In her speech to the Republican party congressional conference in Philadelphia on 26 January, Theresa May distanced herself from what she described as “the failed policies of the past”. This was the first item: “The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.”
It was not an anti-interventionist speech, for May followed this by insisting that we cannot “afford to stand idly by when the threat is real and when it is in our own interests to intervene. We must be strong, smart and hard-headed. And we must demonstrate the resolve necessary to stand up for our interests.” She also spoke of the UK’s contribution to anti-Isis operations as well as international peacekeeping.
According to the media, presumably reflecting a briefing, May was repudiating Tony Blair’s Chicago speech of April 1999. The BBC described her speech as “arguably the biggest by a British prime minister” since “Mr Blair first advocated active military interventionism to overturn dictators and protect civilians”.
As I was outed many years ago as the one who provided the first draft of the relevant section of the Chicago speech, I have an almost proprietary interest in how it is interpreted. It is one of the curiosities of my career that, despite having written many books and articles, my best-known piece of writing was produced in a day and went out under somebody else’s name. Chicago is widely considered to have set the framework for what happened later in Iraq. My connection to the speech was highlighted as soon as I was appointed to the Chilcot inquiry, and was usually mentioned with the rider that I was not to be trusted.
It might, therefore, be useful to go back to the words of the speech and consider what I was trying to do with my draft. It should be noted that I contributed to only one section of a long speech and that there were material differences between my draft and the speech as delivered. Most importantly, what matters in the end is not what the speechwriter has in mind but what the politician who takes responsibility for the words thinks it means.
The immediate context was the Kosovo campaign, which was struggling at that time, and a coming Nato summit in Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of the Atlantic Treaty. As we now know, a difference of opinion between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton – about the need for a change of strategy if the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was to be persuaded to budge – was dominating the pre-summit diplomacy. It was only because of the intensity of that diplomacy in the two weeks preceding the summit that I was asked by Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, to help out with ideas for a speech. It was probably for the same reason that the draft was not seen by the Foreign Office before the speech was given.
Operation Desert Fox was also part of the backdrop to the speech. For three days the previous December, US and UK strikes had sought to “degrade” Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. We now know that these strikes made little difference to Iraqi capabilities, as there was little to degrade. The operation required the United Nations weapons inspectors to leave Iraq, and they were never allowed back in. That was why knowledge of what was going on there became even more scarce.
These operations against Iraq and Serbia, rather than an anticipation of regime change, led to the references in the speech to those two “dangerous and ruthless men – Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic”.
The issue was not how to take the interventionist impulse to the next stage of toppling dictators, but rather how to contain the impulse. Demands to intervene would be frequent and in many cases justified. Yet not all these demands could be met. This is why the speech described the “most pressing foreign policy problem” of the 1990s as one of identifying “the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts”.
Blair reminded the Chicago audience that “non-interference . . . in the affairs of other countries” had long been “considered an important principle of international order” and should not be jettisoned readily. The speech said: “One state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another, or foment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim.”
So this was hardly a call to remake the world in our image or overthrow dictators. The speech also pointed out that the non-interference norm had already been qualified in important respects – for instance, with genocide, when oppression has caused large flows of refugees, or when regimes have lost legitimacy, such as during the apartheid era in South Africa.
Having identified times when intervention would be justified, the next step was to observe that there were “many regimes that are undemocratic and engaged in barbarous acts. If we wanted to right every wrong that we see in the modern world then we would do little else [other] than intervene in the affairs of other countries. We would not be able to cope.”
Hence the need for what the draft called “tests” and the speech described as “considerations” – a less demanding term. So, what were these tests, and where did they come from?
