Tag Archives: United Kingdom

The international order

I’m off to England tonight for a conference at Ditchley Park on the subject ‘Russia’s role in the world today and tomorrow.’ I’ll be slumming it in a grand country mansion with a bunch of ambassadors, retired senior officials, and other people far more distinguished than myself, but as it’s all under the Chatham House rule, I regret that I won’t be able to report on it. Still, it provides an excuse to ponder the state of Anglo-Russian relations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to divert attention from her Brexit troubles the other day with some inflammatory remarks about Russia at the annual banquet of the Lord Mayor of London. May remarked that Russia has

fomented conflict in the Donbass, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag [German parliament], among many others. It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions.

May accused Russia of ‘threatening the international order on which we all depend,’ and concluded by saying that, ‘I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of western nations to the alliances that bind us.’

As if to back May up, Ciaran Martin, the head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, stated yesterday that, ‘I can confirm that Russian interference, seen by the National Cyber Security Centre over the past year, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunication and energy sectors.’ To this Martin added, ‘Russia is seeking to undermine the international system. That much is clear. The PM made the point on Monday night – international order as we know it is in danger of being eroded.’

Along with all this comes alongside allegations that Russian internet trolls attempted to the influence the Brexit referendum. Evidence for this is a little weak since despite the hype, the Guardian reports that, ‘Prof Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian that at least 419 of those [Russian Twitter] accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.’ It would be interesting to know how many tens of thousands, or for all I know, hundreds of thousands of tweets were posted about Brexit by Brits and peoples of other non-Russian nationalities, but the fact that the alleged ‘interference’ mostly took place after the referendum in any case rather weakens the argument for the prosecution.

But let’s put that to one side. And let’s put aside also May’s somewhat contestable claims about fomenting war in Donbass, regularly violating European airspace, and the like. Let’s accept, for simplicity’s sake, that Russia is trying to influence people in Britain and that its intelligence agencies are attempting to hack the computer systems of British institutions. Let’s face it, it would be pretty odd if they weren’t. This is pretty much run of the mill for states which imagine that they have some position on the international stage. The questions which then arise are: a) does this constitute ‘interference’? and b) does this constitute  an attempt ‘to undermine the international order.’

The answer to the first question depends, I guess, on how you define ‘interference.’ But, to my mind, trying to influence people isn’t interference; it’s just a normal part of human relationships. I think that people need to calm down a little bit on this matter. There seems to be a rather odd view that only people within a country can attempt to influence the citizens or the government of that country. That is, of course, not the way Western states operate – Brits, for instance, are continually trying to influence others. And in any case, it’s just impractical. Human interaction is a perpetual attempt to influence one another. The interaction between states and between states and the peoples of other states is just the same. For sure, Russians want to change the way people in Britain think. That’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with it. The whole ‘interference’ narrative is wrong-headed at the philosophical level.

To this, some might reply that the problem is not Russians trying to influence Brits, but that they are doing so by spreading ‘fake news’. Well, perhaps they do sometimes, though I think that the ‘fake news’ meme is greatly exaggerated, and if we’re talking about social media there’s no shortage of utter tripe, including manifestly untrue stories, appearing in the Facebook and Twitter posts of non-Russians. A few hundred Russian tweets really don’t matter very much in the larger scheme of things. But, at a deeper level, we have to ask, ‘who is determine what is ‘fake’ and what is not?’ Are you going to say that we should have some sort of media police which eliminates what we deem to be inaccurate? If so, we have censorship, not a free society.

And then we come to question b) – does this constitute an attempt to ‘undermine the international order?’ The answer to this is fairly simple – No, and two times no! Yes, the Russians engage in espionage. They try to influence people. They always have! And so have Western countries! This isn’t an attempt to undermine the international order. This is the international order!! Let’s not be naïve about this. The international order consists of a whole set of institutions and rules which states for the most part abide by. At the same time, they occasionally break the rules, by for instance carrying out espionage on one another. Yet the order continues on nonetheless. Russia spies on Britain. Britain spies on Russia (remember the British spy rock in Moscow, anyone?) That’s how the order works.

I’m tempted to go off into a bit of ‘whataboutism’ and talk about all the many times that the United Kingdom has egregiously broken the rules of the international system. It’s hardly an innocent in this regard. But instead, I’ll end on a different thought. If Mrs May really thinks that Russia is undermining the international order in general and more specifically British democracy, then shouldn’t she be reconsidering Brexit? Of course, Mrs May won’t do anything of the sort. She recognizes the result of the Brexit referendum as legitimate and binding. Yet Brexit is a huge shock to the international order, one of the biggest in recent years. Who ‘undermined the international order’? The British people, that’s who.

