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History does not work by reason

08 July 2016

PUBLIC inquiries into events that go wrong have become fashionable in recent years. The Chilcot inquiry is the third such investigation into the Iraq war, and the first to attempt to apportion blame to politicians.

The instinct to learn from mis­takes is understandable. The public demand for scapegoats, however, rests on the assumption that good out­comes can be predicted in ad­-vance, and bad ones spotted before they happen. Then it is a short step to demonising the decision-makers, and seeing their failures of judge­ment as evidence of wickedness.

This is simplistic, tick-box logic. We all know — Christians should, especially — that it is possible to do what appears to be the right thing, and for it all to end in disaster. Tragedy is part of the reality of a fallen world: sunt lacrimae rerum. Politicians often take huge decisions against unfor­giving pressures, when even the nature of the problem is lost in a storm of complexity.

At the time, intervention in Iraq presented itself as the lesser of two evils. Saddam Hussein’s regime was murderous. Tony Blair and those around him could point to successful military interventions against oppression: in Kosovo in 1999, and in Sierra Leone in 2000. The Kosovo bombing by NATO did not have the authorisation of the UN Security Council, but it was successful in that it removed the appalling Slobodan Milosevic. Removing Saddam, even without UN sanction, was another attempt to make the world a slightly less violent and unpredictable place.

Iraq was not successful. But the aim of the Iraq war was not, in itself, dishonourable. Of course, a pacifist perspective rejects the possibility that military force can ever be justly deployed. But if there is ever a case for intervention, it must be recog­nised that things can go wrong — not because individuals made an evil choice in the first place, but because, in complex circumstances, there are always unknown unknowns lurking in the shadows.

If intervention comes with a risk of disaster, doing nothing can entail worse risk. Mr Blair was personally haunted by the fact that the West stood by and did nothing during the Hutu-inspired genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.

Responsible politicians have to weigh up whether the risk of military action is greater than the risk of inaction. Iraq soured our belief in intervention; and the result, of course, is nearly half a million deaths in Syria, and a refugee crisis that threatens the security of all of us. Tra­gedy, by its very nature, chal­lenges our belief that we can simply reason our way through. Life and history do not work like that.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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