The idea of tests to help decide whether to engage in a discretionary war came from the US secretary of defence Caspar Weinberger after the chaotic and painful American intervention in Beirut in the early 1980s, which he had opposed. In a speech in November 1984 he warned of the dangers of getting too involved in what he called “grey-
area conflicts”. These were his six tests:
l the United States should commit forces to overseas combat only when the particular engagement or occasion was deemed vital to national interests or those of allies;
l unless combat troops were to be used wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning, they should not be committed at all;
l forces committed to overseas combat should have clearly defined political and military objectives;
l the relationship between these objectives and the forces committed – their size, composition and disposition – must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary;
l there must be some reasonable assurance of the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress;
l the commitment of US forces to combat should be a last resort.
These guidelines were clearly meant to be restrictive. The first was a national interest test and the last required the exhaustion of diplomacy. Three others reflected military demands for clarity about objectives and latitude on methods; the troops should know the job they were intended to do and have the means to do it properly. The penultimate test was about public opinion, reflecting the lingering impact in America of the Vietnam War.
In the 1990s, Colin Powell, as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the Clinton administration, followed the path set by Weinberger. Powell was careful to warn that there could be no “when-to-go-to-war” doctrine that would always work. The basic theme was that armed forces should not be misused – but that, when used, they should be able to get on with the job in hand.
By 1999, largely because of the war in Bosnia, it was evident that these tests were inadequate. Intervention involved becoming part of another country’s political struggles. The troops committed to a half-hearted engagement could become hapless witnesses to massacres, as in Srebrenica in 1995. UN resolutions, of which there were many on Bosnia, needed to be enforced. Now Kosovo was confirming the lesson that even though air power could make a big impact, only “boots on the ground” were likely to make a significant difference to Milosevic’s calculations. But this meant putting forces in harm’s way and risking political controversy back home, even more so if the action resulted in a long-term commitment. Once foreign forces were shoring things up it was going to be hard to remove them, which led to concerns about “exit strategies”. But if the conditions for an orderly exit were to be created it would require political and economic efforts alongside the military presence. Otherwise, exit could just lead to a quick return to the circumstances that had prompted intervention in the first place.
The Weinberger tests, therefore, no longer answered the question posed in my draft about when to get involved in other people’s conflicts. The tests I came up with survived in headline form from my draft to the final speech. Changes were made to the supporting arguments, in part to make them punchier, but also to relate them more directly to the ongoing conflict in Kosovo.
This was my first test:
Are we sure of our case? Many conflicts are confused in their origins. We must not rush in on the basis of media reports of terrible events that lack any context. We must acknowledge that war, as we have seen, is an imperfect instrument for easing humanitarian distress. In the process of doing good, innocents can easily get hurt. But war is sometimes the only means of dealing with the political forces ready to inflict such distress, and to ensure that they enjoy no lasting gain.
With Iraq in mind, the priority of being sure of the case now looks prescient and to a degree pointed. But it was there to ensure that evidence existed to support the claims being made about humanitarian need. (There had been an example in 1996 of a UN intervention force almost going to Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – when the situation was still confused.) This was already an issue with Kosovo, with critics of the operation claiming that the refugee crisis was a consequence, rather than a cause, of the Nato bombing, and dismissing allegations about Serb atrocities.
The speech, as delivered by Tony Blair, simply said: “First, are we sure of our case? War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.” The effect was to change my meaning from a general humanitarian case to one that urged the need to deal forcefully with dictators, and specifically Milosevic, when they caused humanitarian distress.
The second test:
Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? At times we must negotiate with evildoers and negotiate seriously. This requires enormous clarity about our concerns and objectives. Of course a desperate desire for compromise can be exploited – but so can a refusal to compromise.
The final speech deleted everything after the first sentence and added: “We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo.” This was a critical test, a warning against rushing into war, and one that had also appeared on Weinberger’s list. The speech as delivered insisted that there had been no such rush with Kosovo.
The third test:
On the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations that we can sensibly and prudently undertake? At the moment the might of Nato is taking on a relatively small country in the middle of Europe and it has not been easy. We would give
false hope if we pretended to be able to deal with every outrage.
This captured the military concerns reflected in the Weinberger/Powell criteria without being over-prescriptive. The speech as delivered removed everything after the first sentence. It was somewhat naive of me even to think that a Nato leader would utter the second sentence at that time.
