Power games: learning the lessons of Iraq

Blair wouldn’t have felt he needed to act in this way if he thought he could win on the merits of the case.
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Tony Blair Center for American Progress

The legacy of the 2003 Iraq invasion continues to influence British politics over a decade after former prime minister Tony Blair left office. Dr James Strong discusses why the build up to the conflict offers an archetypal lesson in political communication, and how it relates to the politics of 2017.

At the 2001 general election, Tony Blair’s Labour government was given a strong mandate by the British public for the second time in succession. Later that year, al-Qaida committed a series of terrorist attacks on the east coast of the U.S.; the George W. Bush administration responded by waging a ‘War on Terror’ against international terrorists and terrorist-supporting regimes.

The War on Terror’s most controversial chapter was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was justified by its supporters with evidence that leader Saddam Hussein harboured weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and posed a serious threat to America and its allies.

Over a decade on, a commonly held view is British support for the Iraq war was a monumental catastrophe which led to millions of deaths and destabilised the Middle East. This impression was cemented by the 2016 Iraq enquiry led by Sir John Chilcott, which implicated the Britain’s political, military and intelligence establishments, but singled Blair out for specific criticism.

In his new book, Public Opinion, Legitimacy and Tony Blair’s War in Iraq, Dr Strong analysed the build-up to the war to understand how the Blair government arrived at their decision. He found a self-confident and successful leader who approached a decision that was fraught with ambiguity with single-minded clarity and purpose.

Dr Strong draws on two key theories from political science to understand Blair’s decision-making process; the Habermasian model, where decisions are reached through deliberation and consensus, and the Foucauldian model, where the winner of an argument usually has the most power.

“These are the two ideal types of communication, and most politicians usually mix the two. But Blair failed to recognise the gulf between his professed commitment to Habermasian ideal and his reliance on Foucauldian methods. This is one of the reasons for the problems of legitimacy around the war that followed,” Dr Strong says.

To pursue his political agenda, Blair brought in Alastair Campbell, a tough and experienced media operator. Dr Strong says: “Campbell was a bruiser who would play political power games in order to get the party’s story on the front pages.”

Another example of Blair’s Foucauldian methods is the notorious dossier of evidence of Iraq’s WMD. “The dossier had a slant on it which Blair would have ordered because he thought he wouldn’t get a fair hearing for his arguments."

“Blair wouldn’t have felt he needed to act in this way if he thought he could win over the public with reason, based solely on the merits of the case. Because he believed so strongly that he was right, he used the dossier to pursue his objectives,” Dr Strong says.

The challenges experienced by one of Blair’s successors, Jeremy Corbyn, during his tumultuous reign as Labour leader could offer a validation of Blair’s political methods to achieve a desired policy outcome. In his desire to develop policy through consultation with party-members, Corbyn appears to be dedicated to Habermasian processes, but he has encountered strong opposition from a partisan media and political forces both inside and outside of his party.

“One of Corbyn’s problems is that he isn’t competing on a level playing field. His main opponents, the media and the Conservative party, often take a Foucauldian approach. This means that regardless of the strength of Corbyn’s arguments, he will lose the debate,” Dr Strong says.

“Corbyn has taken a principled position to say what he thinks was wrong about the Labour party under Blair, including Iraq. But he is now suffering from the problems that Blair identified when pursuing his agenda, and complains that he doesn’t get a fair hearing in the first place,” Dr Strong adds.

Blair recently intervened in the debate on Britain’s relationship with the European Union (EU) following the 2016 referendum, and has been heavily critical of the current Labour leadership on this issue. Blair has cited changing public opinion as a major weapon in any circumstances where Britain retains its EU membership. Does this reflect Blair’s belated realisation that the deliberative, consensus-based political model is superior?

“Blair is still relying heavily on communication skills which haven’t left him, as well as his rare status as an election-winning Labour leader. But he also no longer has the power that comes with being prime minister, so he is forced to pursue his ideas in other ways.”

“But I don’t think Blair is the right person to lead the opposition to Brexit. Whatever happens, he is seen as a discredited figure because of what happened in Iraq,” Dr Strong adds.

Behind the article


Public Opinion, Legitimacy and Tony Blair’s War in Iraq by Dr James Strong is published by Routledge.