In the wake of the long-awaited Chilcot Report, Raymond Whitaker considers its bleak conclusions and the relevance of its lessons for future policy-makers
Early in July, while Britain was contemplating an uncertain future after voting to leave the European Union, the country and the world at large received a weighty reminder of a less than glorious episode in its recent past – the decision to go to war in Iraq.
Seven years after it was set up by the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and more than 13 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war and its aftermath finally delivered its report. In 12 volumes and more than two and a half million words, it delivered a damning verdict on Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, and the manner in which he allied himself with President George W Bush’s plan for ‘regime change’ in Baghdad.
But the report’s ruling that Saddam did not pose an ‘imminent threat’, military action was ‘not a last resort’, and that the decision to invade Iraq came ‘before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted’ left little doubt that international law had been disregarded.
Blair was quick to say that Chilcot did not accuse him of deliberate deception, and insisted that whatever one might think of his judgement, he did what he sincerely believed – and still believes – to be right. But the report makes clear that the former Prime Minister was guilty of deceiving himself, at almost every turn.
Intelligence about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), a crucial element in the case for war, was misused, and doubts about its accuracy brushed aside. Also ignored were warnings that to invade would cause chaos in Iraq, while planning for the conflict and its aftermath was ‘wholly inadequate’. British personnel, 179 of whom died, were sent into battle with insufficient and inadequate equipment.
And Chilcot published a memo from Blair to Bush in July 2002, almost seven months before the fighting started, which began with the words: ‘I will be with you, whatever’ – scathingly described by one commentator as sounding ‘more like a lover than a leader’. This laid to rest Blair’s insistence that no decision had been made to go to war until early 2003. Indeed, the inquiry confirmed the long-held suspicion that the Prime Minister committed himself to the cause of regime change even earlier, during a visit to the President’s ranch at Crawford, Texas in April 2002, almost a year before the conflict.
Chilcot’s findings, which condemn a swathe of Britain’s politicians and military commanders, have major implications for the way the country’s government is run. But the report will seem like ancient history to the millions of people, in the Middle East and beyond, who are still suffering the consequences of one of the most catastrophic foreign policy decisions of modern times.
It was not Chilcot’s task to survey the situation in Iraq and the region today, but by exposing the carelessness with which the US and Britain conceived and carried out the invasion of Iraq, the inquiry has made it clear that much of what has followed was inevitable. Blair and his defenders have claimed that the criticism that has come his way benefits from hindsight, but he was warned at the time – by a panel of Middle East experts who visited him in Downing Street, for example – that he was venturing into a minefield of tensions among Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, and between Iraq and Iran.
‘People did not think that al-Qaeda and Iran would play the role that they did,’ Blair said in his evidence to Chilcot. But it seems extraordinary that nobody in Whitehall or Washington recalled that in 1991, after the Gulf War, President Bush’s own father and predecessor, George HW Bush, had urged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, and when the Shias of southern Iraq responded, left them to their fate. Saddam’s bloody reprisals of only a dozen years before were fresh in the memory when Britain assumed responsibility for the south after the Iraq war, yet there was widespread surprise when the populace did not seem to welcome the invaders, or that many Iraqis regarded the war as simple revenge by Bush junior on behalf of his father, whom Saddam had plotted to kill.
Britain did not have a role in the most disastrous decision of the post-war period, to disband the Iraqi army and oust all members of Saddam’s Baathist party. (Indeed, one of the findings of Chilcot was that Blair had less influence in Washington than he imagined.) There had been warnings that over more than three decades, all remnants of civil society in Iraq had been swept away, and that the removal of Saddam’s regime would leave a vacuum, but again they went unheeded.
Leaks show that as early as March 2002, a letter from Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, marked ‘secret and personal’, said no one had a clear idea of the likely aftermath of an invasion. ‘There seems to be a larger hole in this than anything,’ said Straw, noting that assuring stability in Iraq would require large numbers of troops for ‘many years’. Instead, there was almost immediate chaos and looting, which Bush’s Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, dismissed with the notorious phrase, ‘Stuff happens’.
As far as Washington was concerned, all that seemed to matter was photo opportunities, from the destruction of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad to Bush’s arrival on an aircraft carrier to announce the end of major combat operations, in front of a banner proclaiming ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’. The White House appointed Paul Bremer, a veteran US diplomat, as Iraq’s civil administrator, to steer the country towards democracy, a task he sought to accomplish with a staff swarming with members of the Young Republicans, utterly unequipped to deal with the complex and dangerous situation in which they found themselves. It was Bremer who dispersed the army and banished the Baathists, providing willing and expert recruits for the Sunni insurgency that soon followed.
In the south, meanwhile, an overstretched British force struggled unsuccessfully with Shia militias that had a direct line to allies in the Baghdad government as well as Iran. The British withdrawal from Basra city in 2007 was described as a defeat by American commanders, who had to send forces to the south to support Iraqi troops in finally bringing the militias under control.
British military chiefs argued that pulling out at last enabled them to concentrate their forces on what some have called the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan, as opposed to the illegal one in Iraq. Yet the deployment in Helmand province followed much the same pattern as in Basra: an unavailing conflict against an intractable enemy among a local populace that was unsympathetic at best and hostile at worst. If any military lessons were learned in Iraq, they did not produce a different result in Afghanistan. Again, American forces had to reinforce the British contingent, whose withdrawal has left little if any lasting results.
And if the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’, first applied in conflicts such as Kosovo and Sierra Leone, was not sufficiently discredited by Iraq, it suffered further ignominy in Libya. Once again the quick and initially easy downfall of a despot has been followed by anarchy, with no one apparently having asked what would happen on ‘the day after’. The British premier responsible was David Cameron, who in this respect justified the description often applied to him: the ‘heir to Blair’. When he sought parliamentary approval for another bombing campaign, this time in Syria, it was rejected.
In the turmoil that has followed the ‘Brexit’ vote – another failed gamble where no planning was done for the wrong outcome – commentators have said that Cameron’s term of office will be defined by the single word ‘Europe’, in the same way that Blair will always be remembered for Iraq. For the Labour Party that was in power at the time of the invasion, the issue remains toxic. One of the factors undermining a failed challenge by Angela Eagle to replace the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was the fact that she voted for the war in 2003.
Chilcot’s was the third inquiry into the Iraq war, following the Hutton Inquiry into the death of the weapons scientist, Dr David Kelly, and the Butler Inquiry into the use or misuse of intelligence to claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Have any lessons been learned?
The publication of the Chilcot report was overshadowed by the excitement surrounding the emergence of Britain’s second woman Prime Minister, Theresa May, but such is the lingering stain of Iraq that it seems unlikely she or any other premier would ever sanction the deployment of ground troops in a ‘war of choice’, as Iraq was described. Even – as is by no means impossible – if her counterpart in the White House next year turns out to be Donald Trump, a man who would make George W Bush appear a statesman for the ages.
As Foreign Editor of The Independent on Sunday, Raymond Whitaker reported extensively on the Iraq war and its aftermath, in particular the manipulation of intelligence on WMD