03 February 2010

Blair and Iraq: A little bit of history always helps

After Daniel Finkelstein’s ‘moment of madness’ yesterday on Today, he has come up trumps with his article in the Times.

He draws a correct parallel with situation that Churchill faced in 1940 with the one faced by Blair over Iraq:

At an intense series of meetings of the War Cabinet at the end of May, brilliantly chronicled by John Lukacs in his book Five Days in London, Halifax pressed the case for a negotiated peace, using the Italians as intermediaries. Churchill only narrowly avoided being overruled on this question. His position appears heroic now.

You cannot judge whether Churchill was right simply by noting that, to use a George Formby phrase, things “turned out nice again”. Victory might have come through dumb luck after pursuing a course of reckless irresponsibility. Using hindsight doesn’t help. Without it you are left with two things. First, what was the probability of a good outcome or, conversely, a bad one if Churchill’s policy was followed? Second, what were the consequences of good or bad outcomes?

Churchill’s genius was that, at a very early stage and unlike almost anyone else, he knew the answer to not just one, but both these questions. He realised not simply that the probability of victory was tiny (others — Halifax, Chamberlain, most Tory MPs — could see that), but also that the consequences of defeat or even a negotiated peace were horrendous. It was the combination that made a policy of “victory at all costs” the correct one.

Then he moves to Iraq:

This is not because Saddam Hussein should be seen as Hitler or because the threat from Iraq was remotely comparable to that from Nazi Germany or because the conflict we are now embroiled in is similar in scale or importance to the Second World War. It is simply that devising a way of judging Churchill helps to judge the actions of Tony Blair.

This is the important bit:

Yet I worry that it will not establish the one thing that was central to Churchill’s judgment. It won’t ask or establish what would have happened if we had not acted. It won’t do this partly because it is very hard to do.


This is particularly important in the case of Iraq. The best case for our action — made, for example, by Bill Clinton’s adviser Kenneth Pollack — was based on a speculation about what might happen if we did not act. Mr Pollack argued that sanctions were breaking down and that every time in the past that he was free of such constraints Saddam had launched an aggressive war. If his sons took over they would be worse. The status quo would not hold, so we had to invade. Whatever view you take of Mr Blair’s dossiers or George Bush’s politics, without a proper estimation of the possible consequences, as seen at the time, of not acting, the whole war is impossible to evaluate or understand.

In other words, it comes down to an ‘assessment of the risks’, which Blair attempted to explain to Chilcot.  Perhaps if the former Prime Minister had studied a little history and drawn on the parallel with 1940, he would have been rather more convincing than he was last week.

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1 comment:

  1. 2 points - Churchill discussed the options with his cabinet, but Bliar imposed his intended actions on his cabinet. Also, spin/propaganda was not used within Churchill's government as Blair's enforcer, Alistair, did; to lie, bully, coerce and obfuscate.