How Tony Blair fumbled Iraq’s child mortality statistics

Blair testifies to the Chilcot Inquiry in 2010. PA

At a dramatic moment in Tony’s Blair’s testimony before the Iraq Inquiry back in 2010, Sir John Chilcot asked him if the invasion of Iraq had been good for the Iraqi people. Blair responded in the affirmative – and his main argument was that the invasion had saved the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi children who would otherwise have perished at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime:

In 2000 and 2001 and 2002 they had a child mortality rate of 130 per 1,000 children under the age of five … The figure today is not 130, it is 40. That equates to about 50,000 young people, children, who, as a result of a different regime that cares about its people – that’s the result that getting rid of Saddam makes.

Curiously, Blair, the expert politician, undercut the power of his point by fumbling the maths. If his claimed reduction in death rates had really happened, then the number of lives saved would have stretched well into the hundreds of thousands. Such a figure could be credibly weighed against the violent deaths since 2003, which are well over a quarter of a million and counting.

But Blair was wrong. His figure of 130 deaths per 1,000 children came from a long-discredited source, the Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Survey (ICMMS). As the Chilcot report notes, no fewer than four subsequent surveys plus the 1997 Iraqi census failed to confirm the ICMMS data, which found a massive and sustained spike in child mortality in the closing years of the 20th century (here’s a graph comparing the various surveys).

There was therefore no excuse for Blair uncritically to parrot the ICMMS figures in 2010. And as an expert in data of this sort, I was horrified to see Blair’s false claim go unchallenged during his testimony. I duly wrote to the inquiry pointing to this lapse, but never heard back – and assumed the report would just let it slide.

In the run-up to the report’s release, I was all set to expose the error on my blog. But just like many onlookers who were relieved that the report turned out not to be a total whitewash, I was delighted to discover that the report largely reproduced (on pages 174-175) exactly the information I had sent in – supplemented by two declassified memos that lay out a fascinating sequence of interactions.

Stripped of nuance

First, in February 2003, Downing Street asked the Foreign Office (FCO) for data on child mortality rates in Iraq to buttress the case for war, which was to be made again in a speech to the Labour Party’s spring conference.

The FCO’s response stands up brilliantly even today. There was, it said, no reliable answer to the PM’s query, and while it allowed that one could cite a figure of 131 based on the ICMMS, it then explained why this figure was dubious and would best be avoided.

It then fell to Blair’s private secretary, Matthew Rycroft, to iron out the nuances in the FCO’s spot-on analysis (signed off by DfID) and serve up a simplistic sound bite to the prime minister, boiling the highly uncertain mortality rate down to a dead certain 131. Blair went with that figure both in his party speech in 2003 and in his evidence to the inquiry in 2010.

Matthew Rycroft, Blair’s then private secretary. EPA/Jonathan Brady

All in all, this affair is a remarkably good example of how complex information can end up being manipulated thanks to political imperatives and time limitations. But it still doesn’t explain why Blair held onto the discredited figure for so long.

At some point after he testified to the inquiry, Blair appears to have abandoned the argument that plummeting post-invasion child mortality rates justified the invasion of Iraq – at least, I have been unable to find anything else he’s said on the matter. It may be that he discovered this error and tacitly moved on, albeit without issuing a formal correction or clarifying his position to Chilcot’s panel.

There is a striking parallel between the genesis of the Rycroft memo and the handling of intelligence on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In both cases, in the report’s own framing, completely inaccurate information was passed up the food chain “with a certainty that was not justified”.

Yet while the WMD myth was dead by 2004, the myth that sky-high sanctions induced dreadful child mortality in pre-war Iraq still lives on in some quarters.

Fortunately, after the Chilcot report, there is a bit less oxygen sustaining this pernicious fantasy. That the report challenged these assumptions so thoroughly is a measure of its success, and a testament to its triumph over low expectations.