UPDATE:  According to Sky News, Yin Yin Lu of Oxford Internet Research has identified 22.6 million tweets associated with the alleged Russian ‘troll factory’. Of these, 400 were about or related to Brexit. As Ms Lu says: “First of all the number of these tweets is important to highlight. So there’s about 400 tweets here out of 22.6 million. That is a very infinitesimal fraction. So the word interference is perhaps a bit exaggerated.”

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Murder most foul

Russian agents are running around Britain assassinating people with impunity, claims Buzzfeed in a series of articles published in the past week. The British authorities have ‘deliberately sidelined’ evidence indicating murder and passed off all the cases as death by natural causes. Buzzfeed, however, believes that it knows better, having been informed by ‘high ranking US intelligence officials’ that at least 14 people ‘have been assassinated on British soil by Russia’s security services or mafia groups, two forces that sometimes work in tandem.’

Let’s take a look.

In its first article, Buzzfeed looked at the case of Alexander Perepilichny, who died while out jogging in 2012. Perepilichny had previously helped launder money in the infamous case involving Sergei Magnitsky before fleeing to Britain and becoming a whistleblower. His death is currently the subject of an inquest, at which his wife has said that she does not believed that he was poisoned. Why does Buzzfeed think differently?

First, although the original autopsy revealed nothing suspicious in Perepilichny’s stomach, a later examination by an ‘independent plant expert’ identified traces of the toxin gelsemium. It is speculated that Perepilichny died after ingesting the toxin in a soup he ate just before going running, but that is only speculation. Furthermore, if Perepilichny was murdered, there is nothing in the Buzzfeed report to link that to the Russian state, rather than to crime syndicates, who were allegedly extremely angry at Perepilichny for blowing the whistle on their money laundering schemes. The assumption is just that the Russian state and the Russian mafia are one and the same thing. But nowhere is the connection proven.

Beyond that, though, the only evidence Buzzfeed is able to bring forward to justify the claim of murder is that ‘US spies said they have passed MI6 high-grade intelligence indicating that Perepilichnyy was likely “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him”.’ In other words, the entire story is based on accusations of anonymous officials in a completely different country, without any reference to the evidence used to justify the accusations. In short, it doesn’t amount to very much, but it sets the pattern for Buzzfeed’s other pieces – no actual evidence, but links between the dead men and organized crime (not, mark you, the Russian state), and unsubstantiated claims from ‘anonymous US officials’.

The second Buzzfeed article focuses on the case of Scot Young, an associate of Boris Berezovsky, who threw himself out of a window in London. Buzzfeed suggests that he was murdered by Russian agents, though just why isn’t very clear. And again, the online magazine doesn’t produce any forensic or other evidence to justify its case. Rather, it just says that ‘Four high-ranking American intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News they suspect Young was assassinated.’ Yet, the information in the article points in an entirely different direction.

Continue reading Murder most foul

Evidence not needed

A report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) of the British House of Commons is causing a stir today. According to the headline in The Guardian: ‘Brexit: Foreign states may have interfered in vote, report says’. And The Independent announces: ‘Foreign hackers may have hit voter registration site days before EU referendum, say MPs’.

The report in question is entitled Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum and contains a short section concerning the crash of the British voter registration website on the last day of registration for the Brexit referendum. In this section, the report mentions in passing Russia and China. It is this which had led to the breathless headlines seeming to blame Russia and China for interfering in the Brexit vote.

Contrary to the headlines, however, the report doesn’t actually make a positive statement that Russia and China may have been behind the voter registration website’s crash. All it actually says is ‘PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets.’ So it doesn’t actually rule it in, it just doesn’t rule it out. And, in any case, it doesn’t in fact blame the DDOS on ‘foreign states’. It doesn’t say anywhere who might have carried it out, assuming that it even was a DDOS. The only mention of Russia and China is a sentence a little later, saying

Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

This really doesn’t add up to much. Nevertheless, committee chairman Bernard Jenkin sought to stir the pot, telling The Independent that ‘it would have been “entirely in character” for “the Russians and Chinese” ’ to do such a thing.

And what is his evidence? It turns out that he doesn’t have any. The report itself comments that:

Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as ‘technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance.’

