Arthurian Legend

"Once back here I got to thinking - 'how do I get out of this?' Perhaps the really haunting spectre is that I would have to turn my back on the lake, and the prospect of the sword." Alan Clark, Diaries - 19th May 1999

Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Michael Cockrell: thoughts on the second Blair documentary

This piece may be refined, amended or added to after posting...

I have admitted in a previous post that up to and during the Iraq invasion I had supported Blair's decision to send British troops to depose Saddam and to try to impose better governance of that country.

But Cockrell's film helped to crystalise a number of thoughts that had been gradually developing and taking shape over the past 12 months or so.

In brief, these are some of the conclusions that I have tentatively formed:

1. Britian's earlier operational successes in deposing in fairly short order the hostile military regimes in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan were successful precisely because British military might was so much greater in comparison to the opposition that it faced.

2. Blair's successes in these conflicts emboldened him in a way that weakened (I think perceptibly) his critical faculties, and made him less hard-headed in his calculations not only of Britain's best interests, but whether what was planned was likely to succeed in the time frame that was open to him as Prime Minister. He was almost like a gambler on a winning streak who thought the cards were always going to turn up for him.

3. I never believed before the invasion that British forces in Cyprus or elsewhere were at any significant risk from Saddam. If Saddam had pre-emptively sent rockets to attack Britain or British forces then he should and probably would have known that we had the capacity to bomb his country back to the twelfth century. And quite possibly would have.

4. Before the invasion I had believed, from reading Con Coughlin's biography of Saddam, that Iraq had WMD, before I had read the published document from the Government on the issue. But the presence or absence of WMD was not to my mind the crucial justification for armed intervention: the fact that Saddam himself was a one-man WMD was good enough, I thought.

5. Blair had at least implicity committed Britain to intervene in Iraq from as early as the "Colgate summit" in early 2002; I think that he had also made up his own mind then in a way that, given what I can deduce from his psyche, would have made it extraordinarily difficult for him to change.

6. If it had all worked out well, order had been imposed quickly, and democracy and a peaceful society had begun to flourish within a year of the invasion, then the "Not in My Name" crowd would have looked even more ridiculous than I thought they did at the time.

7. However, Iraq was crucially different not only from the countries to which Blair had previouly sent forces, but also from how it was in the 1920s when Britain was last there in force as a colonial power. Oil money, telecommunications and the instruments of war had distinctivly improved the trouble or resistance that people on home soil (including those from Iran and Syria) could deploy against British and Amercian troops.

8. The geographical size of Iraq, and the relatively small number of British forces available exposed again the fact that Britain is no longer an imperial power which impose itself almost at will on an Arab state - if it ever could.

9. Just because some particular outcome is desirable and even "right" (as Blair might put it) (for example, toppling a bloody and brutal dictator), this doesn't mean that the operation to do so is wise and therefore "right". There are some times when it is better to take a hard-nosed approach to British interests and err on the side of caution, rather than gambling massively that what you do will work out.

I think it is this point perhaps above all others that I refused to accept before and during the invasion. Or rather, that I thought that the risks were worth it. Perhaps I didn't think it was actually much of a risk at all - that success in toppling Saddam was certain. And on that I was right.

But I didn't fully consider all the ramifications of the action, and understand what else needed to be done after the invasion to maximise the chances of success. And that resulted, I think, simply from a lack of knowledge of military history, of the culture of the region, and of the practical logistics. Something that as Prime Minister you absolutely have to know before making any decisions.

10. The massive size of the task, and the vastly greater US contingent, meant that Britain would not be on equal terms this time around, or even realistically think that it could critically influence the way in which the US forces operatated and the decisions that were taken.

The supposed justification for British intervention that we would somehow improve matters to a sufficient extent if we didn't allow America to 'go it alone' seems quite thin, given the relative weight of the respective armed contributions.

11. The argument about failed states, rogue regimes, proliferation and an inter-dependent world requiring greater amounts of intervention is only neat if the intervention works. Somethimes, it may just be necessary to live with that threat where the resources and will to deal with it properly are not there.

