The benefit of hindsight: the Chilcot report
7 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of the UK Ministry of Defence

It took seven years of painstaking investigation, the examination of approximately 150,000 government documents and a 2.6 million word report extending over 13 separate volumes for a British committee of inquiry headed Sir John Chilcot, to reach the unremarkable conclusion most analysts already reached a decade ago. The British government of the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair committed the country to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 on ‘flawed intelligence and assessments’ and on a ‘far from satisfactory’ legal basis.

Nonetheless, the Chilcot Committee report, released in London yesterday, isn’t wasted energy as it dispels some of the more lurid conspiracy theories surrounding the Iraq war, and provides a dispassionate and astute narrative of a military campaign which drew in many other nations and ended up being controversial in all of them.

The indictment of Britain’s political, military and intelligence establishments is severe and relentless; they all stand accused of misjudgement and, occasionally, sheer ineptitude. British military commanders are likely to find the criticism particularly painful, in the immediate aftermath of the occupation of Iraq; London’s generals tolerated and often connived in the creation of a publicity frenzy surrounding the allegedly superior British ability to administer occupied territories. Unlike the Americans, who apparently only moved around Iraq in menacing columns of armoured vehicles and never interacted with the locals, the plucky little Brits were, supposedly, all tact and cuddliness, fearlessly interacting with the ‘natives’, helping old ladies cross the road or organising football matches for local children. That dexterity was, we were told, due to centuries of accumulated experience in policing the far-flung corners of Empire, a honed talent which supposedly, passed through the genes to current generations of British soldiers and officers.

Sir John Chilcot exposes all that narrative as nonsense. Soon after Iraq’s occupation was completed ‘the UK’s most consistent strategic objective’, writes Chilcot, ‘was to reduce the level of its deployed forces’, and the search for an exit from Iraq turned into a frenzy. Officials, Chilcot writes, ‘spent time and energy on rewriting strategies which tended to describe a desired end state without setting out how it would be reached’. Ultimately, British soldiers abandoned any pretence of controlling southern Iraq and the city of Basra which were left under their care; they remained largely confined to barracks, as British spooks and intermediaries paid off various local militias so that the British contingent would be spared further attacks.

At the same time, the Chilcot report does dispel some of the more persistent myths surrounding the Iraq episode. There was no deliberate attempt by Prime Minister Blair to lie to Parliament and the public. Civil servants and political advisers didn’t allow themselves to be used by the then prime minister; Chilcot documents a number of occasions when Blair’s close advisers quite properly warned him about the potentially baleful consequences of his proposed actions. Nor was there a ‘plot’ to manufacture intelligence information, or a ‘pact’ between the intelligence services and Blair to generate evidence boosting the case for military action against Iraq.

Still, John Chilcot makes two critical observations which have been sadly ignored in the current media coverage, but are of great and enduring importance to any Westminster-style government.

The first is that even top ministers and senior officials in London appeared to have been largely unaware or disinterested in exercising their legal right to access privileged, classified information before making their fateful decisions. In his determination to obtain a legal justification for the Iraq operation, Prime Minister Blair leant heavily on the government’s Attorney General to provide a positive legal opinion which ‘ticked all the boxes’ on the road to war. The Attorney General duly provided an opinion which found that although resort to arms was permissible; this right was of a qualified nature. But as the Chilcot inquiry found out, none of the nuances of that legal opinion were communicated to the British Cabinet, and not one of the senior ministers in charge of the relevant departments preparing for war showed the slightest interest in seeing the Attorney General’s full legal opinion, as they were legally entitled to do.

The other major problem identified by Chilcot is, of course, the handling of intelligence material. Britain’s security services stand accused not so much for providing faulty informationthat’s a hazard of their tradebut more for failing to insist that their material shouldn’t be used by Blair to claim that the British government had established ‘beyond doubt’ that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. That wasn’t the case, and Chilcot urges future governments to ensure ‘a clear separation of responsibilities’ between assessing intelligence and making a case for a policy choice.

There are also areas where the inquiry’s report rekindles rather than settles old controversies. Sir John Chilcot relies heavily on a previously unpublished confidential British Government memo from July 2002, in which Blair tells US President George W Bush: ‘I will be with you, whatever’. That commitment, given without consulting Cabinet colleagues eight months before the March 2003 invasion, is deemed by Chilcot to have made it ‘very difficult for the UK subsequently to withdraw its support’’ from the Iraq adventure.

Without the benefit of hindsight, the prevailing view in London and other Western capitals was that the ‘War on Terror’ unleashed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks had transformed the United States forever, and that those allies who ignored America’s new-found obsession with destroying its enemies would simply relegate themselves to perpetual irrelevance. As Blair saw it at that time, going along with Washington’s obsession to depose Saddam Hussein seemed a small price to pay in return for preserving Britain’s special relationship with the US.

History will record a different verdict: the leader who was once one of Britain’s most popular leaders is now one of the country’s most divisive prime ministers. Much of what Britain did a decade ago will probably go down in history as sheer folly. But, as is often the case in such matters, most wisdom comes from hindsight.