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Iraq and Brexit: A Common Thread of Hubris

Both events were driven more by ideological conviction – than rational analysis – and against the advice of most experts, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

Then US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Photo: Maidun Collection/Alamy

Iraq and BrexitA Common Thread of Hubris

Both events were driven more by ideological conviction – than rational analysis – and against the advice of most experts, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

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The 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, now regarded as one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in American history, has brought back a flood of difficult memories from my own time working on the issues in the run-up to, and during, the invasion.  

In the late 1990s, I was for a while the desk officer for northern Iraq, helping to make the case for maintaining sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime and to implement the no fly zone operated by the US and UK to protect the largely Kurdish population living in that region, who had suffered for years under his brutal rule.

In September 2001, less than 24 hours after the 9/11 attacks in America, I was called up to work in the UK’s emergency response centre in Whitehall, codenamed COBRA. My job was to work through the night, in charge of a small team, monitoring global reactions and responses to the attacks and sifting reports from our embassies worldwide to produce a short situation report (SitRep) for Cabinet by 9am every morning. 

A few weeks later, I flew to Washington to become the head of the press section at the British Embassy for the next six months, during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to dislodge Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It was an intense and frightening time.

Though not directly linked to the invasion of Iraq, 9/11 played a critical role in increasing the US and UK’s perception of the threat and providing context for the war in Iraq. I remained in Washington for the next two years, as the drumbeats for war grew progressively louder. 

My closest involvement came on the very eve of the invasion when I was assigned by the Foreign Office to work as a liaison officer in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs in the Pentagon, which was set up to oversee the post conflict reconstruction of Iraq.

In that capacity, I became an eyewitness to some of the policy-making processes at the very heart of the Pentagon, in the crucial weeks leading up to the war and the immediate aftermath. It was not a happy experience.  

As I have reflected on these events this week, 20 years after the invasion began, it occurred to me that many of the same mistakes which were made over Iraq are similar to the mistakes made over Brexit. 

In the first place, the case for both the invasion of Iraq and for the UK to leave the EU were based on misleading arguments, if not outright lies.

Advocates of the Iraq invasion based their arguments mainly on the premise – which later turned out to be false – that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction which, in the post-9/11 world, posed too great a risk to be managed by mere containment. While some of the intelligence around WMD was undoubtedly exaggerated, and the case for war remains hotly disputed to this day,  Iraq War advocates did at least have in their defence the undeniable fact that Saddam Hussein had possessed WMD in the past, had used WMD against his own people, and remained in outright defiance of UN resolutions. 

Brexit advocates have no such excuse. The EU presented no active threat to the UK. The UK already had many opt-outs from significant EU policies and even received an annual budget rebate. UK officials were disproportionately influential within the EU due to their effectiveness. Indeed, it could be said that the UK, while in the EU, did ‘have its cake and eat it’.

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Brexit advocates wilfully misrepresented the way in which EU membership allegedly infringed UK sovereignty and constrained UK freedom of action, dishonestly downplayed the costs of leaving, and grossly exaggerated the benefits.

Secondly, both events were driven more by ideological conviction, than rational analysis, and against the advice of most experts.

In Iraq, Pentagon officials ignored many of the findings of a year-long State Department study called ‘The Future of Iraq Project’ which predicted many of the problems which ended up plaguing the subsequent occupation. Its findings included a much more dire assessment of Iraq’s dilapidated electrical and water systems than many Pentagon officials assumed. It also warned of a society so brutalised by Saddam Hussein’s rule that many Iraqis might react coolly to Americans’ notion of quickly rebuilding civil society. The Pentagon went on to block the appointment of the man overseeing the planning, Tom Warrick, a State Department official, to the Pentagon to help with reconstruction. 

Likewise, Brexit advocates dismissed warnings that the process of leaving the EU would be difficult, and certainly not cost-free, as “Project Fear”, and derided those making the warnings as embittered “Remoaners”.

Michael Gove famously said on the eve of the referendum that “the people in this country have had enough of experts… from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. After the 2016 Referendum, the British Ambassador to the EU at the time, Sir Ivan Rogers, who might have been expected to play a leading role in the negotiations given his expertise, was progressively sidelined from policy-making and ultimately resigned when his confidential advice that it could take up to 10 years to conclude a new trade deal with the EU was leaked. 

Both decisions were also driven by over-confidence and hubris.

