Patrick Porter, Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2019)
One doesn’t read Patrick Porter’s new book, so much as contend with it. At 232 pages, Blunder: Britain’s War in Iraq is a surprisingly short text yet a remarkably layered one. Equal parts engaging and grinding, Porter navigates the path to war in London during 2002 and early 2003 with the rigor of a forensic coroner reconstructing a murder. Rather than a cadaver, though, his subject is the intellectual underpinnings that played a role in pre-war debates on both sides of the Atlantic and were essential to the case for invasion presented to the British public by the government of Tony Blair. Blunder doesn’t trade in platitudes or indulge in conspiratorial fantasies but rather lays bare the very real and—in the abstract—noble ideas that fed into the most consequential and destructive war of this century.
Of Socrates and Saddam
For those unfamiliar with Porter, he has emerged as an innovative thinker in international affairs, particularly as the debate has developed over the role of primacy in US strategy. Terms like “contrarian” are overused and imprecise, but suffice to say that Porter has a knack for challenging the orthodox beliefs of the foreign policy establishment—underscored by his International Security article on the constraining effects of “the Blob”—while still keeping his arguments grounded in the realities of modern conflict and statecraft. I first came across his work at War on the Rocks, with his insightful essay reassessing Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, on the thirtieth anniversary of its publication.
Porter is also a skilled orator and while one should definitely read Blunder, a succinct summary of its main arguments can be taken in via video, in this informal presentation to the Oxford University Press staff. One of the points that comes through in that discussion is something that isn’t clear in his book: Porter was once a believer, if not an advocate, of some of the ideas he interrogates in Blunder. Though empirically it makes no difference to the text, having that foreknowledge does cast a different hue on his work. Lapsed disciples often make the keenest critics.
“Interrogate” is the right word for how the book proceeds. Porter employs a self-referential, Socratic method, frequently going to great lengths to indulge the many imperfect explanations for how and why Britain came to join the United States in invading Iraq before just as carefully disassembling those that are wanting. It’s to his credit that in a decisive fourth chapter he actually makes as strong and convincing a case for going to war in Iraq as you’ll find—before turning around and offering an even more powerful rebuttal.
Ostensibly, three ideas form the main basis for Porter’s interrogation: the doctrine of regime change, the concept of rogue states, and the belief, from the British side, that by paying “a blood price,” the UK could successfully restrain and guide its senior strategic partner at a time when the United States was enmeshed in post-9/11 trauma. The last of these ideas is the one perhaps most comprehensively obliterated by Blunder. In a short but cutting third chapter on “Atlantic Ambitions,” Porter illustrates how little impact the Blair government was able to have on the scope and direction of the Bush administration’s policy despite the substantial commitment of British blood and treasure to the Iraq War. Moreover, other US partners—including France and Germany—would suffer no long-term damage in political relations with Washington despite openly opposing the Iraq invasion.
Not content to stop with the specific example of Iraq, Porter undercuts the whole notion of the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain, making a strong argument that not only is it impossible to replicate the legendary bonds of Churchill and Roosevelt (or Thatcher and Reagan), but those historical relations are often over-exaggerated in importance, imbued with relevance less because of fact than sentimentality. Yes, sometimes America and Britain worked together, but it had less to do with a unique cultural fraternity and more with the simple commonality of interests among sovereign states. The Suez crisis and Vietnam should be as much a part of the transatlantic story as World War II.
Regime change, rogue states, and “the blood price” form Blunder’s core curriculum, as it were, but numerous other debates and arguments about the war are assessed and broken down along the way. The book is worth the price alone for the portion of chapter three where Porter dissects and dismisses the argument proffered by Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry—largely intended to spare the reputation of liberalism—that a realist triumvirate of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz drove the United States into Iraq. Putting aside the basic facts that Wolfowitz doesn’t even fit the realist description or that Rumsfeld could best be described as a disinterested (perhaps too much so) advocate for the war, Porter has the good sense to afford George W. Bush the agency he clearly possessed, contrary to the ingrained political legend of Cheney as puppet master. This myth—reinforced by Adam McKay’s cartoonish, Oscar-nominated film Vice—endures despite having been dispelled by sound scholarship from the likes of the New York Times’s Peter Baker and Princeton’s Julian E. Zelizer. Moreover, Porter makes plain that what drove Bush wasn’t some twisted oedipal drama involving his father, but old-fashioned Wilsonian idealism. Bush was truly invested in democracy promotion and in the strategic idea of remaking the Middle East politically to “drain the swamp” that allowed terrorism to fester.
