Churchill and Iraq


Sometimes it’s hard to pick out a quote, but I’ll do my best with this excellent essay. Emphasis mine.

As the War Cabinet met, the fate of the Dunkirk evacuation remained unknown. Fighting on seemed to offer, well, only blood, toil, tears and sweat. And defeat. The chance of preserving something of the British way of life might be better with Halifax’s scheme.

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.

As the 70th anniversary of Churchill’s five days approaches, I write all this not as a historical rumination, but because, like many others, I have been riveted by the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. And I think the experience of May 1940 is directly relevant.

…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. You end up speculating. But also because human beings are prone to what is known as omission bias. We tend to judge things that happen because we made them happen more harshly than things that happen because we merely knowingly let them do so. We prefer sins of omission to those of commission.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.

How many anti-war protesters talk about the sanctions on Iraq and the people they were hurting (or rather, the people Saddam was using them to hurt)?

It’s a funny thing, because those people are the same ones who were telling us how bad the sanctions were pre-9/11.

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