Unintended Consequences and the Warfare State

“The danger is, as ever with these things, unintended consequences.” So wrote Prime Minister Tony Blair to President George W. Bush in 2002, as Bush prepared to invade Iraq. Blair’s unstinting support of US policy, notwithstanding numerous unknowns and acknowledged large-scale obstacles, is more than a case of over-optimism or misplaced friendship. For as the Chilcot Commission has just concluded after a seven-year long investigation of British policy, bad judgment was multiplied by hubris, a deeply flawed decision-making process, and an unquestioned faith in the ability of military power to resolve political and economic problems.

The essential message from the Chilcot Report goes well beyond British policy in Iraq, or even beyond US policy under Bush, which suffered from the same problems. The report, to my mind, is a commentary on certain diseases that infect foreign policy decision-making processes everywhere. Decision-making groups are always subject to misjudgments, blunders, and misperceptions; but the bigger picture has to do with what Sen. J.W. Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.” Powerful like-minded members of a leader’s inner circle (far more often men than women), meeting in secret, with enormous destructive power at their disposal, and believing their country is invincible and their arguments infallible, make for a dangerous combination.

In 2002-2003, we know for a fact that Bush and Blair were determined to go ahead with invading Iraq regardless of any evidence or argument to the contrary. The decision for war, far from having been due to an intelligence failure, was predetermined. War was the answer to “getting” Saddam Hussein, the first and last resort, and the job of both governments’ leaders was to sell the war, in large part by massaging intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction and outright lying to the public. Opposition to war – in legislatures, in public opinion, in the UN, in domestic and international law, among allies and other friendly governments – was simply a problem to be overcome. This was the Vietnam story for 30 years. It is likely to be the Afghanistan story (if the US ever gets out of there), China’s South China Sea story, and Russia’s Crimea story – if we ever gain access to the relevant documents.

The Chilcot Report points up another policymaking failure that is fairly universal when it comes to questions of war and peace: an unwillingness to consider alternatives to the use of force. The inner circle of decision makers simply never goes there. Peace is unthinkable, at least not until victory has been achieved. That means avoiding planning for negotiations and post-conflict rebuilding. It’s a time for warriors, not diplomats. Officials who argue against aggressive policies thus find themselves sidelined; they are “soft,” hence no longer useful members of “the team.”

At least one writer, Trevor Timm in The Guardian, has already called for a Chilcot-style report on George W.’s Iraq policy. But we all know that such an investigation is not going to happen, even under a Democratic leadership. As Barack Obama has made clear in not pursuing criminal charges against CIA and other torturers, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the lot are free to enjoy their retirement. After all, Iraq is history, and besides, we must always value social stability over punishment when the criminal behavior of state leaders is concerned. The International Criminal Court is for others.

The Chilcot Report provides a public service by reminding us that there will always be “unintended consequences,” and that those consequences may prove considerably greater than the policy problem everyone had originally addressed. One look at the Middle East today compared with 2002 makes that assessment plain enough. Failing to stop the war train long enough to consider what those unintended consequences might be, and whether they might be formidable enough to keep the train in the station, is the Achilles heel of great powers. How to overcome that dilemma requires much more than tinkering with the decision-making system, for at bottom the arrogance of power is the enemy, and the Chilcot Report provides no antidote for it.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

14 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences and the Warfare State”

  1. July 6th, 2016 Obama, in shift, says he will keep 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan until 2017

    President Barack Obama, saying the security situation in Afghanistan remained precarious, said on Wednesday he will keep U.S. troop levels there at 8,400 through the end of his administration rather than reducing them to 5,500 by year’s end as previously planned.

    http://www.rawstory.com/2016/07/obama-in-shift-says-he-will-keep-8400-us-troops-in-afghanistan-until-2017/

  2. One factor that became noticable to me was that it seemed that most police officers are former military people. Why would that be when it’s pretty obvious that is the mindset and mentality that is the opposite to compassionate policing of the civilian population. Ex-military people haven’t the slightest idea of what that means in most cases. And I would suggest, wouldn’t be amenable or even capable of learning it.
    Do Americans know any cops that come off as compassionate?

    1. Well, many of them are. Veterans are actively recruited and often don’t have a ton of other skills. And many are traumatized and are the last people we should want walking around carrying guns. But our leaders think they are at war with everyone, around the world and here. I blogged about what happens to people with an overdeveloped need for control at http://www.theinnbythehealingpath.com

      1. Yes, lots of cops are veterans. I was asking where Don got the idea that “most” cops are veterans.

        30, maybe even 20, years ago, that was almost certainly true — because a large proportion of American males were veterans. World War II put 16 million men under arms. I’m not sure what the total size of the US military was at the height of Vietnam, but troops in country alone were at 400-500k.

        These days, total US military numbers, active and reserve, are down in the 2 million range. And there are 1.x million cops. Police forces are almost certainly more heavily weighted toward veterans than some other jobs (if for no other reason than that police jobs are government jobs and veterans get preference for government jobs), but I doubt it’s anything close to a majority.

        1. I don’t doubt. They do have a hiring preference for vets. It’s the Spank A Vet program. Oh, yeah, that’s THANK. I’m a vet simply because I didn’t desert and stayed until they discharged me. Vet doesn’t mean “combat”. A lot of Army MPs, Naval Shore Patrol and Air Farts Security Police (both have SP as their acronym) did nothing but stand guard duty. Lots of guard duty. It was the first MOS the Air Farts decided, gave me a list of three. Hell, I was just 18 and really dumb about dealing with military types. Even having grown up partly on base and with most of the men in the family either active duty or vets. One of the Jobs they do is jail guard. They can call it the brig or the stockade but it’s still a jail. Like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash sang, “there ain’t no good chain gang”. Jail guards and street cops are conditioned to the notion that civilians are stupid, useless and far inferior to their royal highness. In the military or elsewhere. There’s another anecdote, I bought weed from a 3rd Herd (Third Armored Cavalry) scout one Christmas eve long ago. I made some crack about at least he could be on his own most of the time To me that’s heaven. Not having to actually see your sergeant or officers for weeks at a time? Anyway, he said “the only job my experience will get is to either be a cop or a hit man, and there’s no difference”. Very much long did I ponder this. And, it’s true. The difference between a gang cartel and a civil government is the title. The Mafia are modeled after the Roman government just like England and all it’s derivative corporations like the US.

          1. Yeah, sometimes it works.We’re stuck with a lot of stupid policy that doesn’t. With a promise for the same, but lots more of it. Violence of the Govt kind, doled out to American citizens in what looks like will be equal measure to what’s going down Over There.

            It’s how they roll, how they got possession of America in the first place.

  3. Perhaps the unintended consequences Mr Blair warned of would be simply the not very likely prison sentences they would face after the certainty of their crimes being uncovered.

    Many criminals do think in terms of retaliation against their evil deeds.

    Mr Bush seems more nonchalant and secure that Daddy’s trust fund will keep him out of jail. The sick part of that is, he might be right.

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