In Iraq, the Americans believed that – if necessary – they could go it alone, without the support of allies; that they would be welcomed with open arms by Iraqis sick of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule; and that the war would be over in a matter of weeks. Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, said “five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that”. Ken Adelman, a former assistant to Rumsfeld, infamously predicted that the invasion would be a “cakewalk”.

Cake was a recurring theme of Brexit backers as well, chiefly thanks to Boris Johnson, who claimed Britain could ‘have our cake and eat it’ as it left the EU. Numerous prominent Brexit backers overestimated how quick and easy it would be to leave the EU, operating under the misguided belief that the EU ‘need us more than we need them’.

For example, in July 2016, John Redwood said getting out of the EU would be easy because “the UK holds most of the cards”. In December 2016, David Davis dismissed fears a Brexit deal might be difficult, saying that “it is like threading the eye of a needle. If you have a good eye and a steady hand, it is easy enough”. In February 2017, Gerard Batten, UKIP Brexit spokesman, said trade relations with the EU could be sorted out in “an afternoon over a cup of coffee”. In July 2017, Liam Fox said coming to a free trade agreement with the EU should be “one of the easiest in human history”.

Partly as a result of such over-confidence, not enough preparation or planning was done to deal with the aftermath of either the Iraq invasion or the Brexit referendum.

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In Iraq’s case, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA), in which I was embedded, was only set up in January 2003 – mere weeks before the invasion began. As I witnessed first-hand, it was completely overwhelmed and out of its depth. The officials, many of them decent and competent military officers, had no idea what they were getting into and almost no time to find out. They had plenty of combat experience, but little detailed knowledge of the region, let alone the internal dynamics of Iraq. There were few Arabic speakers.

Despite the likely economic, diplomatic and humanitarian repercussions of the war, as far as I can remember, the unit included no one from other government departments, even essential ones such as State Department, the US development agency, USAID, or the Treasury. 

In fact, in both Iraq and Brexit, key decisions were taken by only a small inner circle of policy-makers, with most other government officials left in the dark over what was happening, and how it might affect their policy areas.

On Iraq, I vividly remember a senior Pentagon official rebuking me when I suggested that it might be helpful for him to at least brief his colleagues in USAID on what their plans were for the post-military phase of the war, so that it could prepare the humanitarian response. As they continued to be excluded by Pentagon officials, State Department and USAID officials would privately implore me – a foreigner – to fill them in on what their own government was doing. 

When I surreptitiously tried to convey some of this dysfunction to officials at the British Embassy in Washington – to relay it back to London – I simply was not believed. I am not sure any of my reports ever reached the desks of any UK officials making policy on Iraq, let alone ministers. 

Meanwhile, on Brexit, it was impossible to get specific answers from London on precisely how the problems around Northern Ireland would be handled, beyond broad assurances that the UK was committed to there being no hard border on the island of Ireland. We were also not allowed to see any of the detailed analysis in the ‘yellowhammer papers’ – the documents setting out the consequences for the UK if we left the EU without a deal. This made it impossible for me to brief interested US parties.

The staff in ORHA also had little experience of working with international organisations such as the UN, the UN Refugee Agency, or the International Committee of the Red Cross. In fact, one of my main contributions to the unit came during one of our interminable planning meetings, when I suggested they might like to include a reference to some of these organisations in their complicated organograms. These organograms, setting out who would do what after the invasion, also did not include any reference to any of their international allies, which were offering to help with reconstruction. 

The Pentagon indeed seemed to conceive of the whole operation as a purely US affair, with absolutely no regard for the views of other countries, international organisations or Iraqis on the ground themselves. Their plans seemed to revolve largely around plonking a new government in Baghdad comprised of Iraqi exiles opposed to Saddam Hussein, who they would fly into the country and then get themselves out of Iraq as fast as possible.   

This is not entirely dissimilar to the ‘exceptionalist’ mindset which many Brexit backers seemed to possess – that the UK would be able to dictate the terms of its departure from the EU without needing to take into account any of the views of our EU partners, EU institutions or indeed those within the UK who were opposed to Brexit. When the EU started making its own demands, and setting out its own red lines, this was seen by Brexiters as an example of EU ‘bad faith’ – rather than being the entirely natural action of the other party to the negotiations. When various groups in the UK raised concerns about Brexit, they were dismissed as being ‘enemies of the people’ or of trying to ‘thwart’ democracy. 

