Damned if we do and damned if we don’t

It is not hard to see why politicians have a hard time admitting mistakes.  They work hard and  make difficult decisions and are not always open to accepting that these decisions were wrong.  Some may be too arrogant to see the error of their ways.   It is the rare individual who issues a mea culpa right away.

But sometimes we are surprised, even if it takes a while – like over a decade.

This is what we saw this week with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s admission that the invasion by the US and his country of Iraq in 2003 was maybe not such a great idea after all and has led, in part, to the creation and turmoil of the Islamic State and the morass that is Iraq (see story here).

It is not hard to see how the move to war was both cynical and not well planned.  Saddam Hussein, after all, was an ally of the US back in the days of the Gulf War (with Iran): the Defence Secretary who helped lead the charge for invasion, Donald Rumsfeld, was once a Reagan envoy to the Iraqi leader and none too worried about the despot’s use of chemical weapons against the Ayatollahs.  The intelligence citing Saddam’s stockpile of CBRN was either cooked or just plain bad.  The invaders were not seen as “liberators” and Iraq is a mess today to say the least.

So, all in all, not a good move.  But should we be so harsh on the decision makers?  Yes and no.

Iraq has clearly suffered tremendously as a result of the war (it was suffering tremendously under sanctions before the invasion as well), and probably over a million Iraqis have died.  The country is riven with sectarian splits and a once shining light in the Middle East can’t keep the lights on at night.  We could posit: no war, no tragedy.

At the same time, the Hussein regime was brutal and ordinary Iraqis were under the thumb of a dictatorial regime (even if he was once, to adapt Franklin Roosevelt’s description of then Nicaraguan despot Somoza, “our son of a bitch”).  He was a threat to his neighbours, having invaded both Iran (1980) and Kuwait (1991).  He massacred thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons.  Why shouldn’t he be removed?

If Western powers had left him standing, they would have been accused of turning a blind eye to a monster.  So, they got rid of him and are now saddled with the aftermath.  Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

As Mr. Blair stated, sometimes bad things happen irrespective of action taken or not taken.  Iraq was invaded, Hussein deposed, and a quagmire resulted.  Libya was bombed (but not invaded), Ghaddafi deposed, and a quagmire resulted.  Syria was ignored and a quagmire resulted.  What is a state to do?

I guess this just shows that things are complicated. Make a move in one direction and you cannot predict what other events will ensue from the first move.  You can plan things as carefully as possible (unlike the 2003 war: militarily brilliant but lousy on the day after the defeat of the regime) and yet unforeseen consequences arise.   Furthermore, you make those decisions based on the information at hand, and that information is seldom complete.

I am not trying to absolve Mr. Blair – or Mr. Bush for that matter – of a horrendous mistake.  But I think we have to look at the bigger picture to truly understand what they have wrought.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

2 replies on “Damned if we do and damned if we don’t”

Very interesting article, Phil. I think the “single head” (aka “governing from the centre”) model has become so inadequate for certain international political issues, particularly as complex as that of the Middle East question. Indeed, I believe it is, in and of itself, revealing itself as an emerging threat to the West’s own interests and has been for some time. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Western leaders tend to be stuck in a situation wherein the decisions they make concerning this over-1,400-year-old question must result in the “illusion of progress” within the 4-year election cycle. In the end, that’s what we as voters get within such a few years – “illusions of progress”. I do not believe the Middle East question can ever be solved by a group of “single heads” with no deep academic background on the issue and who are all looking at a timeframe of four (or less – or more considering re-election) years down the road. Indeed, I wouldn’t doubt that they would reject the perfect solution to this issue simply because it does not resonate with their own particular world view. One could imagine such leaders outsourcing the research, analytical, policy making, planning, and execution of solutions to those more competent bodies – if they do or ever can exist. But current government and political institutions are not aligned to the challenges of something like that, especially when it comes to accountability, legislation, etc (too much to list here). There will be more Blairs and Bushes, no doubt about it…and I am very concerned about what they will wreak in the coming years.

Thanks for your comment Peter. I agree with your “4-year election cycle” point and would go one further that our financial system is even worse as companies make decisions based on quarterly dividend earnings (one-sixteenth of a four-year cycle). Yes, the ME is complicated – always has been and always will. Furthermore, whatever solutions there are must come from within, not imposed from without

Leave a Reply