Public opinion, legitimacy and Tony Blair's war in Iraq

Public opinion, legitimacy and Tony Blair's war in Iraq When the report of the Iraq Inquiry was finally published in July 2016, the executive summary alone was 150 pages long. The full Chilcot report filled twelve volumes; the inquiry had certainly been exhaustive. Moreover, compared with the preceding Hutton and Butler reports, it was much more critical of the Blair government's decision-making procedures, and particularly of the decision to join the United States in intervening in Iraq. It seemed, therefore, that there could be nothing more to say about the Iraq War. James Strong's analysis of how Britain wound up fighting what many British people considered an illegitimate war in Iraq proves, however, that this is not the case. He adopts a constructivist approach and presents readers with a detailed analysis of public opinion polls and of the parliamentary and public debates prior to the invasion. Strong focuses particularly on the legitimacy of the war and his investigation adds to and complements the findings of the Chilcot report. Strong does not set great store by opinion polls on their own, agreeing with Bourdieu and others that polling ‘creates the attitudes it claims to observe, by prompting responses, setting agendas and framing issues’ (p. 23). But polling does influence discussions among the elites who constitute public opinion. For this reason, Strong examines poll results before and during the war, together with a detailed qualitative content analysis of concurrent debates in the press and parliament. He finds that, although there was consistent public opposition to the war, once it became inevitable, polls, the press and parliament all ‘rallied round the flag’ (p. 33). But even in times of fierce opposition, the Blair government could rely on the Murdoch press and the Conservative Party for support. Moreover, whenever opposition to the war increased, the government employed a strategy of increasing its public communications, which was by and large effective in influencing the debate. Ironically, however, it was the manner of that communication that leads Strong to conclude that Prime Minister Tony Blair's war in Iraq did not enjoy legitimacy. Strong favours a Habermasian approach to defining legitimacy, because this fits with the Blair government's explicit attempt to secure support for the intervention in Iraq through public debate. Legitimacy, according to this approach, is a discursive construct derived from and dependent on the way in which public debate produces social consensus. For social consensus to be legitimate, it must be achieved not by strategic persuasion, but by ‘communicative action’—that is by ‘the collective exercise of reason among free actors’ (p. 62). The three criteria which determine whether consensus is legitimate are truthfulness (presenting an accurate and complete account of the reasoning on which belief is based); openness (encouraging a wide range of actors to join in the debate); and flexibility (willingness to revise one's position). Strong argues that the Blair government did not meet any of these criteria. It was not honest about the basis for the claims that it made (for example, the claim that Iraq presented a serious threat to the United Kingdom). Downplaying weaknesses in the evidence, it discouraged discussion of alternative scenarios that contradicted its own narrative, and Prime Minister Blair was certainly not willing to revise his personal position, since he was convinced that he was right. In short, the government's strategy of increasing its public communication when opposition to the war increased did succeed in influencing the agenda of debate in the short term, but it also fatally undermined the war's legitimacy. The most obvious example of intervention in the debate that deviated from the criteria of truthfulness, openness and flexibility was the publication in February 2003 of the ‘dodgy dossier’ (suggesting, among other claims, that Iraq could use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order to do so). The dossier purported to be a neutral exercise in public information, but it was, in fact, an act of policy advocacy. Strong concludes that whether or not the Iraq War was legal, it was illegitimate. But the way in which the decision to go to war was reached has had a long-term effect on foreign policy decision-making in the UK, arguably making it more democratic. Public pressure forced the Blair government to allow Members of Parliament to vote on the final decision to go to war. At the time, this worked to the government's advantage, since there was stronger support for the war among the Conservative opposition than there was in the Labour party. But it is now virtually unthinkable that any government could go to war without a vote in the House of Commons. And because of what happened in Iraq, governments can no longer rely on the approval of the House of Commons, as the vote against intervention in Syria in 2013 demonstrates. James Strong's excellent monograph, the first in the Routledge Studies in Foreign Policy Analysis, is a valuable addition to the FPA literature as well as to the many studies of the Iraq War. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png International Affairs Oxford University Press

