From Iraq to Brexit: Failing to learn the lessons

“As we endure the very early stages of the Brexit vote, it is worth considering the further negative consequences of this unplanned odyssey.”


Perhaps it is fitting that the Chilcot Report should be published so close to the Brexit Vote, thus linking the two most damaging British foreign policy decisions of living memory. But these events are linked by more than timing. Both decisions’ split the country; in March 2003 it was 53% for 39% against, while Brexit was 51.8 to 48.2 of those that voted. More importantly both decisions were fuelled by dissatisfaction with the status quo and a belief that alternative, better futures were possible. Whether these possible futures were likely or not, played less of a role in both decisions. Over Iraq policy planning took the form of an approach to threat assessment which predicted calamitous “Superterrorism” where Saddam Hussain would arm terrorists with Weapons of Mass Destruction if he was not stopped. On the one hand with forecasts that his decapitation would lead to the flowering of democracy in Iraq, (the most secular and educated Arab population in the region) and lead to the development of peace and prosperity for the entire Middle East on the other. This curious mix of worst case threat assessment for inaction and best case predictions of the consequence of action characterised the overconfidence of the Blair Government. Only later would he admit that “For sure, we underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region.” In 2003 there was a refusal to accept the possibility that this action could make things worse and instead a desire to impose a western order, to “take back control”, of an unravelling Middle East.

Chilcot will also criticise the wilful desire to ignore experts, from the diplomatic corps and the academic community, both of whom warned that this action was likely to precipitate events that would spiral out of control in Iraq and beyond. That same contempt for experts was also evident amongst the leave campaign, most memorably in Michael Gove’s statement that “I think the people have of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” In 2003 as in 2016 the willingness to dismiss the advice of those who were in a position to advise against precipitous and damaging consequences led to a series of actions damaging to the UK’s standing in the world and those who it interacts with. The willingness to embrace simplistic solutions to complex problems is a feature of both crises. Rather than having learned the lessons of Iraq, however, that episode in British history has played into the EU debate by further undermining trust in the wisdom of establishment voices and the veracity of political elites. The financial crisis of 2008 eroded their standing further.

While most attention will no doubt focus on Chilcot’s deliberations on the decision to go to war, the Commission has also considered other aspects of the UK’s role in Iraq 2003-2009, such as the intelligence advice on WMD, the legality of the invasion, how well prepared the UK was for the military action and why the operation went so badly wrong.

As we endure the very early stages of the Brexit vote, it is worth considering the further negative consequences of this unplanned odyssey. In Iraq the damage done to that country and the reputation of the UK on the world stage were made worse by a failure to realise and reverse the initial foreign policy error. With Brexit the opportunity to reverse track, however difficult, it is a chance that should not be missed. The alternative is a version of Chilcot mark two, some years from now, on how the UK could possibly have blundered so badly again.

You can also read Dr Jamie Gaskarth's perspective The Chilcot Report: Lessons to be learnt