Indeed, one function Blunder will inevitably serve is as a cogent repository of the various arguments—some flawed, some silly, some compelling—for and against war that existed prior to the invasion. The unique political and intellectual climate that obtained between September 11, 2001, and March 20, 2003, has already faded into memory for many and with it the nuances and texture of the pre-war debates. In its place has come the assignation of blame to a handful of advocates, often obscuring the range and depth of support for removing Saddam that existed across a variety of political movements and ideologies. (To cite just one example that now seems almost unfathomable, the New Yorker actually ran an editorial in favor of invading Iraq in February 2003.) This leads to one of Porter’s most biting insights: for many in Britain, Tony Blair is what the neo-cons have become in the United States—a catch-all scapegoat for the Iraq War, far from blameless, yes, but also not the sole cause it’s comforting to see them as.
Thank You, Friend?
While the book is primarily focused on Britain’s path to war, one of the many reasons Blunder succeeds is it has no delusions about how the United States itself got there or why, a subject that understandably must be addressed to fully understand Britain’s position in 2002 and early 2003. There are no canards here about oil grabs or conspiracies about Halliburton’s profits. There is also an understanding that the ideas Blunder interrogates were not quite as essential to the US path to war as they were to Britain’s. Though not without weight, intellectual concepts often took a backseat to more basic impulses in the American case.
No matter how genuinely and passionately President Bush may have believed in his Freedom Agenda, it was still within the post-9/11 environment that his decision to go to war was taken. The shock of those strikes—coupled with the underrated impact of the contemporaneous (but ultimately unrelated) anthrax attacks—created a cauldron of national fear and anger, not to mention a deep sense of recrimination in the national security community “to never let it happen again.” These were more than sufficient fuel for the American war drive, particularly when combined with the seeming infallibility of military solutions that had seeded itself in the American mindset from the 1991 Gulf War on. This phenomenon was only reinforced at the time by the remarkable speed with which the Taliban government was unseated in Afghanistan. Porter sums this up nicely at the end of the first chapter: “For America, the crossroads point effectively was first reached on 9/11. The balance of opinion, the exact mixture of fear and confidence, were moving heavily in one direction from that point.” In short, while ideas were the combustion in the engine that drove Britain into Iraq, for the US side they were simply grease in the already-moving gears of war.
That Britain was more influenced by ideas and less by national trauma will lead American readers to reassess—perhaps harshly—Blunder’s principal protagonist: Tony Blair. Like many Americans, I appreciated the symbolism of his visiting the United States so soon after the 9/11 attacks. Most remember Bush pausing during his address to Congress on September 20, 2001 to specifically thank him. Blunder questions whether that affection was warranted.
The specifics of how America went to war can and should continue to be investigated. (I’m interested to see what Mike Mazarr’s new book has to say on the matter.) But one thing that is clear is that the fog of post-9/11 trauma played no small role in both the nation’s and the administration’s willingness to fight. Britain lost sixty-seven citizens on September 11, but it was physically removed from the actual attacks. It also had more experience with strikes on its homeland, through both its recent experience with the Irish Republican Army and its collective memory of the Blitz during World War II. Having greater physical distance from the carnage of 9/11 and possessing deeper historical perspective, should Britain have had a clearer eye about the path to war in Iraq?
One example Porter cites is particularly troubling. At one point, Blair belatedly asks his chief of the Defence Staff to develop a “worst-case” scenario for the outcome of forcibly toppling Saddam. That assessment, briefed directly to Blair in January 2003, essentially predicted most of the war’s worst outcomes, including internecine fighting between the Sunni and Shia and meddling by neighboring countries to keep Iraq destabilized. The chief of the Defence Staff’s findings largely echoed an earlier memo from Peter Watkins, permanent secretary to Blair’s defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, that also proved to be eerily prescient about the outcome of an Iraq war. (It should be noted that while the Watkins memo was sent to Hoon, it has never been established if Blair himself read it.)
Part of Porter’s motivations for writing Blunder is to argue against dismissing Iraq as simply “Blair’s war,” and he mostly achieves that goal by explicating the ideas that various individuals held and that informed the perceived wisdom of the endeavor in several different quarters. But in light of the information that was presented at times to Blair, wasn’t it incumbent upon him to raise more objections and concerns with his American counterpart? In the end, Bush bears responsibility for his decision alone and questions as to why there was not greater debate over whether to invade Iraq within the Bush administration should continue to be examined. But putting aside US failings, the reader of Blunder is still left asking: Who was better positioned to confront Bush with alternate scenarios and potential pitfalls than Blair? From the transatlantic perspective, was he ultimately less a friend and more an enabler?
Counterfactuals and Ass-Covering
If there’s a consistent theme in other reviews of Blunder, it’s that Porter is perhaps too kind to Blair. Having read the book twice, I reluctantly agree with that criticism. But to some extent, it doesn’t matter. Because while ostensibly about Britain’s path to war, Blunder really is a discussion of the entire endeavor—intellectual, military, and political—of reshaping the Middle East, in general, and Iraq, in particular, following the September 11 attacks. If Britain and Blair’s particular storyline isn’t your specific interest, the book still holds value due to the architecture Porter constructs to support his investigation. To challenge British policy requires interrogating US assumptions and doing so entails a discussion of a range of possibilities and debates—both before and after the war. This is the true strength of Blunder.
