Consequentialism and Chilcot

The Chilcot Report, also known as the Iraq Inquiry, is the British Government’s official inquiry into the Iraq War in order to, “establish…what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned.”[1] The report dropped last Wednesday, July 6th, and was pretty—well—damning. Damning, but not really surprising or particularly revelatory; the conclusions reached by the inquiry directly echo the perspectives of writers like Daniel P. Bolger, Emma Sky, and Thomas E. Ricks—whose books I recently read this Spring. The report provides exhaustive clarity and brings an incredible amount of evidence daunting in size and scope to the fore. To call it comprehensive would be woefully inapt; an insult to its 150 page long executive summary. While it does not diverge significantly from past analyses, it rigorously validates them, its whopping 2.3 million words (roughly equivalent to four times the length of War and Peace)[2] joining a chorus of previous works. The reaction to the Chilcot Report, to some extent, was an elaborate exercise in political tribalism, responses dividing on ideological grounds. But most accept what appears to be the Inquiry’s central thesis: the war was an elaborate and expensive mistake. What a surprise! As Max Boot, a conservative military historian and foreign-policy analyst (and Managing Editor Ethan Gelfer’s celebrity crush), admits “Not even the war’s staunchest supporters would deny at this late date the basic thrust of the inquiry’s conclusions.”[3]

By far the most interesting to me of the perspectives offered on the war was the articulation of a peculiar flavor of consequentialism by Boot himself. What separates the “good” wars from the “bad” ones,” Boot argues, “is not in how countries get into them but, rather, how they get out of them.”[4] He echoes this belief on twitter, asserting:

Boot’s framework for producing value judgement of wars is premised on somewhat shaky grounds. Implicit is the assertion that we should look at wars through this lens, simply because we’ve done so in the past. But because something exists in the status quo, does not mean it is correct or effective. Pointing to this type of judgement’s past use without elucidating the reasons for its use is no basis  to accept it.

But Boot’s ultimate conclusions, moreover, the philosophy undergirding those conclusions, are somewhat problematic. The idea that we can judge an act simply on its consequences, known as consequentialism, while an attractive moral doctrine, is a poor guide when it comes to policy and policymaking, because it completely ignores the importance of probability in decision-making. Furthermore, in contrast to Boot’s assertions, for the purpose of gleaning insight from the Iraq War, the decision to enter it is just as important as the conduct of the war itself.

Let’s ask ourselves the question that Shadi Hamid, a Brookings scholar, posed in a Vox article on the merits of Libyan intervention, “If Iraq had quickly turned out “well” and become a relatively stable, flawed, yet functioning democracy, would that have retroactively justified an unjustified war? Presumably not, even though we would all be happy that Iraq was on a promising path.”[5] While the course of the war was not inexorable; if we hadn’t pursued debaathification, if the CPA did more to empower the Iraqi people, if horrible atrocities like Abu Ghraib did not occur, and if we did not back Maliki in the election, the state of Iraq might be entirely different. But even in that case, it does not make the decision to enter the war the correct one. If the decision to invade was most likely going to result in a destabilized region and a negative outcome, a resultant positive outcome would not have made the decision valid.

If you were, say, betting your money on a horse race, and you put your money on a horse very unlikely to win, and by golly, by some freak of nature, you end up winning. Now, would it be sensible to bet on the horse again, even though its still unlikely to win the next race? The same question applies to the Iraq War, if we are presented with a  decision to invade again would we take it? Given that the report demonstrates that British intelligence reliably predicted the collapse of the country and the disorder that followed, I would say we ought not to. To me, is important, because the Chilcot report is nominally about learning and being better prepared for the future, and not about partisan finger pointing. Though, naturally, the reports conclusions will be appropriated for use in the latter.

To be clear, I have not read the entire of the report. I am not absolutely insane, I don’t have the months required to read it in its entirely, and Popular Discourse does not have the army of interns like major publications do. In this article, I rely extensively upon the summaries of organizations like CFR, Vox, the Washington Post, The Telegraph, and other news organizations, and would like to mention their fine work here. However, the parts that I have read about are remarkable, at some points bizarre and at others tragic. But if the report says two things about the decision to invade, it is this. The false pretenses made it immoral and the faulty policymaking made it a bad decision.










[4] Ibid