Chilcot judged the past but failed the future
Blair played the pied piper and too many MPs, diplomats, journalists and others were happy to follow him
This may not have been shock and awe but it was not the whitewash many feared.
The findings of the Iraq inquiry, or the Chilcot report, may not have met the aspirations of Stop the War demonstrators outside the inquiry hoping to dispatch the former British prime minister, Tony Blair off to the Hague, but it laid bare a total strategic failure of government on the core issue of going to war.
It was a searing indictment of how Britain, and indeed the United States, undertook a war that was not necessary, not the option of last resort, based on faulty intelligence that was not challenged, on legal advice that was far from satisfactory, and with preparations that were “wholly inadequate.”
Blair played the pied piper and too many MPs, diplomats, journalists and others were happy to follow him. Blair too had decided to follow Bush informing him as early as July 2002, eight months before the invasion that “I will be with you whatever.” A blank cheque?
For those surviving in the horror that is Iraq today Chilcot offers no answers and no hope of relief. That was perhaps beyond the inquiry’s remitChris Doyle
Now I have not poured through all 2.6 million words but these findings stand out.
First of all, the inquiry found that all peaceful options were not exhausted so war might have been avoidable. Contrary to the thousands of speeches from US and UK leaders, there was “no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein.” This is a very British-centric position of course as Iraqis were threatened but that was not the argument for war.
Secondly that the war was based on “flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged, and should have been.” This echoes previous findings. But Chilcot is critical of the oversight that intelligence was not challenged and not tested. The longer term implications are clear.
In future politicians and the public will not accept a leader’s word on intelligence matters, a breach of trust tough to repair with incalculable consequences. Blair highlights the report does not accuse him of lying, no sexing up here, but the report did find that the judgments about Iraq’s capabilities made by Blair to parliament and in the September 2002 dossier “were presented with a certainty that was not justified.”
Thirdly, the legal basis for going to war was not watertight. The Attorney-General changed his advice and legal uncertainties were not disclosed to cabinet ministers, and there was no proper discussion of the legal issues.
Chilcot is clear that ultimately the legal approval was dependent on an assurance from Blair that Iraq was guilty of “further material breaches”. But even if there had been a second UN Security Council Resolution, would Iraq’s fate been any different?
Fourthly, the preparation for war was “wholly” inadequate. Once again this is well covered territory but Chilcot does not answer whether an effective occupation of Iraq might have been more likely with better planning and resourcing, perhaps with greater international support. The alternate view is the very presence of US and UK forces was the issue not matter how well plans were executed.
Finally, Blair “had been warned that military action would increase the threat from al-Qaeda to the UK and UK interests”. This crushes his spin that he could not have known that outside forces would derail the occupation. Simply, Blair did not listen and worse, did not want to listen.
Worth the wait?
So was the seven year wait worth it? Much of the above is not startling even if it was expressed in clear and unequivocal terms with little hesitancy in language.
The objective of the inquiry was not to pass judgement on Tony Blair but to determine what lessons need to be learnt. Perhaps here is where the inquiry limped across the line perhaps reflecting the caution of a career civil servant like Sir John Chilcot. There is a fair assessment of how Britain got it wrong but not how Britain could have got it right.
As ever criticism is the easy part. It does not provide an answer to the gargantuan issue that has plagued western foreign policy for decades. What should be done when a dictator, a regime or extremist group brutalises civilians and commits crimes against humanity?
The is the Bashar al-Assad question, the Rwanda question as well as the Iraq question. Certainly Bush and Blair failed dismally but it does not follow that the anti-war movement has the answers either. Leaving such dictators in place has consequences as Syria shows.
In what ways can the international community improve its conflict prevention and resolution mechanisms, bring about change without resorting to catastrophic military force? Can we develop strategies to deal with ISIS beyond relying on dropping bombs?
All this is relevant to Iraq. The Chilcot report has lessons about the past, perhaps the present but few for the future beyond promoting better procedures. The Iraq crisis did not begin in 2003 and it has not ended yet in 2016.
For those surviving in the horror that is Iraq today Chilcot offers no answers and no hope of relief. That was perhaps beyond the inquiry’s remit. The furious arguments about when to go to war and take military action are far from settled.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.
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