NATO missions has helped Canada change other countries’ minds in a way which has brought significant advantage, but unless they do, one has to conclude that ‘influence’ is a largely a myth.

Canada ‘punched above its weight’ in Afghanistan, but after it announced that its troops would leave that country we told that we had to participate in the war against Libya because otherwise we would have no ‘influence’ within the NATO alliance. In other words, any gratitude earned in Afghanistan had already been forgotten. Canada then played an important role in deposing Libya’s ruler Muammar Gaddafi; a Canadian general even led NATO’s operation. But whatever ‘influence’ that gained us apparently soon evaporated too, because very soon we were being berated for not spending enough on defence and we now have to rush into Latvia in order to restore our seemingly battered reputation as a good ally. So even if it is true that to some small extent Canada does gain influence over its allies by joining NATO missions, this influence is extraordinarily short-lived.

In any case, to need to influence somebody you have to want something different from them. If you agree with what they are doing, and don’t want to change it, influence is meaningless. And here we reach a fundamental problem with the influence theory. Most of the time, Canada doesn’t actually have a different vision of the world from that of the United States or its other NATO allies. Imagine, for instance, that we thought that NATO’s posture vis-à-vis Russia was incorrect. Perhaps, sending troops to Latvia might make our allies listen more to us when we insisted that the posture must change. But we don’t think that the posture is incorrect. We don’t want to change it. In such circumstances, ‘influence’ is useless. If anybody imagines that by sending troops to Latvia, Canada will substantially change our allies’ policies on this or any other matter of significance, they are surely deluding themselves.