Lessons of the Chilcot report

by Ramesh Thakur

After seven years to complete the inquiry and publish its findings, the Chilcot report on Britain and the 2003 Iraq War is devastating. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, Iraq itself has become a powerful symbol of a post-invasion failed state and humanitarian disaster, the epicenter of a widening circle of destabilization in the Middle East whose ripples are being felt in acts of terrorism and out-of-control refugee flows even in Europe. On the other hand, Britain itself is consumed with a deeply divisive debate about its place in Europe and the world.

The report offers a compelling narrative of the need for accountability for grave international crimes. The consequences may have been unintended, but they were widely predicted. Those responsible should be held to account instead of hiding behind the lie that good intentions at the time trump unforeseeable consequences that followed.

There are three key takeaways.

First, the report systematically and comprehensively demolishes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s sham justifications for embroiling the United Kingdom in possibly the most disastrous war of the modern era. To justify the war before all peaceful options had been exhausted, the threat of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was deliberately inflated. Alleging he had an active and usable program of weapons of mass destruction was the most powerful stimulus to creating fear in Western minds. Blair proved a faithful George W. Bush devotee in keeping the promise to be with the U.S. president on Iraq, “whatever”: a blank check as an accomplice.

In return, Blair had little influence on U.S. policy, undermining another important justification for joining the war. Conversely, U.S. relations would not have been badly damaged if the U.K. had sat out the war (like Canada). Thus going along for the sake of getting along with one’s chief ally is neither good policy nor good politics.

Incomplete and flawed intelligence was cynically exploited to fit the political agenda to go to war “whatever,” even though the British military were not adequately equipped for the task and postwar plans for occupation had not been developed. The lack of a post-invasion strategy was even more criminal in light of the many credible warnings on the multiple grave risks of the humanitarian disasters that could ensue. The failure to record post-invasion civilian casualties is also inexcusable.

This is not wisdom after the fact. In a statement accompanying the publication of the report, John Chilcot said: “We do not agree that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability and al-Qaida activity in Iraq were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”

Second, the report does not address but should raise the question of national or, failing that, international criminal accountability for leaders guilty of aggression. After World War II, German leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg not for having lost the war, but for having started it. The International Military Tribunal in its judgment described aggression as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

One of the major normative advances in global governance is the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as the institutional embodiment of international criminal justice. It would be hard to overstate the reputational damage caused to the United Nations and to the ICC as a political project with Blair being the Middle East peace envoy from 2007 to 2015 for the quartet of the EU, Russia, the U.S. and the U.N.

In 2012, Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu refused to share the stage with Blair and pulled out of a scheduled international event in Johannesburg. Those responsible for the suffering and loss of life caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he explained, “should be treading the same path as some of their African and Asian peers who have been made to answer for their actions in The Hague.”

Third, the report adds weight to the growing calls for eliminating the decision to go to war as a prime ministerial prerogative in Westminster-style democracies, and instead placing it firmly with parliament as a whole.

Like Blair in the U.K. and the U.S. neoconservative chicken hawks, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard remains willfully blind to the enormous disparity between the vision dreamed, the goals pursued, the means used and the results obtained. Yet his obdurate self-justification serves a useful policy purpose. For many Australians, the Iraq War remains a troubling and unfinished business. Political closure on that tragic episode will be assisted by a public inquiry to sit alongside the multiple inquiries that have been completed in the U.K.

The Iraq War will be Blair’s political epitaph. Howard deserves no less. Clearly uncomfortable at the thought that he might have led Australia into its first illegal war, Howard — like all members of his Cabinet — deserves the opportunity to demonstrate the validity of his arguments before an independent tribunal and should therefore welcome an inquiry to clear his name. Otherwise the ghost of Iraq will continue to haunt Australia’s own man of steel.

In addition to providing clarity on the facts — what happened and why — an inquiry would help to elucidate the pros and cons of different approaches to entrenching accountability mechanisms. Taking a country to war is the gravest foreign policy decision a government makes. And yet in parliamentary democracies, there are only limited checks and balances to ensure that the cause will be just, the ends defined, the prospects for success good, and the killing and suffering proportionate to achievable ends.

Suggested improvements to the Australian decision-making process by the Australians for War Powers Reform (disclosure: I am a founding member) include requiring a parliamentary vote, sign-off by the governor-general, independent legal advice, and intelligence and military briefings to a security-cleared cross-party parliamentary committee (comparable to standard American practice).

The jungle of international politics can be harsh and unforgiving. To paraphrase Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” any good the coalition of the willing may have done in Iraq in 2003 lies interred with the bones of the dead; the evil they unleashed will live on in infamy. That Blair should continue to defend his decision is beyond parody. He calls to mind Barbara Tuchman’s description, in “The March of Folly,” of Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Ramesh Thakur, a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is the co-editor of “Australia, Canada, and Iraq: Perspectives on an Invasion.”