So, it turns out that the committee ‘has no direct evidence’ that Russia and China had anything to do with this, and it turns out also that the specialists who looked into the crash considered it ‘technical in nature’ and didn’t blame on it outside attack. As John Rentoul points out in The Independent, Jenkin’s insinuations are the ‘the purest baloney. The website crashed because lots of people left it to the last minute to register and whoever built the site failed to provide another capacity for the surge.’

Mr Jenkin, however, is unperturbed. ‘We’ve seen this happen in other countries’, he said, without saying which those countries were, and adding, ‘Our own Government has made it clear to us that they don’t think there was anything, but you don’t necessarily find any direct evidence.’

So even the British government doesn’t think the story is true. But never mind. When it comes to blaming the Russians, who needs evidence anyway? Just make something up and then say how concerned you are. Because, you know, it’s ‘entirely in character’, and what more proof do you need? Just make sure to insinuate something salacious, and you can then rely on The Guardian and The Independent to pick it up, exaggerate it even further, and spread your baseless allegation far and wide.

Selection and maintenance of the aim

Strategy, Clausewitz said, is about applying means to achieve ends. It follows that good strategy requires one first to select sensible and achievable ends, and second to ensure that one actually apply one’s resources in such a way as to advance towards those ends. This is what one might call ‘instrumental rationality’. Selecting objectives which don’t benefit you, or deliberately acting in a way which undermines your own objectives, is not instrumentally rational.

For good reason, therefore, the first ‘principle of war’ as taught to British and Canadian military officers is ‘selection and maintenance of the aim’. Pick a bad aim, or fail to maintain a good aim and instead get sidetracked into pursuing something else, and failure will almost certainly ensue.

This is pretty obvious stuff, but what is remarkable is how bad Western leaders are at putting it into practice.

Take, for instance, the so-called ‘War on Terror’. This began in 2001 with an invasion of Afghanistan designed to destroy Al-Qaeda. Having occupied Afghanistan, however, the Americans and their allies decided to shift focus to rebuilding the country, and so became involved in the longest war in American history, fighting an enemy (the Taleban) who don’t pose an obvious threat to the American homeland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in 2003, the UK and USA got further distracted and decided to invade Iraq, on the dubious grounds that there was a link between Iraq and Al-Qaeda and that Saddam Hussein might provide Al-Qaeda with weapons of mass destruction. Once Iraq had been defeated, the Anglo-American alliance found itself fighting yet another insurgency. This involved not just Iraq’s Sunni minority, but also its Shia majority, which received support from Iran. Attention therefore now shifted yet again, with Iran being seen as the enemy no. 1. Commentators began stirring up fears of the ‘Shia Crescent’, stretching from Iran through Iraq and into Syria. American security was now associated with defeating those who made up this crescent. This meant undermining Iran and toppling the Assad regime in Syria. In this way, a war on terror originally designed to fight Sunni terrorists morphed into a war against Shia states.

The Arab Spring in 2011 then added yet another objective – democratizing the Middle East. Now the aim became toppling dictatorial regimes wherever they might be, in order to give a boost to the wave of democracy allegedly sweeping the region. Thus, NATO bombed Libya to ensure the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi. This, of course, then enabled Al-Qaeda to spread its influence in north Africa, most notably in Mali.

In short, Western states, especially the USA and UK, have changed the aims of their policies in the ‘war on terror’ multiple times over the past 16 years. And they are changing them backwards and forwards as I write. One day, their focus is on toppling Assad in Syria; the next, it’s defeating ISIS; then it’s back to toppling Assad again. It is no wonder that the Brits and the Americans have made such a hash of things. They are incapable of keeping their eye on the ball. They have no strategy worthy of the name.

The problem derives from their inability to choose achievable objectives in the first place. As they fail to reach each objective, they feel obliged to change their target in an effort to avoid admitting defeat.

This fundamental lack of realism can be seen in the Anglo-American approach to Russia, which is based on the assumption that Russia can be coerced into changing its policies in Ukraine and Syria. Boris Johnson’s efforts this week to drum up support for additional sanctions against Russia are a case in point. Yet to date, the policy of coercion has achieved no success, and there is no reason to believe that it will be any more successful in the future. Russia just isn’t going to abandon Donbass or Assad. It’s not going to happen. Wishing it won’t make it so. Boris can demand regime change in Syria all he wants, but he’s not going to achieve it. Regardless of whether it is desirable, by selecting this goal, he is dooming himself to failure.