On both Iraq and Brexit, its advocates were too quick to claim success and too slow to acknowledge when things started going wrong. Then US President George W. Bush famously claimed “mission accomplished” on the deck of a US aircraft carrier in May 2003, even as the situation on the ground in Iraq descended into a quagmire.

In practice, none of the US’ hopes for Iraq transpired as planned. The failure to plan properly for the aftermath was one of the prime factors which turned so many Iraqis quickly against America, even those who welcomed the toppling of Saddam Hussein. 

 The Iraq War ended up dragging on for more than eight years, costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives, devastating Iraqi society, and leaving Iraqi politics and its economy still struggling to this day.

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The war did not lead to a flourishing of democracy across the Middle East. In fact, it allowed Iran to gain a foothold in that country, fed instability across the region, and paved the way for the growth of Islamic State. Meanwhile, the US suffered a major blow to its image and a loss of confidence which fed into its hesitations over Syria, Yemen and Libya; influenced its chaotic departure from Afghanistan; and initial reluctance to face down Russia in Ukraine, and to this day fuels an isolationist strand in US foreign policy. 

A similar failure to plan for the aftermath of the Brexit referendum or implement it with care has bedevilled the UK as well. David Cameron was so confident of winning the referendum vote, or of inadvertently giving ammunition to the Leave campaign, that he banned officials from drawing up any detailed plans for how to manage our departure from the EU. This meant that Theresa May had to start from scratch when she took over as Prime Minister.

Just as planning for the reconstruction of Iraq was botched due to the self- imposed deadline of the March invasion, so Brexit was mishandled right from the outset, when May set the clock ticking by triggering Article 50 – starting a two-year countdown before she had a proper strategy in place or the agreement of Parliament for the terms of our departure. David Davis famously turned up for his first meeting with the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, completely empty-handed, in a graphic representation of the UK’s empty strategy. 

May’s self-imposed deadline immediately put the UK at a disadvantage during the  negotiations. Her self-defeating ‘Brexit at all costs’ approach was continued by her successor Boris Johnson and his Brexit negotiator David Frost, who also turned down opportunities to extend the negotiations deadline. They, like Pentagon officials over Iraq, also dismissed official advice on the implications of the deal they were proposing to sign. In their haste to get Brexit “done” by their own self-imposed deadlines, Johnson and Frost pushed through a deal which they now repudiate, including the notorious Northern Ireland Protocol.

Finally, just as Iraq has had messy long term repercussions, years beyond the original invasion date, the same can be said about Brexit – the complicated ramifications of which drag on to this day, seven years after the referendum.

While Brexit certainly has not cost thousands of lives, it can be said to have cost thousands of people’s livelihoods, in terms of businesses unable to survive the loss of easy access to EU markets or to cope due to the labour supply shortages caused by Brexit.

Brexit may not have led to full-out civil war or armed insurrection, but it has divided British society, poisoned our politics and deepened distrust in government. Britain may not have become overall as dysfunctional as Iraq but the shenanigans around Brexit has made us at times look like a basket-case – deeply damaging our reputation for steadiness and competence, and created lasting distrust with some of our closest allies. 

The costs of  Brexit are increasingly plain to see, while the much heralded benefits have yet to materialise. 

Many of those who originally supported the invasion of Iraq have now come to see it as a mistake. Even many of those who still back the original decision to invade concede that the implementation was a disaster.

In a recent poll by Axios/Ipsos, 61% of Americans surveyed said they do not believe that America made the right decision. Unfortunately, for both the US and Iraq there is no way to turn back the clock.  

We in the UK are luckier. While it is extremely unlikely that the EU would ever let us back in as members on the same favourable terms as before, we do still have a chance to undo some of the damage caused by Brexit.

We have an explicit chance to renegotiate our current trade deal with the EU in 2025, giving us a golden opportunity to improve some of its terms or even seek to rejoin certain parts of the EU such as the Single Market and Customs Union. Polls suggest a growing number of British voters think leaving the EU was a mistake and that, were a referendum to be held today, a majority might even vote to rejoin.

The question remains, however, whether enough of our politicians will be willing to admit that our current deal is not a good one or even that the very decision to leave the EU was a mistake.

It’s taken Americans 20 years to fully come to terms with the consequences of Iraq. I hope it does not take that long for Britain to truly realise the consequences of Brexit.

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