Sunday, July 10, 2016
The Chilcot Report: Blair's classic case of cognitive dissonance
We filter new information when it challenges our strongly-held beliefs or judgements. We use a series of post hoc manoeuvres to reframe anything inconvenient to our original position. We question the probity of the evidence, or the credentials of the people who discovered it, or their motives, or whatever. The more information that emerges to challenge our perspective, the more creatively we search for new justifications, and the more entrenched we become in our prior view.
This tendency is called "cognitive dissonance".
You can see the hallmarks of cognitive dissonance in the build-up to and aftermath of the Iraq War. The Chilcot report made pointed criticisms over the legal advice, lack of cabinet oversight and post-war planning and policy. But let us focus on the way the primary evidence used to justify war - namely, the existence of WMD - was serially reframed.
On 24 September 2002, before Tony's Big Iraq Adventure, Tony Blair made a speech where he emphatically stated: "His [Saddam Hussein's] WMD programme is active, detailed and growing… he has existing plans for the use of weapons, which could be activated in 45 minutes…"
The problem with this claim became apparent when Saddam's troops didn't use such weapons to repel Western forces, and the initial search for WMD drew a conspicuous blank. And yet, as the social psychologists Jeff Stone and Nicholas Fernandez have pointed out in an essay on the Iraq conflict, Blair didn't amend his view - he reframed the evidence. In a speech to the House of Commons, he said: "There are literally thousands of sites... but it is only now that the Iraq Survey Group has been put together that a dedicated team of people… will be able to do the job properly… I have no doubt that they will find the clearest possible evidence of WMD."
So, to Blair, the lack of WMD didn't show that they were not actually there. Rather, it showed that inspectors hadn't been looking hard enough. Moreover, he had become more convinced of the existence of WMD, not less so.
Twelve months later, when the Iraq Survey Group couldn't find the weapons either, Blair still couldn't accept that WMD were not there. Instead, he changed tack again arguing in a speech that "they could have been removed, they could have been hidden, they could have been destroyed".
So now, the lack of evidence for WMD in Iraq was no longer because troops hadn't had enough time to find them, or because of the inadequacy of the inspectors, but because Iraqi troops had spirited them out of existence.
But this stance soon became untenable, too. As the search continued in a state of desperation, it became clear that not only were there no WMD, but there were no remnants of them, either. Iraqi troops could not have spirited them away.
Blair now reached for a new justification for the decision to go to war. "The problem is that I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can't, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam," he said in a speech. "The world is a better place with Saddam in prison."
(Afterthot: Let's not judge Tony too harshly--if your biggest blunder killed thousands of your citizens and hundreds of thousands of human beings, you'd grasp at anything that would help you sleep at night too. )