12. By contrast, there is some evidence that Blair's determination to send ground troops into Kosovo swayed Clinton, and that as a result of the snowballing pressure started by Blair, France and Russia joined in and persuaded Milosovic to back down.

13. Aspects of the way that the US fight are deeply uncomfortable to British sensibilities. This meant that the Prime Minister and the British participation in the war in general was going to take a lot of flak. Without a VERY good justification for our presence there, it was going to be very significantly tougher to live with those negative aspects. These include:

a) the repeated complaint that not every US soldier or airman will double- and triple-check before firing on supposedly hostile forces (which turn out to be British)

b) the distasteful gung-ho rhetoric in at least some of the pre-action pep talks

c) the openly disrespectful attitude of some the immature US forces towards the Iraqis (I think of that scence where the soldiers in the US tank drove around Baghdad listed to loud music with lyrics that screamed "burn mutha f****r, burn"

14. On the subject of "international law": I don't have any significant problems in principle with Britain and the US and other democratic countries in the Anglosphere conducting military operations without explicit UN backing, particularly if it is the old suspects France, Russia and China that are holding things back purely for their own self-interest. But if you are going to do something without formal UN backing, for goodness' sake make sure that the 'intelligence' you are presenting is watertight, and that you make all the preparations and provide all the resouces necessary to execute the policy competently and successfully.

15. On the pre-war 'intelligence': "sporadic and patchy" was not "detailed, extensive and authoratative". Blair might have felt that telling the whole truth about the intelligence would have meant that a mission which was in his eyes right and justified would not get the necessary backing, and that therefore it was permisible to be less than candid about the full picture.

This was both a moral and a strategic mistake: the truth will find you out on an issue of such importance and on which there was such public scrutiny.

16. It may be that some people would not have supported Blair that otherwise did so on the basis of the evidence available. But others may have respected his honesty, and been more willing to trust his judgement if there was not the issue about his truthfulness.

17. But if Blair couldn't have got the support required by telling the whole truth then it would have been noble to resign: and history may well have judged him better than it is currently doing.

14 comments:

Newmania said...

I didn`t quite see it that way . You mention Blair`s critical faculties being dulled but the way it came across was more that he became a legend in his own lunchtime and started to believe he could , and should , change the world for the better.
It was the evolution of the this forward Liberal Virtuous foreign Policy that was the real story.

I do not think we had any option but to support the US but the programme made it look as if we were the ones pushing the offensive .

I have always thought that Blair above all was influenced by the Falklands and wanted his turn.

Another temedous post AL which I will probably read again

Arthurian Legend said...

If Blair's critical faculties hadn't become dulled, perhaps he wouldn't have been so ready to believe this own hype about himself...

I agree that Blair has that forward Liberal policy; I'm not sure however that the great governments of the 18th and 19th centuries fought every possible war that came along...sometimes they stayed out.

On reflection, I think Blair could have said 'no' to the US...Wilson and Vietnam being the perfect model for that. Certainly there wasn't any legal obligation of the type that Britain could face with a fully-fledged common foreign and security policy under the first Community pillar (QMV).

The thing about the Falklands is that it was British...and there are very few outposts left that would have given Blair an equiavlent opportunity. Mrs T was lucky - but then we all know she was a bit special!!

Newmania said...

The thing about the Falklands was that we won and i have always suspected that Balir was influenced by seeing how after you win you are right. Winning in Iraq was a given which is why he couldn`t resist it.I do not recall anyone foreseeing the way in which we would lose and I cannot therefore blame him for this

that the great governments of the 18th and 19th centuries fought every possible war that came along...sometimes they stayed out


You are not sure ...oh carefully put I am not sure where to put my feet in this vast swamp of ignorance which is "Foreign Policy in the 18th AND 19th century"

It varied , in that time ,well, in the 19th century ,different ideas of our Foreign role held sway. Gladstone was more Blairy and Dizzy was more simply concerned with the UK ..as I dimly recall. Towards the end the idea of the Empire became important .
I can see various similarities with Blair on the Liberal side when I would like to see none.


