November 18, 2007

The Altered Calculus Of Risk

The Times of London has a fascinating look at the war on terror from the perspective of Tony Blair. The former British Prime Minister still believes that the US and the UK acted correctly in removing Saddam Hussein, and in fact it matched his own long-stated policy of pre-emptive action in defense of the West when obvious threats arose. The calculus of risk changed dramatically after 9/11, a change that most people still fail to understand (via Memeorandum):

It was 9/11 that created the political bond. “The moment I saw what was unfolding and realised the scale of it,” Blair told me, “I felt a really deep sense of mission.” It was clear to him immediately, he said, what it was he had to do. With Bush showing, in those early days, a restraint and a focus that hadn’t been expected of him, Blair toured the world helping to put together a coalition for action. By Christmas 2001 the Taleban were defeated and Bin Laden was on the run. Now, the question was, what came next? The American answer, by early 2002, was Saddam. Our man at the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, was, he told me, very surprised because he couldn’t see the relevance of Iraq to 9/11. What had changed, Greenstock thought, was the calculus of opportunity — Bush could now get support for action against Iraq that would previously have been opposed by the American people.

In London, Tony Blair was thinking about Iraq in a slightly different way. To him, according to Sir David Manning, his foreign policy adviser, it was the calculus of risk that had altered with the attack on America.

The nightmare was the confluence of WMD with terrorism; nuclear programmes were believed to be up and running in Libya, Iran and North Korea, and Saddam’s continued defiance of UN resolutions seemed to confirm intelligence reports of continuing WMD capacity. Worse, the existing sanctions regime against Iraq was crumbling. “What you could get away with before 9/11,” explained David Manning, “was no longer acceptable.”

From early on, Tony Blair operated with an implied hierarchy of options over Iraq. The worst, in his view, was that Saddam should be permitted to continue in his defiance. The best was that the international community, acting through the UN, should threaten action sufficiently convincingly to get Saddam to back down completely. Then, as happened with Milosevic, Saddam might well be forced from power. In between these poles were other possibilities, ranging from an internationally agreed plan to force Saddam to comply, to the much less welcome possibility of unilateral military action undertaken by an isolated United States.

In April 2002 Blair travelled to the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Texas. Did he at this point, secretly agree (as many believe), I asked him, to an invasion of Iraq? “It is complete rubbish that when I went to see President Bush I said, ‘Right, OK, I’m up for it’.” replied Blair. “What’s more, he was not of that view at that time.”

The narrative goes into detail regarding the Bush-Blair partnership on Iraq. Blair felt that Bush wanted an option outside of military intervention, but that the threat of intervention had to be credible enough to force Saddam to finally comply with the terms of his cease-fire and the UN resolutions from the past 12 years. As Blair told the Times, that formula had worked with Slobodan Milosevic, although Blair was convinced that Bill Clinton would never have agreed to commit ground troops in Yugoslavia to fight the Serbs in open warfare.

It failed to work with Saddam, and for some very clear reasons. Even Blair warned Bush that they could get "stuck in the UN," and that's precisely what happened. France, Russia, and China made it clear that they would not support military action regardless of whether Saddam complied or not. Saddam shrewdly offered half a loaf, allowing inspectors to return but refusing to fully comply with them once they began their work. As winter began to roll into spring -- and closer to an Iraqi summer that acted as a hard deadline for action -- the UN attempted to continue its stalling tactics until even Colin Powell had had enough

Blair says he has no regrets over removing Saddam Hussein, but clearly he sees 2003 as a missed opportunity for the UN. He tells the Times that in the end, the permanent UNSC members seemed more interested in hamstringing the US than they ever were in resolving the problem of Saddam Hussein. It points to a problem at the basis of the war on terror -- the lack of stomach in the West for the fight. “The enemy that we are fighting I am afraid has learnt . . . that our stomach for this fight is limited and I believe they think they can wait us out." So far, with the exception of George Bush and Tony Blair and perhaps now Nicolas Sarkozy, that mostly appears correct.

UPDATE: As CapQ commenter C Cage points out, I forgot John Howard of Australia.


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