Tony Blair’s decision to go to war in 2003
It’s always easy to be the Monday morning quarterback. Decisions are always crystal clear from hindsight.
It took seven years for Sir John Chilcot to conduct his inquiry and publish his report to the decision of the UK government to go to war against Iraq in 2003. I am yet to read the executive summary of the mammoth report, but the social media is already full of vitriol calling Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes. Get a grip — what would you have done under the circumstances of incomplete information, political uncertainty, and ambiguity? Or do you possess some superhuman decision-making qualities?
“As Prime Minister, you are a decision-maker…..if you are not able to make a decision, you are a commentator.” — Tony Blair 06.07.2016
Rather than looking at the paper trail in the Chilcot report I will be more interested in trying to understand the cognitive aspects of the decision-making process that led Tony Blair to recommend to the House of Commons that the UK should declare war against Iraq.
Decisions are subject to all kinds of cognitive biases that can trip us up even in the most difficult decision-making situations. Some of the most common biases that we all are subject to include the following:
If we rely on information that is the most readily available to make a decision, we might miss out on facts or opinions that could make a difference. Availability bias is especially misleading when information is subjective.
If we assess a situation and we have been given an “anchor” fact, we could come to an incorrect conclusion based on its reliability. We use the “anchor” fact as the base line for making a decision.
While overconfidence is a personality trait often seen in top executives and politicians, it can provide a bias that leads to bad decisions, such as over promising. Decision makers can overestimate their own abilities to do a task or deliver a solution.
People who only seek evidence that supports their beliefs or expectations will make decisions that are affected by confirmation bias. This bias is often used when we are in a debate and we facts to support our desired outcome.
The strong desire or a need to make a quick decision can lead to a rush-to-solve bias, but if we are in a hurry we often fail to consider all of the possible data before making our decision.
It is likely that these biases, among others, were working overtime in the subconsciousness of the decision-makers during the run-up to the war. These biases do not mean that the political decision-makers were “liars” as some of the most idiotic commentators seem fit to suggest, rather than that the decision-makers were merely human.
Careful textual analysis of the Chilcot report may reveal evidence of the biases in a context of a major strategic decision. We should use this evidence to seek to improve our decision-making processes. In the meantime, let one with perfect foresight and rationality cast the first stone.