At various points, the book is a testing ground—and a harsh one—for many of the explanations and counterfactuals that have since been proffered for why the war didn’t achieve the desired results. As part of chapter two’s extended discussion on the inherent hazards of regime change, for example, Porter goes into depth on de-Baathification, one of the supposedly “fatal steps” taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority. He notes that the measure was supported—to some extent demanded—by Kurdish and Shia groups as way to push back against decades of Sunni domination. Thus, while de-Baathification exacerbated sectarian tensions, it was also born from them. US actions didn’t exist in a vacuum. The realities of Iraq’s internal political history always made the proposition of “breaking” that state and rebuilding it to Western specifications a dubious one. It’s something that any supporter of the war—including this writer—needs to wrestle with: Could the Iraq War have achieved better ends if it was simply “done better”? Blunder argues persuasively that it could not, that it was a damned endeavor from its conception.
Along similar lines, Porter correctly assesses that Iraq was not “abandoned” after the success of “the surge” and the application of more effective counterinsurgency strategies by Gen. David Petraeus. Porter sees President Barack Obama’s role clearly, or more accurately he sees that there was a role for Iraqi free will in deciding not to renew the Status of Forces Agreement (or SOFA) that allowed American forces to operate on Iraq’s territory. That the Iraqis chose not to have US forces stay on is routinely lost in the debate about the Obama administration’s withdrawal and the question of “who lost Iraq.” Without a new SOFA, there was no mechanism for US troops to stay in Iraq without literally being the illegal occupiers we claimed they never were. (Peter Baker’s work on the Bush presidency also makes it clear that Bush had also resigned himself to this fact and understood before leaving office that withdrawal in 2011 was inevitable.)
The overall intensity—and fairness—with which Porter cross-examines these various arguments and counterfactuals has inherent value that elevates the book over any weaknesses (such as perhaps being too kind to Blair), as well as its other main deficiency: the inconsistent way in which Blunder deals with the question of the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
“P” Is For “Porter,” But Also “Pollack”
After the first time I read Blunder, I put the book away and was struck by the karmic coincidence that it now sat on my shelf immediately next to another seminal book about Iraq: Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm. Pollack’s book is arguably the most elegant and convincing case ever publicly made in favor of invading Iraq. That the book came not from the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, but rather the Brookings Institution underscores the diversity of views that supported removing Saddam Hussein from power. It reinforces Porter’s central argument that the war “belonged” to more than just Blair (and Bush.) The fifth chapter of The Threatening Storm is a detailed and sober accounting of Saddam’s conventional and possible WMD capabilities. Ultimately, it was, of course, wrong and Pollack has since conceded that he was working off flawed intelligence data. But as written, at the time, it’s a better, more compelling breakdown of why Saddam was a threat than Colin Powell’s UN speech.
I don’t, by any means, intend to lay the case for war solely at Pollack’s feet either. I mention his book because at the heart of the debate over the Iraq War will always be the question of what should’ve been believed (and when) in regards to WMD. Porter has largely convinced me that Iraq could not have been “done better”; less certain is whether the United States—with or without British aid—should’ve definitively known better.
US perspectives are, admittedly, outside Porter’s formal brief, but they can’t help but play into his analysis. In Blunder, Porter wants to have it both ways on the WMD subject. On the one hand, he allows that the 9/11 attacks had changed the calculus for decision makers, unsure as they were if the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC were in fact one-off aberrations or part of an oncoming wave. Yet at other times, Porter seems to chastise the same policymakers for letting their intellectual beliefs—about rogue states, about regime change, about reshaping the Middle East—get in the way of sounder judgments regarding the threat Iraqi WMD really posed. Perhaps they should have been able to make more rational judgments, but Blunder didn’t convince me that their failings weren’t due to basic fear and paranoia as opposed to the overpowering draw of the specific ideas the book explores.
But this is far from a fatal complaint. Overall, Blunder is to be commended. Porter has meticulously constructed a rigorous interrogation of Britain’s intellectual path to the Iraq War. In his introduction, he rightly notes that his is not a definitive text nor can it be. The history of the Iraq War will continue to be written as additional information becomes available and as its consequences are fully explicated. But Blunder is an important waystation along that path, one readers will want to return to repeatedly.
Mike Sweeney is a former think tanker who lives and writes in New Jersey. He wrote an essay called, “Can America Lose a War Well?” He’s still not sure how he feels about it.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Karah Cohen, Joint Combat Camera Center Iraq