The British Experience in Iraq

SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN – The British decision to invade Iraq was based less on whether the operation was justified and more on whether the UK should follow their American allies. 

During the buildup to the Iraq War, US leaders were under a certain set of pressures to go into war, including the possibility of Iraqi chemical weapons and the historical stress stemming from the failure during the Gulf War in 1992 to depose Saddam Hussein. How did the British decision-process to commit soldiers to Iraq differ from America’s?

The British decision making process on Iraq was affected by similar concerns as were influencing American policymakers about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). There is no reason to doubt that people thought that Iraq had some sort of weapons program in place. The decision process was also affected by the desire by Britain to “stay in” with the United States, to shoulder the burden. The British attitude was defined by the question of, “if the Americans are going to invade Iraq, how do we respond? What can we do?” While the Americans have to decide to do or not to do something, the British have a slightly different choice to make: to follow or not to follow the American example.

And when the British decided to follow the US lead, it was necessary to then determine whether operations were to be carried out slightly differently to the way that they are planned in Washington. To what extent is the British process and decision on engagement dependent on how American leaders go about their business? In 2003, for example, the overarching question was whether to work with the United Nations or not. British leaders perceived that the Americans were simply not very interested in cooperating with the UN, whereas it would have been very difficult for the British to engage in the conflict without first trying to look into the UN. This is one good example of the issues that came up in the United Kingdom which are different from those that might be viewed in Washington.

Can the British decision to enter the conflict then be summarized as a decision about whether they should follow the Americans or not?

The British could not have conducted the operation by themselves. The issue alone was that the Americans were thinking of doing it. That is not to say that the Prime Minister, at least, did not think the invasion was a good idea. But even for people who were not supportive of the war, it would have been difficult to simply stand aside while the Americans went ahead.

The United States entered Iraq with the goal of destroying Iraq’s WMD program, ousting Saddam Hussein from power, and ultimately building a democratic nation. How did the British leadership envision itself as a participant in this plan?

America’s and Britain’s long-term goals were not that different; the British leadership saw the mission in much the same light as Washington did. The objectives for the invasion were developed over time. The way the British would have presented the operation was primarily to find WMD; if the British were to enter Iraq, that is to say that the current regime cannot satisfy the questions surrounding these weapons. And consequently if the current regime is to be removed, how can there be an entity to take its place? That was almost the last question asked, and that fact became apparent as the war dragged on.

There has been a long-term fascination in the West regarding Iraqi politics, and intervention against the Saddam regime. Donald Rumsfeld even asked during the 9/11 attacks if Hussein could be linked to the event. Why has the possibility of intervention in Iraq occupied western minds during the last twenty years?

Western powers did act against Iraq in 1991, and the assumption was that after Saddam had been defeated, he would be overthrown. But he was not. There was thus an odd situation of a regime against which the action had been taken remaining in place and was still defiant. This endurance was frustrating, that Saddam could survive when by all rights he should have been expelled. Because it seemed too difficult to oust Saddam from power in 1991, there was a sense of unfinished business that helped color the intervening years between the end of the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion.

Before 1990, the effort had been to try to be friends with Iraq, not fight them. The preoccupation with Iraq was a result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The ramifications of Iraq’s aggression could not be determined as confidently as western leaders would have liked.

Continental Europeans were, to a large extent, strongly opposed to the Iraq War. How did the British government’s decision to “side” with the Americans affect the way in which Britain is perceived by and relates to the Continent?

This was a big issue in 2003, but it has not remained as important. The way in which the war was viewed has gone through different phases. To start, when Britain entered Iraq with the Americans and during the ensuing insurgency that developed, the operation did not look very effective. But now Britain is out. The French and the Germans have also become preoccupied with other things in the Eurozone. The decision to side with the Americans had less of an impact on European relations that one might have expected given what was being said at the time. I do not think anybody wanted the sentiment to get out of hand, so they held back on the rhetoric and started to finds forms of cooperation.

The Bush Administration was reelected during some of the worst months in Iraq when the country was descending into chaos, yet they survived for a second term in office. Tony Blair, on the other hand, appeared to have been invalidated in the eyes of the British public by the war. Is this assessment true?

I think one needs to be careful when making that statement. Blair was also reelected after the war began. There was a large part of British opinion that opposed the war, and held Blair responsible for it, but that did not prevent him from remaining in office until 2007 when he left on his own accord. He was never defeated. It is true that he was clearly damaged by the war, but he was not thrown out of office because of it.

Is the British reaction to Blair’s actions with regards to Iraq then similar to the American reaction? 

There were strong reactions in both countries because it is always a big step to invade another country, the war was justified on the basis of WMD that were never found, and the country descended into a far worse state than anybody was led to believe. There is an important case to be made criticizing the conduct during the war. Blair’s decision to go into Iraq, because it was seen as doing something for Bush, made it even less legitimate for some people than it would have been if there had been a sense that Britain was doing it for its own sake or national security. Blair always said that the war was always fought for the UK’s national security.

Was that a widely accepted belief, that failing to invade Iraq would be dangerous British security?

There was a widespread belief that Saddam Hussein was a nasty piece of work, and possibly had WMD, which was a problem to be addressed. Where the disagreement began was about whether invading Iraq was the best way to address that problem.

It seems that certain leaders in the British government believe the nation made mistakes during the decision to invade Iraq. Is that a valid interpretation?

The main question being asked is “why did the invasion not go better, in terms of setting up a better post-war system?” The answer has to do with failures and mistakes in the post-war planning during the run-up to the conflict. That is a topic at which we are looking very closely in the Iraq War Inquiry. The fact that things did not go as they should have done — a fact that has to do with the lack of preparation — does not have to do with the controversy in Britain, which tends to be about responsibility. Could post-war situations have been anticipated better?

It seems that the Iraq War has marked a shift in the modus operandi of war-making. Has the Bush Doctrine and the resultant Iraq War created an environment wherein preemptive wars will become far more normal than they were in the past?

The short answer, I think, is no. It has been a difficult experience for all involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. If anything, it leaves governments more cautious about launching similar operations in the future. But recently the issue of Iran has become very important. What can be done about the situation there if one is not prepared to use armed force? The experience of the last decade certainly does not encourage people to intervene, but issues will continue to arise that put the question on the table.

Some scholars have described the Iraq War as marking a major shift in Britain’s role and image in the international political arena. In what ways has British foreign policy been transformed by the conflict in Iraq?

Britain is now more cautious than it was in 2003. Other factors like the economic crises of the last decade have also had an impact on this policy shift. The question to be asked about Iraq is whether or not it turns out to be aberration, in a way, a “one-off” operation. What is happening now is a very much a continuation of the situation in the 1990s. I am less sure at the moment whether there will be any other long-term consequences from Iraq other than caution at the prospect of intervention.


SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN is Professor of War Studies and Vice-Principal at King’s College London, and has served as foreign policy advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He was elected as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995 and awarded the “Commander of the British Empire” in 1996. In 1997, he was appointed Official Historian of the Falklands Campaign. Most recently, he was awarded the “Knight Commander of St Michael and St George” in 2003, and was appointed in June 2009 to serve as a member of the official inquiry into Britain and the 2003 Iraq War.

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