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The flaw that makes it easy for a despot to go to war

19/09/2016

The Iraq War Inquiry was set up in 2009 by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown to examine the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. Its remit was to examine the way decisions were made both before and during the US-led invasion, what actions were taken, and identify lessons that can be learned. The Iraq War Inquiry (dubbed the Chilcot report) was finally published in 6 July 2016 – after an investigation lasting almost seven years and at huge cost.

The inquiry was, in many respects, critical of Tony Blair and other key figures in the British government’s decision to follow the United States to war in 2003. However, it stopped short of accusing anyone of wilful deceit in making the case for invasion, and expressed no opinion as to the legality of that invasion. The 2003 Iraq War was conducted in the face of vast public opposition and mass, worldwide protests. For many people, it threw the nature of Western democracies into doubt and contributed to a collapse of trust in the political establishment. For Iraqis, the invasion was a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

Many questions remain about why the war was launched and, in particular, how the intelligence in support of claims that President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was compiled and presented. This is one of the allusions that Blair and other government spokespeople made frequently. When they said WMD or “chemical weapons,” people imagined they were referring to some sort of intercontinental warhead. Blair introduced the September 2002 dossier saying he believed it established the existence of Iraqi WMD “beyond doubt.” Yet Blair knew the intelligence was shot through with doubt.

Concerning how intelligence was presented, Chilcot says:

The intelligence and assessments made by the [Joint Intelligence Committee] about Iraq’s capabilities and intent continued to be used to prepare briefing material to support Government statements in a way which conveyed certainty without acknowledging the limitations of the intelligence …

The JIC Assessments contain careful language intended to ensure that no more weight is put on the evidence than it can bear. Organising the evidence in order to present an argument in the language of Ministerial statements produces a quite different type of document.

The government lied and was intentionally misleading, yet Chilcot insists that there is no evidence of wilful deceit. Not only was evidence misrepresented — some (much) of it was fabricated. Chilcot says that the JIC assessments were worded to put in caveats about how reliable the intelligence was, and that those caveats were removed when it was presented to Parliament to make it sound more certain.

Much material went into the JIC assessments that would never have got through the standard set of filters, had civil servants not been aware that the government demanded it in. This was largely conscious and intentional — people did it from a sense of “this is what government wants, and I have to give it to them.” There were memos from senior officials that told people to fix the intelligence to give this impression. Some of it was explicit. Other bits were simply that you know what government wants, so you have to give it to them. This is what civil servants do. It’s natural. A civil servant’s job is to implement the policy the government wants. Thus they have to go with the flow of what the government demands.

Everyone knew that the government was committed to war and that they were absolutely determined—a potentially hazardous situation for anyone daring to stand in their way. Members were threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t withdraw their opposition. Yet, there was an unwillingness of people to push things to the point of losing their jobs.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. ~Stanley Milgram (1974) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View p. 6

Tony Blair’s desire was for Britain to be seen by the world as a great and important power, and the way to do that was to be indispensably connected to the United States. It was driven by a kind of messianic power hunger from Number 10’s psychopathic prime minister. The motivations behind the decision to invade Iraq appear as imperial prestige—as an end in itself. To appear important. Thus if the United Kingdom was an important international player, that made Tony Blair also an important international player. Obviously, there were hard-nosed interests in oil and gas and so on. It could not be otherwise.

There is nothing in place that would or could stop this from happening again. This is largely because of the institutional culture of people wanting to please and obey authority figures and ultimately keep their precious jobs by following orders.

This human flaw made it easy for Blair to exploit—which is exactly what occurred leading to the invasion of Iraq. Blair took obedience to authority figures (civil servants and a host of other personnel) and mixed and stirred in a dose of propaganda repeated day after day (to this very day) on the mainstream TV news broadcasts and other media. Thus he was in control because of the nature of this human condition. Further, the machinery of the State was/is readily available to crush any movement that questions the authority of those who own the economic power. Weapons expert David Kelly’s death remains suspicious to this very day, and there were others.

At the end of the day, we have to face the old banality of evil argument. People will do awful things while working for government if government instructs them to do it. Nothing appears in the report that will stop that. And, of course, it appears that no one will ever be held to account. Certainly, not the ringleader—but he is dammed for the ages.

Updated 20 September 2016

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