Vietnam- "I am not sure" you can compare either our geographical proximity , self interest or the scale of the endeavour. I am also not sure that the comparison is not anachronistic dealing with a period in which our relations with the US were far more equal.

My uncertainty is becoming mountainous in fact .I like the “I `m not sure “

Newmania said...

The thing about the Falklands was that we won and i have always suspected that Balir was influenced by seeing how after you win you are right. Winning in Iraq was a given which is why he couldn`t resist it.I do not recall anyone foreseeing the way in which we would lose and I cannot therefore blame him for this

that the great governments of the 18th and 19th centuries fought every possible war that came along...sometimes they stayed out


You are not sure ...oh carefully put I am not sure where to put my feet in this vast swamp of ignorance which is "Foreign Policy in the 18th AND 19th century"

It varied , in that time ,well, in the 19th century ,different ideas of our Foreign role held sway. Gladstone was more Blairy and Dizzy was more simply concerned with the UK ..as I dimly recall. Towards the end the idea of the Empire became important .
I can see various similarities with Blair on the Liberal side when I would like to see none.


Vietnam- "I am not sure" you can compare either our geographical proximity , self interest or the scale of the endeavour. I am also not sure that the comparison is not anachronistic dealing with a period in which our relations with the US were far more equal.

My uncertainty is becoming mountainous in fact .I like the “I `m not sure “

nick drew said...

Mr Legend, you have entertained a wide variety of arguments in this rich piece, as have many of us, I guess. (Yes & you too, Mr Mania, to whom thanks for the recommendation)

Personally, I think pride of place should be given to the acid test - Success or Failure?

The Falklands was a Success - imagine the ramifications of a spectacular failure in that case, how different would commentary be from all quarters in that event?

Iraq is just that spectacular Failure (in purely practical terms), and this was utterly predictable - and predicted - from the moment Rumsfeld decided to go with Invasion Lite and all that entailed.

It's my belief the consequences are more severe than just carnage in Iraq and undermining stability in the Middle East. Specifically, it has sent a signal of weakness to Russia and China.

Contrast this with Bush Snr's remarkable effort in Kuwait 1991: the success of that mission (in practical terms, measured by its own lights, by the objectives set and accomplished) shook the closely-watching Russians to the core, they were well impressed for several techno-military reasons I won't bore you with.

There will be almost nothing about 2003 that will have made them pause for thought. We (US + UK) have made demeaning spectacles of ourselves and the bullies-in-waiting have noticed.

Arthurian Legend said...

Nick, thanks for your contribution.

Your "acid test" of success or failure is good, but it can only be applied ex post facto , which is not helpful in determining whether to go for it in the first place (which is more what my piece was discussing).

I think you are right that "Invasion Lite" doomed the project, although to be honest I didn't appreciate that at the time.

I hinted at the underlying problem lack of resources in paras. 8 & 9, although I should have made that more explicit. With 500,000 troops, the US could probably have asserted full control.

The problem of the absence of full US engagement on the scale necessary to do the job is the thesis that Niall Ferguson developed in Colossus to explain the real risks that the US faces in the 21st century.

nick drew said...

500,000 is probably about right (plus some proper planning for the post-Saddam situation). In my view, that assessment, had it been made in advance - or rather, had it been entertained seriously, since some analysts did indeed say this at the time - would have caused Bush to stay his hand, or at least take a different course of action.

My point is that Blair too should have made (or accepted) that assessment a priori. Then he could have filed Iraq with N.Korea, Sudan, etc etc ad nauseam i.e. "would love to intervene, but haven't a hope in hell".

BTW I don't think VietNam is an entirely relevant parallel. I understand the pragmatic 'Wilson precedent' point, but in my view Wilson was turning Johnson down for the wrong reasons.

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