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Revisiting the Iraq War

Summary:
NEW YORK – Seven years, 12 volumes of evidence, findings, and conclusions, and one executive summary later, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, more commonly referred to as the Chilcot Report (after its chairman, Sir John Chilcot), is available for one and all to read. Few people will get through all of it; the executive summary alone (well over 100 pages) is so long that it calls for its own executive summary. But it would be a shame if the Report were not widely read and, more important, studied, because it contains some useful insights into how diplomacy operates, how policy is made, and how decisions are taken. It also reminds us of the centrality of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and of the aftermath, for understanding today’s Middle East. A central theme of the Report is that the Iraq War did not have to happen, and certainly not when it did. The decision to go to war was partly based on faulty intelligence. Iraq constituted at most a gathering threat, not an imminent one. Alternatives to using military force – above all, strengthening Turkey’s and Jordan’s lackluster enforcement of and support for the UN sanctions designed to pressure Saddam Hussein – were barely explored. Diplomacy was rushed. Making matters worse was that the war was undertaken without sufficient planning and preparation for what would come after.

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NEW YORK – Seven years, 12 volumes of evidence, findings, and conclusions, and one executive summary later, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, more commonly referred to as the Chilcot Report (after its chairman, Sir John Chilcot), is available for one and all to read. Few people will get through all of it; the executive summary alone (well over 100 pages) is so long that it calls for its own executive summary.

But it would be a shame if the Report were not widely read and, more important, studied, because it contains some useful insights into how diplomacy operates, how policy is made, and how decisions are taken. It also reminds us of the centrality of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and of the aftermath, for understanding today’s Middle East.

A central theme of the Report is that the Iraq War did not have to happen, and certainly not when it did. The decision to go to war was partly based on faulty intelligence. Iraq constituted at most a gathering threat, not an imminent one. Alternatives to using military force – above all, strengthening Turkey’s and Jordan’s lackluster enforcement of and support for the UN sanctions designed to pressure Saddam Hussein – were barely explored. Diplomacy was rushed.

Making matters worse was that the war was undertaken without sufficient planning and preparation for what would come after. As the Report rightly points out, many in both the US and British governments predicted that chaos could emerge if Saddam’s iron grip were removed. The decisions to disband the Iraqi army and to bar all members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party (rather than just a few of its leaders) from positions in the successor government were huge mistakes. Iraq was not just a war of choice; it was an ill-advised and poorly executed policy.

Much of the Report focuses on British calculations and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for US policy. The decision to associate the UK with the United States was a defensible strategic choice for a smaller country that derived much of its influence from the closeness of the bilateral relationship. Where the Blair government got it wrong was in not pressing for more influence over the policy in exchange for its support. George W. Bush’s administration might well have rejected such efforts, but the British government could then have exercised the option of distancing itself from a policy that many believed was unlikely to succeed.

Many lessons should be taken from the Iraq War. One is that, because assumptions fundamentally affect what analysts tend to see when they look at intelligence, flawed assumptions can lead to dangerously flawed policies. Nearly everyone assumed that Saddam’s non-compliance with United Nations inspectors stemmed from the fact that he was hiding weapons of mass destruction. In fact, he was hiding...

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