Public opinion, legitimacy and Tony Blair's war in Iraq

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Publisher
The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0020-5850
eISSN
1468-2346
D.O.I.
10.1093/ia/iix253
Publisher site
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Abstract

When the report of the Iraq Inquiry was finally published in July 2016, the executive summary alone was 150 pages long. The full Chilcot report filled twelve volumes; the inquiry had certainly been exhaustive. Moreover, compared with the preceding Hutton and Butler reports, it was much more critical of the Blair government's decision-making procedures, and particularly of the decision to join the United States in intervening in Iraq. It seemed, therefore, that there could be nothing more to say about the Iraq War. James Strong's analysis of how Britain wound up fighting what many British people considered an illegitimate war in Iraq proves, however, that this is not the case. He adopts a constructivist approach and presents readers with a detailed analysis of public opinion polls and of the parliamentary and public debates prior to the invasion. Strong focuses particularly on the legitimacy of the war and his investigation adds to and complements the findings of the Chilcot report. Strong does not set great store by opinion polls on their own, agreeing with Bourdieu and others that polling ‘creates the attitudes it claims to observe, by prompting responses, setting agendas and framing issues’ (p. 23). But polling does influence discussions among the elites who constitute public opinion. For this reason, Strong examines poll results before and during the war, together with a detailed qualitative content analysis of concurrent debates in the press and parliament. He finds that, although there was consistent public opposition to the war, once it became inevitable, polls, the press and parliament all ‘rallied round the flag’ (p. 33). But even in times of fierce opposition, the Blair government could rely on the Murdoch press and the Conservative Party for support. Moreover, whenever opposition to the war increased, the government employed a strategy of increasing its public communications, which was by and large effective in influencing the debate. Ironically, however, it was the manner of that communication that leads Strong to conclude that Prime Minister Tony Blair's war in Iraq did not enjoy legitimacy. Strong favours a Habermasian approach to defining legitimacy, because this fits with the Blair government's explicit attempt to secure support for the intervention in Iraq through public debate. Legitimacy, according to this approach, is a discursive construct derived from and dependent on the way in which public debate produces social consensus. For social consensus to be legitimate, it must be achieved not by strategic persuasion, but by ‘communicative action’—that is by ‘the collective exercise of reason among free actors’ (p. 62). The three criteria which determine whether consensus is legitimate are truthfulness (presenting an accurate and complete account of the reasoning on which belief is based); openness (encouraging a wide range of actors to join in the debate); and flexibility (willingness to revise one's position). Strong argues that the Blair government did not meet any of these criteria. It was not honest about the basis for the claims that it made (for example, the claim that Iraq presented a serious threat to the United Kingdom). Downplaying weaknesses in the evidence, it discouraged discussion of alternative scenarios that contradicted its own narrative, and Prime Minister Blair was certainly not willing to revise his personal position, since he was convinced that he was right. In short, the government's strategy of increasing its public communication when opposition to the war increased did succeed in influencing the agenda of debate in the short term, but it also fatally undermined the war's legitimacy. The most obvious example of intervention in the debate that deviated from the criteria of truthfulness, openness and flexibility was the publication in February 2003 of the ‘dodgy dossier’ (suggesting, among other claims, that Iraq could use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order to do so). The dossier purported to be a neutral exercise in public information, but it was, in fact, an act of policy advocacy. Strong concludes that whether or not the Iraq War was legal, it was illegitimate. But the way in which the decision to go to war was reached has had a long-term effect on foreign policy decision-making in the UK, arguably making it more democratic. Public pressure forced the Blair government to allow Members of Parliament to vote on the final decision to go to war. At the time, this worked to the government's advantage, since there was stronger support for the war among the Conservative opposition than there was in the Labour party. But it is now virtually unthinkable that any government could go to war without a vote in the House of Commons. And because of what happened in Iraq, governments can no longer rely on the approval of the House of Commons, as the vote against intervention in Syria in 2013 demonstrates. James Strong's excellent monograph, the first in the Routledge Studies in Foreign Policy Analysis, is a valuable addition to the FPA literature as well as to the many studies of the Iraq War. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

International AffairsOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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