The devastating verdict of Britain’s Iraq inquiry
The inquiry led by Sir John Chilcot on Britain’s role in entering the war in Iraq offers a perfect lesson in the force of British understatement. Many feared the report, seven years in the making, would be a whitewash. What we have instead is a forensic document and a devastating critique of the righteous certainty and deceit with which the United Kingdom rushed into a ruinous war.
The report delivered the most devastating verdict on any modern prime minister — an editorial in the Guardian summed up in its headline what many people think: A country ruined, trust shattered, a reputation trashed.
If the observer of modern Britain was to look at the reasons why trust was broken between the government of Britain and its people — be it on Europe, the economy or other issues — one need look no further than the war of choice, unleashed before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted by Tony Blair, who hitched himself and the British government to the unabashed objective of the White House — regime change — with no get-out clause. “I will be with you, whatever,” wrote the prime minister to US president George Bush in July 2002.
There are few heroes in this story. One was Robin Cook, the foreign secretary who resigned because he saw evidence of supposed weapons of mass destruction and concluded it did not justify war. Another was the Liberal Democrat Party opposition and the millions of people who opposed the war in the streets of Britain.
The speech Cook gave in March 2003 foreshadowed many of the conclusions reached a dozen years later by Chilcot and echoed those expressed by senior French officials to their British counterparts in the run-up to the war.
As he tried to justify himself after the report was published, Blair looked like a broken man.
Whether the lessons of this sorry tale have been learnt matters little. Defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sorry messes in Syria and Libya extinguished any future such military interventions and austerity has deprived the armed forces of the capacity to do so. Brexit simply confirmed Britain is in full retreat from any serious international role.
Many people warned of the likely consequences of regime change in Iraq and top-secret reports from the joint intelligence committee make clear security services’ concern about the increasing power in Iraq of jihadi groups, some of which were linked directly to al-Qaeda.
These reports challenge a claim made by Blair that the Islamic State (ISIS) was largely born in Syria rather than Iraq. In early July 2006, one such report states: “The label ‘jihadist’ is becoming increasingly difficult to define: in many cases distinctions between nationalists and jihadists are blurred. They increasingly share common cause being drawn together in the face of Shia sectarian violence.”
The report goes on: “We judge al-Qaeda in Iraq is the largest single insurgent network and although its leadership retains a strong foreign element, a large majority of its fighters are Iraqi. Their motivation is mixed: Some are Islamist extremists inspired by the [al-Qaeda]) agenda, others are simply hired hands attracted by the money. Some are drawn in by the opportunity to take on Shia militias: The jihadists’ media effort stresses their role as the defenders of Sunnis.”
Blair was given ample warning that removing Saddam Hussein would unleash sectarian tensions suppressed by the dictator’s brutal rule. Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5 from 2002-07 told the inquiry: “By 2003-04 we were receiving an increasing number of leads to terrorist activity from within the UK… Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word… a few among a generation… (who) saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam.”
Her attitude contrasts sharply with that of the head of MI6 from 1999-2004, Sir Richard Dearlove, who rushed raw, untested intelligence to Downing Street to bolster the case for war. He seemed to be at least as much in thrall of CIA director George Tenet as Blair was of Bush. Intelligence officers faced pressure to “market” what fragments of information they received rather than to test their veracity.
Blair protested before the invasion of Iraq that he was pursuing a “diplomatic solution”. The very word “diplomacy” was emptied of its meaning when its only aim was to licence war.
The bitter war of words against the French president Jacques Chirac, who strongly opposed war made Blair’s erstwhile credentials as a progressive internationalist look ridiculous. The man who claimed to be upholding the authority of the United Nations did all he could to undermine it.
The mistrust between what the public sees of its leaders and widespread perception, by the same public, of deceit has badly damaged the capacity to rule of the British establishment. The conduct of politics was demeaned and the highest price was paid on the left.
It was striking to listen to British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons. The first had voted to back Blair’s war of choice in Iraq and presented a rather complacent assessment of the conclusions of the Iraq inquiry. The leader of the opposition always opposed the war and spoke with cold fury. Sadly, thousands of miles away in a broken country, Iraq, all is blood and gore.