So why do Western states persist in selecting unachievable objectives, in putting so much stock in what they would desire as opposed to what they can actually do? The answer, I think, is that they seem to be unwilling to admit that the days of their hegemony are over and that they are not the bearers of universal moral truth. Despite all the overwhelming evidence that they are not able to mould the world to their wishes, they fear the consequences of admitting this more than they fear the consequences of trying and failing. That is because the costs of the latter are borne by their publics and by the people at the receiving end of their interventions, but the former are borne by the politicians in the form of a humiliating reduction in prestige. Unsurprisingly, the politicians choose to transfer the costs onto others, aided and abetted by the media and the military-industrial complex, which have similarly invested in current policies and wish to avoid the backlash which an admission of failure would involve.

Things will only get better when our leaders start selecting sensible aims. When they do so, they will find that they can actually maintain these aims, and so achieve success. But that will only happen when the illusions of military hegemony and moral superiority vanish. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon, due to the psychological distress and political damage it would cause. Alas, therefore, I see no obvious way out of this mess for some time to come.

Moronic speech of the day

Amidst hyperbolic, and it has to be said unsubstantiated, claims that the Syrian army is massacring civilians in Aleppo, the British House of Commons held a debate today to discuss taking action to protect the city’s inhabitants. MPs discussed ideas such as creating a ‘humanitarian corridor’ into rebel held areas, ignoring the rather obvious fact that these areas hardly exist anymore. The debate had a distinct air of unreality about it.

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t seem to feature much in Britons’ understanding of international affairs and their country’s role in them. After 20 years of failed military interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia, almost nobody in the upper echelons of British society seems to be willing to question the fundamental principles of the UK’s foreign policy. Perhaps the only prominent figure who does so is the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, and the general consensus is that this eminent good sense marks him out as an extremist lunatic. The problem, you see, is not that Britain’s military interventions have been wrong per se, but rather that they haven’t been pursued aggressively enough. The world doesn’t need less Anglo-American aggression; it needs more!

At least that’s what former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said in today’s debate.  According to Osborne, the destruction/liberation (depending on your point of view) of Aleppo was a direct result of the British parliament’s prior refusal to bomb Syria. Osborne said:

We lack the political will as a West to intervene. … I have some hope out of this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening.

We did not intervene in Syria: tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result, millions of refugees have been sent from their homes across the world; we have allowed a terrorist state to emerge in the form of Isis, which we are now trying to defeat; key allies like Lebanon and Jordan are destabilised; the refugee crisis has transformed the politics of Europe, allowed fascism to rise in eastern Europe, created extremist parties in western Europe; and Russia, for the first time since Henry Kissinger kicked them out of the Middle East in the 1970s, is back as the decisive player in that region.

That is the price of not intervening. … let’s be clear now that if you don’t shape the world, you will be shaped by it.

If by ‘we’, Osborne means only the United Kingdom, he is thoroughly deluded about the UK’s capacity to control international events. If by ‘we’, he means ‘the West’, then he’s just talking out of his hat. The ‘West’, in the form of the United States, has intervened in Syria from the start of the civil war there, providing arms, money, and training to rebel forces. In any event, Britain has not stayed out of the war, as reports suggest that British special forces have been operating in Syria. Britain’s Foreign Office has also been helping the Syrian rebels in their propaganda efforts.

Osborne’s claim that ISIS was a product of Western failure to intervene in Syria is also bizarre. ISIS is a product in large part of the chaos created in Iraq by the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 and of the subsequent failed counterinsurgency campaign. The British Army spent several years fighting to gain control of Basra province. Its efforts achieved absolutely nothing. Similarly, the British Army’s campaign in Helmand province in Afghanistan was a dismal failure, and several former British officers (most notably Frank Ledwidge) have credibly demonstrated that the British Army actually helped to destabilize Helmand rather than the opposite.

What good precisely did British intervention do in these cases? How did it help bring law, order, and good government to Iraq and Afghanistan? And how did it help bring any of those benefits in other cases such as Libya?

The recent dismal record of the British military is not an aberration. In fact, the overall historical record of British military involvement in other countries’ affairs is decidedly poor. In a study published in International Studies Quarterly, Jeffrey Pickering  and Mark Peceny concluded that of the all the cases studied,

Not a single target of hostile British military intervention liberalized or became a democracy. Hostile British intervention consequently drops out of [our model] because it predicts failure perfectly. Furthermore, hostile British intervention has a negative and significant impact on political liberalization.

Other states have been a bit more successful, but not a lot. As Stephen Walt points out:

Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to “significant declines in democracy.” Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two “foreign imposed regime changes” since 1920 and finds that when interventions “damage state infrastructural power” they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war. 