The fourth test:
Are we prepared for the long term? We have perhaps in the past talked too much of the need for “exit strategies” for the good reason that we do not want our forces to be tied up indefinitely. But it is a matter of fact that once we have made a commitment to these unfortunate societies we cannot simply walk away once the fighting is over. There will always be a job of political and economic reconstruction. Better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than to return for repeat performances with large numbers.
This was meant as a direct rebuke to the US line in Bosnia. Having taken the effort to stabilise a country, it was irresponsible then to talk only of how soon you hoped to leave, especially as that gave clues to the enemy about strategies they could adopt. Reference to the “long term” also indicated that events might not turn out as expected and that strategies would have to be adjusted. The speech simplified this without changing it substantially, the one exception being that it removed the reference to political and economic reconstruction.
The fifth test:
Do we have national interests involved? The case for action will always be stronger when national interests are at stake. The
Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was a blatant aggression that had to be reversed: there is nothing to be ashamed of in pointing out that this took place in a strategically important oil-producing part of the world. The mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo demanded the notice of the rest of the world: it does make a difference that this is taking place in such a combustible part of Europe.
The change in the speech as given was to remove the reference to Iraq, mainly, I suspect, to keep the focus on Kosovo.
I remember thinking hard about whether to include this test but I did so because I doubted that there would be many purely humanitarian interventions. It was a nod in the direction of the realists but it was also important to demonstrate that there was more at stake than just doing good.
Elsewhere in his speech, Blair sought to demonstrate that national and international interests had to be and could be closely aligned, perhaps thereby rendering this test meaningless. This was not my argument and I don’t think it was his. If anything this was the test that could trump the others, providing a reason to stay out as well as go in, whatever the other tests suggested.
This was therefore the test most open to interpretation. Different governments would have different views on what constituted the national interest. In addition, official definitions of the national interest often lump together a number of desiderata that can be in contradiction with each other. This is why Theresa May’s focus on the national interest in her Philadelphia speech still leaves her with considerable latitude.
What was missing? There was no reference to maintaining public support for intervention. My view was that if the case was strong enough, that was a matter for political leadership. In the light of Iraq, I would probably now warn more of the problems of going to war with a divided country.
Another notable gap is a legal test. After Blair delivered his speech, this worried Foreign Office lawyers, who were already explaining the legality of Kosovo with a new rationale based on humanitarianism. The difficulty at the time, to which the speech alluded, was that the UN Security Council was increasingly divided on these matters. The hope was expressed that a new unity could be achieved, but this turned out to be forlorn.
Do such tests have much value? One difficulty is that they can easily be overruled when a strong political current is pushing matters towards unwarranted activity (or unwarranted passivity). Another is that although it might be expected that they will be met in prospect, the position can look very different in retrospect. Finally, if one of the tests was not met would that invalidate the whole exercise, or can the various criteria be weighed against each other?
While these problems argue for handling the Chicago tests with care, they still point to issues that will always need to be addressed. Certainly, once a government has set out a framework for thinking about the use of armed force it is not unreasonable to turn to it when evaluating possible actions.
Which brings us to Iraq. The Chilcot inquiry accepted that Blair was sure of his case, though with hindsight this was poorly founded and there were plausible military options. It criticised the decision to go to war, because invading Iraq was not a last resort. The inspections process was far from exhausted and the only reason to start operations in March 2003 was the US military timetable. The inquiry also condemned the preparations for the long haul as wholly inadequate. I suspect that for Blair the national interest test – the need to sustain the special relationship in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks – was overriding. Tellingly, in his memoir he observed: “In retrospect, applying those tests to Iraq shows what a finely balanced case it was, and why I never thought those who disagreed were stupid or weak-minded.”
This article is based on the David Davies Memorial Lecture, delivered on 7 February 2017 at the University of Aberystwyth. A longer version will appear in the June 2017 issue of the quarterly International Relations
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue