Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Guys, I'm afraid we haven't got a clue...

From an extract of a book published in the Guardian

On November 19 2002, four months before the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair made a rare attempt to seek out expert views beyond the circle of his official advisers. Six distinguished academics were invited to Downing Street: three specialists on Iraq, and three on international security. George Joffe, an Arabist from Cambridge University, and Charles Tripp and Toby Dodge, who had both written books on Iraq's history, made opening statements of about five minutes each. They decided not to alienate the prime minister by discussing whether an invasion was sensible or necessary, but only what its consequences might be.

"We all pretty much said the same thing," Joffe recalls. "Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don't imagine you'll be welcomed." He remembers how Blair reacted. "He looked at me and said, 'But the man's uniquely evil, isn't he?' I was a bit nonplussed. It didn't seem to be very relevant." Recovering, Joffe went on to argue that Saddam was constrained by various factors, to which Blair merely repeated his first point: "He can make choices, can't he?" As Joffe puts it, "He meant he can choose to be good or evil, I suppose."

Joffe got the impression of "someone with a very shallow mind, who's not interested in issues other than the personalities of the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc".
Dodge also struggled to convince Blair of the obstacles that would face anyone who occupied Iraq. "Much of the rhetoric from Washington appeared to depict Saddam's regime as something separate from Iraqi society," he remembers. "All you had to do was remove him and the 60 bad men around him. What we wanted to get across was that over 35 years the regime had embedded itself into Iraqi society, broken it down and totally transformed it. We would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds."

The experts didn't seem to make much of an impression. Blair "wasn't focused", Tripp recalls. "I felt he wanted us to reinforce his gut instinct that Saddam was a monster. It was a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour."

The brief meeting was unique. "I can't remember participating in any meaningful seminar on Iraq with the Foreign Office," Tripp says. "We were not asked to brief officials in the Middle East department."

What has since become clear is that Joffe, Dodge and Tripp were not the only experts to be left out in the cold. In April 2004, after a weekend in which rockets, helicopter attacks and shootings left dozens of Iraqis dead, 52 retired British diplomats, most of them career specialists on the Middle East, wrote an extraordinary open letter to Blair deploring Britain's lack of proper prewar analysis. They described Iraq as the region's most complex country and said it was naive for the Americans and British to think they could create a democratic society, however much some Iraqis might want one.

To see the full extract, please click on the title

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