What then explains the continuing belief in the value of bombing, invading, and occupying foreign countries? I find I cannot easily explain it, except perhaps in terms of post-imperial delusions of grandeur combined with an arrogance brought about by the West’s victory in the Cold War and by the West’s belief in the universal supremacy of its own supposed value system. The combination of untrammelled military supremacy and a total belief in their own moral superiority has created an incentive to act which some find too tempting to resist, despite the fact that acting has been shown to fail again and again.

I registered as a British overseas voter in order to vote in the Brexit referendum. That means I will get a vote in the next general election (in East Hull). For the first time in my life, I will vote Labour – not because of the mass of Labour MPs, most of whom remain committed interventionists, but because in Corbyn they have a leader who actually realizes how counterproductive British policy has been. I disagree with just about everything else Corbyn stands for, but at least he’s right on this. It makes me understand why Americans voted Trump.

A letter to Boris

Dear Boris,

Our paths have crossed intermittently over the past four decades, at school and university, and then when you were editor of The Spectator. Congratulations on becoming Britain’s Foreign Secretary! As Russia is my area of specialization, I hope that you won’t consider it presumptuous of me to offer you some advice on Anglo-Russian relations.

  1. Consult people other than the usual Russian ‘experts’. I know from previous encounters that you have an open mind. Consult widely. People like Bill Browder, Ed Lucas, Peter Pomerantsev, and Luke Harding dominate the discourse about Russia in the UK, but they present a very one sided, and rather exaggerated, view of Russia. Read instead what people such as Richard Sakwa and Mary Dejevsky are saying. They are far from being ‘Kremlin stooges’, and they will provide you with a far more nuanced picture.
  2. Remember that Russia is more than Vladimir Putin. There is a tendency to personify our issues with Russia, to make it out that everything we dislike is the fault of Vladimir Putin, and that if he were to leave office Russia would start acting very differently. This is incorrect. Russia is rather more democratic than people imagine, in the sense that government policy reflects public opinion reasonably well. If anything, in the realm of foreign policy, Putin is slightly more moderate than a lot of the Russian public. There is next to no pressure on him to act in a more friendly way towards the West. On the contrary, the main opposition parties – the Communists, Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, and Just Russia – continually urge him to take a harder line. Putin doesn’t do so, because he has to seriously consider the costs and benefits of his actions, but you should not imagine that whoever succeeds him will be free to suddenly change policy in a pro-Western direction.
  3. The ‘Putin Regime’ is not about to collapse, and even if it does the ‘liberals’ will not come to power. Do not imagine that pressuring Russia through sanctions or any other mechanism will cause the ‘regime’ to fall apart and a liberal, pro-Western government to come to power. Not only does Putin remain very popular, but Russia is proving to be surprisingly resilient in the face of Western sanctions and low oil prices. After two years of recession, the economy is predicted to start growing again, the demographic situation is improving, and surveys suggest that Russians are happier than ever before. A collapse of the current system of government is most unlikely. But even if, due to some massive unforeseeable shock, it does fall apart, do not think that those who call themselves the ‘liberal opposition’ will take power afterwards. They have almost no support among the Russian public; they are widely despised and you shouldn’t pay much attention to them. The ‘Putin regime’ is probably about as friendly a government as the West can expect to face for the immediate future.
  4. Don’t lecture Russians. Simply put, the majority of Russians, and certainly those who run the country, don’t think that you have the slightest moral right to lecture them about anything. If you denounce ‘aggression’ in Ukraine, they will simply point to your own support for the disastrous invasion of Iraq and for the bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya. From their point of view, you and the country you represent are guilty of more repeated aggressions than them. Moral posturing will only alienate Russians; it will help not you solve problems of mutual interest.
  5. Think about how Western actions look from Russia’s point of view. Remember that Russians have legitimate interests, and legitimate reasons for seeing things the way they do. For instance, you may think that British and NATO policies are purely defensive, but there are good reasons why Russians might view them differently. Take missile defence. You may imagine that it is defending Europe from Iran, but Russians simply don’t believe it, particularly in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal. NATO’s explanations make no sense to them at all. Similarly, NATO expansion and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine look very different from where the Russians stand.

I know, Boris, that you are an extremely intelligent chap. I know too that you want to do what is good for Britain. I wish you the very best in your term as Foreign Secretary.

Yours,

Paul

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.’

Analysis

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.’

Analysis

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.’

Analysis

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.