In a report that took longer to compile than British involvement in the war it assesses, the Chilcot Inquiry concluded that almost every element of Britain’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 was flawed. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein posed “no imminent threat” and could have been contained by other measures. Military action was not “a last resort,” and the intelligence on which the decision to go to war was compromised or mistaken. And, despite that momentous decision to go to war, the military was woefully unprepared for what would follow invasion.
While the report is damning to the reputation of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it does not say that he lied to the public or Parliament, broke the law or even acted in bad faith. Blair faced an incredibly difficult decision, one that forced him to balance his country’s “special relationship” with the United States against the unknowns of war. Yet in that balancing act, he failed his country and the soldiers he sent to fight. The consequences of those decisions continue to plague his country and the world.
John Chilcot, a former privy councillor and distinguished civil servant, was appointed chair of a committee of inquiry by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to investigate Britain’s involvement in Iraq from mid-2001 to July 2009. The inquiry was preceded by several other investigations, but all had been dismissed as insufficiently rigorous. Chilcot’s inquiry was expected to take a little over a year, but elections, squabbles with Washington over what materials could be divulged, and the right of individuals mentioned in the report to respond, delayed its release until last week.
Seven years and 2.6 million words later, the inquiry reached damning conclusions. First, the case for war was deficient. Claims by U.S. President George W. Bush and Blair that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent threat to their countries were false. The world had options short of war to deal with the Iraqi leader. Hedges and qualifiers attached to analyses of the threat he posed were ignored or dismissed. Intelligence agencies were over-eager to validate their political masters’ hypotheses; individuals who told the politicians what they wanted to hear received more attention than those who did not.
Intelligence agencies did not perform as they were supposed to and neither did other parts of the bureaucracy. Decision making was informal, with key Cabinet officials and bureaucrats effectively excluded from the process.
The military was unprepared for war or its aftermath. The inquiry concluded that U.K. military commanders made “overoptimistic assessments” of their capabilities, which resulted in “bad decisions.” In particular, forces dispatched to Iraq were not properly prepared. Most troubling was a failure to think about what would happen after Saddam was toppled and how Iraq would be governed after that momentous event.
The inquiry also noted that the decision to commit troops was made without any commitment on the part of the U.S. to give London a say in how post-Saddam Iraq would be governed. This failing is especially damning given Blair’s commitment to stand with Bush: “I will be with you, whatever,” Blair promised in summer 2002.
This sentiment captures the essence of Blair’s dilemma. He was the guardian of the “special relationship” with the U.S. and recognized that London’s influence in the world could rest on its response to the call for Washington to move against Saddam. Blair calculated that that influence would be better preserved as a partner in rather than an opponent of invasion. It helped that he believed in the cause. The West had done right — with London in the lead — when it intervened in Kosovo in the late 1990s to protect that province against the Serb government in Belgrade. The invasion of Iraq would be similarly good deed.
Except it was not. The invasion went well, the occupation was bungled. London had no influence on decisions that ensured that chaos and instability prevailed. Britain eventually pulled out, but not before 179 British service personnel lost their lives — along with at least 250,000 Iraqis.
Blair replied to the report released last week by noting that “I express more sorrow, regret, and apology than you can ever believe.” Nevertheless, he added, “I believe we made the right decision, and the world is better and safer.”
That is hard to believe given the flames that have engulfed the Middle East and the terror threat that has metastasized around the world. Moreover, Britain may have over-learned the lessons of Iraq. In the face of a horrific civil war in Syria, one that truly resembles the Yugoslav conflict that shaped Blair’s thinking, Parliament refused to give Prime Minister David Cameron authorization to intervene. The Labour Party is now led by a man who opposed the Iraq invasion and would like to see Blair tried for war crimes. As a result, the opposition in Britain is deeply divided — if not dysfunctional — at a time when it is needed most.
We must also wonder if decisions that yielded the invasion of Iraq led to the discrediting of elites that last month produced the British vote to leave the European Union and the rise of populist movements throughout the West. The reverberations of the decision to invade Iraq may well obscure the lessons of the Chilcot report.
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