Consequences, or their absence

I originally posted this in the comments at Crooked Timber as an aside, but thought it deserved elevation of sorts:

It’s worth remembering the very limited harm that was done by Tony Blair’s stupid and wrong decision to get involved in Iraq. The net result was that:

a) a lot of people internationally thought the British were slightly more wankerish than they previously thought us, at least until they forgot about it again.

b) the risk of Islamist terrorism against UK nationals rose from imperceptibly low to still imperceptibly low but slightly higher than before.

Also, some of the military casualties of the war became people with British passports instead of people with American passports, and some of the civilian casualties of the war were shot or bombed by people with British passports instead of people with American passports.

But as far as I can see, that doesn’t affect the total harm done, unless you think the British Army is appreciably worse than the US Army at minimising casualties (which doesn’t appear to be the case either from the casualty data or the anecdotal evidence that I’ve seen), or that American deaths are more acceptable than British ones.

10 thoughts on “Consequences, or their absence”

  1. I have had similar thoughts in the past …. although I then also wonder how I'd respond to a crack dealer arguing that if they didn't do it, somebody else would and the net change in the state of the world from their actions is zero. I don't know how to resolve that problem.

  2. "unless you think […] that American deaths are more acceptable than British ones"

    Well, if you accept the "we're fighting the war there, instead of here" excuse, having Americans take all the risks on our behalf makes perfect sense, too.

  3. On the election, so off topic, I note that the OECD has the UK economy growing faster than any other G7 economy in Q2, unemployment is falling, the budget deficit is contracting, inequality has been kept down despite international pressures, the trade deficit is falling on a weaker pound – IT'S a 'GOLDEN LEGACY'!

  4. Mine or Sanbikinoraion's? Also, I'm never quite sure what "not even wrong" means – "factually accurate but completely missing the point morally" is my best guess for here, assuming you're talking about my original post. In which case, meh, I'm a consequentialist.

  5. I should have written "post" and not "comment". Really, John, do you think that Blair's decision has had no significant consequences? I don't think that if Blair stood against Bush's insane war-wongering then the invasion would never have happened. I'm certain that the UK would have a lot more money to spend on bailing out the bankers, though.

  6. The UK's spending on Iraq was remarkably low – it's GBP7bn, the order of magnitude of half a Crossrail, rather than the kind of sums that would make much of a difference to welfare/the NHS/banker-bailing-out.

    I think the best criticism of this post was on Twitter, about the brutalising effect that the Iraq war had on the Labour party. I'm not 100% convinced by it – I think that even if there hadn't been a war, NuLab would still have been authoritarian arseholes – but it's more plausible than any argument on financial or direct harm grounds.

  7. OK, I'll bite.

    There may well be a very significant harm done by UK involvement in the Iraq war; one that has yet to fully manifest, but the possibility of which has always been rather obvious to me though less so to many people.

    Let us imagine that Blair had decided not to back Bush and had, in fact, spoken out against the invasion (albeit with the watered-down voice of diplomacy). It is likely that such a stance (a stance I would describe as morally courageous, and therefore most un-Blair-like indeed) would have made it easier for the Spanish, Italian and Australian governments to distance themselves from Bush's foreign policy; though perhaps they wouldn't have taken that opportunity. We'll obviously never know.

    Either way, it would have resulted in a US invasion with little or no practical support from any other nation on the planet. In other words, it could well have been seen as the actions of a rogue state, under the leadership of a radical group of neoconservatives.

    As it was, however, British involvement and pressure made the support of Spain and Italy far more likely. So instead of a single rogue state acting aggressively; the invasion was instead painted — by radicals on both sides — as a clash of civilisations. Existing divisions between Islam and the West grew wider and deeper as a result.

    I would suggest that this represents ongoing harm to the entire world, the full consequences of which we have, as yet, to fully appreciate.

    Those consequences may not turn out to be significant; over and above whatever would have been produced by a US-only attack; but I do not believe enough time has passed to declare them "limited" with any degree of confidence.

  8. I should point out that my point about the cost of the war was the most obvious and indisputable fact I could offer in rebuttal to John's post. I don't consider it to be the most harmful consequence of the whole affair or the least. And really, John, £7bn is somehow acceptable? Do you consider that to be particular value for money on the illegal-murder-of-brown-people scale or on the destruction-of-a-society-as-old-as-civilisation-itself scale?

    The thing about Crossrail is that it will return value to society. Its an investment. What has the UK got in return from Iraq? 52 people died in the 7th July bombings. You mention that the threat of Islamic terrorism has raised impercetably but the UK government's response to it has had orders of magnitude greater effect upon our society than the threats themselves.

    Most importantly, there's the simple matter of morality. The UK likes to think its still a mover and shaker on the international stage, trading on the outcome of WWII and pretending to still stand firm in the face of tyranny. Any vestiges of this moral high ground that hadn't subsided under the combined weight of weapons sales to authoritarian governments, neo-colonialism and nauseating obeisance before Washington promptly evaporated like spilt absinthe once Jesus told Tony that it was his destiny, as a truly Decent Man, to "liberate" Iraq. With that final extinction of gravitas the UK has lost the ability to act with integrity and on principle. It can't do it any more. It tries but everyone's smirking into the sleeves when the Foreign Secretary of the day stands up and condemns so-and-so for their iron-fisted repression of ethnic minorities or their anti-democratic habits. And the reason is that they're all looking at each other and mouthing the word "Iraq" and rolling their eyes.

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