In a matter of less than two weeks the British Isles have experienced two political earthquakes that somewhat shook the image of it as an island of stability and reason. First came Brexit that sent trembles well beyond the English Channel and left the political system in Britain in a complete disarray and current politicians’ reputations in tatters.
This was followed on Wednesday by the publication of the long awaited Chilcot Report, which was investigating the Blair government’s decision to enter the 2003 war in Iraq. In their report the members of the committee shred to pieces, in a very British understated style, what was left of the then prime minister’s judgement and integrity.
In both cases of the Iraq war and Brexit, the average citizen had no independent means to examine the truthfulness of the information they were presented and the interpretation that was provided by politicians. Hence the horror and sense of betrayal when it was revealed in both cases, that the confidence and the reassuring manner in which politicians advocated their case was no more than a veneer covering ignorance and deception.
But here is where the comparison with Brexit stops. Leaving the EU is reversible and given common sense unlikely to cause fatalities. The Iraq war on the other hand has claimed the lives of 251,000 civilians and combatants since its outbreak in March 2003 to the present day. It wrecked a country beyond recognition and unleashed unprecedented murderous sectarian violence in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, which thirteen years on is still raging.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair expressed his “sorrow, regret and apology” in response to the findings of this report. However, his defiant stance that it was still the right thing to remove Saddam Hussein from power, renders his apology insincere. His partner in this mega fiasco, former US President George W. Bush, echoed this sentiment in a typical meaningless platitude, releasing a statement that the whole world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.
There are very few people in Iraq or elsewhere, who have mourned the demise of Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime. Almost anyone could come up with a list of nasty dictators that one would wish to remove from power. Nevertheless, this is far from an explanation, let alone an excuse, to send troops into war while ignoring almost any sound advice, and the message of more than one million people who marched in the streets in London, pleading with the government to avert a needless war.
No one should be deceived by the understated manner of the Chilcot report, it carries with it the most scathing criticism of every aspect of the British decision making that led to the warYossi Mekelberg
No one should be deceived by the understated manner of the Chilcot report, it carries with it the most scathing criticism of every aspect of the British decision making that led to the war. It points out that the objective of advancing democratic values through war, resulting in an invasion and regime change, was based on flawed intelligence and was devoid of reality. It accuses the government of being ill prepared both military and politically, and not being truthful about the real motivations for going to war.
Six days into the start of the military campaign, Mr. Blair wrote to President Bush providing incriminating evidence that the war in Iraq was not about weapons of mass destruction, not even about regime change, but about setting a new post-Cold War order for the next generation: “Our ambition is big: to construct a global agenda around which we can unite the world; rather than dividing it into rival centres of power.” At the heart of this memo, named The Fundamental Goal, Blair reveals his grand design to spread the values, “… of freedom, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law….”
Ousting Saddam Hussein was a means for the two powerful leaders, though unfeasible and on the verge of delusional, to change world order. To add insult to injury their decision to go to war was supported by very dubious legal advice, that there was no need for a United Nations resolution. By ignoring the UN, Bush and Blair caused also immense damage to the rule of international law in world affairs.
For the British families who lost their loved ones in combat in Iraq, learning from the inquest that their sons and daughters were sent to war despite a shortage of vital equipment that compromised troop safety, there must be a sense of betrayal; though also vindication of their long held claims. The combination of deception regarding the reasons for going to war, exposure to unnecessary danger, and no plan for the day after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, adds to these families’ agony.
The seeds of ISIS
Needless to say, the lack of a plan to stabilize Iraq and an exit plan, casts further doubt on the decision making process in Washington and London at the time. Most staggering was the much maligned de-Baathification that led to a complete breakdown in law and order, resulted in the loss of many innocent Iraqi people, and additionally sowed the seed of ISIS.
The unbearable lightness of the way in which regime change in Iraq came into being, should serve to all of us as a warning sign to us as citizens, to carefully consider our support of any government that leads us into war.
Blair and Bush are not the first, nor I am afraid probably the last, to take their countries to war over false pretences and flawed patriotism. Blair’s sorrow over the pain caused in Iraq never stopped him from spending much of his time since he left government on touring the world on very lucrative public speaking engagements.
Many in the Middle East that paid, and are still paying, the price for his folly might find it in their hearts to forgive him, but they will find it very hard to forget.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.