Britain’s vote to leave the European Union threatens to overshadow the inquest into another far-reaching diplomatic choice, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Britain’s part in it. Brexit has unleashed a new season of rancor over the future of Britain and Europe. It may distract the public from what had been the gravest foreign-policy crisis since Suez. Iraq is likely to feature in the British Labor Party’s bitter leadership contest. Used as a weapon for leftists to wield against “Blairites”, it may appear as little more than self-interested recrimination about the past. Events, time and narrow partisanship may eclipse the true value of Britain’s Iraq Chilcot Inquiry findings, soon to be published.
As a transforming event, the Iraq war is not over; we are still coping with its aftermath. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime helped trigger a longer-term process of violent sectarian breakdown in the Middle East, the shattering of the state system with its sulphuric interaction of revolution and war. It left behind many thousands of maimed and wounded survivors. We don’t yet know the findings, but we can learn much from the proceedings on public record. We should consider not only whether the Inquiry matters, but why it matters.
Operation Iraqi Freedom overthrew an adversarial regime and brought about a constitutional government largely friendly to America and its allies. But it did so at a heavy price. It killed and maimed thousands more people and drained more resources than those who conducted the policy estimated. It gave Iraqis not democratic freedom, but anarchy followed by a corrupt sectarian order, an abusive Shiite ascendancy and illiberal tyranny of the majority that helped spawn the growth of the Islamic State. Rather than defeat international terrorism and disorder, it created fresh opportunities for them, as criminals and militants poured into the vacuum. Torture and the abuse that accompanies long counterinsurgency wars offered propaganda opportunities for terrorist networks. The successes of the surge suppressed violence for a time, but could not induce reconciliation in the long term. Upsetting the regional balance of power empowered Iran and propelled a power struggle that continues today. The war’s central premise, that Saddam Hussein had an active weapons of mass destruction program, proved false. Indeed, destroying a regime that had disarmed struck a blow against the cause of disarmament, demonstrating to other hostile states the value of nuclear deterrence. Even some proponents concede in retrospect that their project wasn’t worth it. A reckoning is surely overdue—especially as the United States has not undertaken an equivalent inquest.
Despite these high stakes, those who didn’t suffer directly from the war are susceptible to “Chilcot fatigue”. The inquiry, gestating for seven years and costing £10 million, addresses choices made almost fifteen years ago that now seem prehistoric. Critics have already dismissed it. Long delays and obstruction make it unlikely to shift entrenched opinions. Accused parties have long left the scene. The Inquiry suffers from an unfortunate gap, as transcripts of communications between Prime Minister Blair and President Bush remain undisclosed. It lacks judicial authority. It cannot impeach or convict, and therefore is futile. This assumes that Chilcot’s only value lies in addressing the issue of bad faith: the Blair government’s alleged fabrication or distortion of evidence, misleading of parliament, and violation of international law. In the legalist lexicon of the war’s critics, “illegal” is interchangeable with “immoral”.
Before reading the Inquiry’s findings, we should consider why it most matters. It matters not primarily as an indictment of dishonesty or illegality, as other critics emphasize. These issues matter. They are not the main reasons the Iraq war became infamous, nor why it destroyed the premiership of Prime Minister Blair. Wars can be honestly waged in compliance with international documents and still be disasters. As we speak, post-Gaddafi Libya struggles to pull back from the brink of collapse. Conversely, wars can be prima facie illegal, like Vietnam’s overthrow of a genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1978, or NATO’s bombing of Milosevic’s Serbia in 1999 and still be morally and strategically defensible. Iraq attracted furor and multiple inquiries because it had calamitous results. If the invading coalition had discovered and shut down an advanced weapons program in Iraq, and if “regime change” had been peaceful and stable, the experiment would not draw so much condemnation.
Chilcot matters, for all its delays and incompleteness, because it reaffirms the danger of dogma and the deadliness of good intentions, the force of powerful ideas honestly held by decision-makers. Beyond rumors of the conspiratorial and the covert, the report is about the quality of decisions. The Inquiry’s hearings demonstrate the perils of wishful thinking, of doctrinaire ideological beliefs that go unchecked. It shows what can happen when the architects of policy operate without testing their own assumptions, move on the basis of an unquestioned “common sense”, making choices that are less calculated than axiomatic. As the Chilcot hearings revealed, those who conducted policy were in the grip of fatal assumptions. These assumptions were about Western insecurity, Western power, the Anglo-American relationship and the very evolution of modern states. None of these assumptions have gone away. In that sense, the past is not even the past.
Let us begin with the first two assumptions as they worked together. The calculation that Britain could and should take part in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime was driven by both a sense of vulnerability and a sense of power. Iraq did not happen in isolation. It was part of a new calculus about the nature of the world as it was supposedly revealed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was that event that haunted the public discussion and private deliberation of governments on both sides of the Atlantic. Testifying before the Inquiry, Blair clearly articulated a rationale that is also to be found in declassified documents, namely that in a post-9/11 world, the American-led West had to act more decisively, and with anticipatory military action, to transform the global security environment. Containing, limiting or disrupting threats and certainly deterring them was no longer adequate. The issue, the choice between “tough containment” and threat elimination had been canvassed in government, in the Cabinet Office’s Iraq Options Paper of March 2002, and earlier in the Foreign Office’s agenda for “draining the swamp” of threatening regimes. In Blair’s words, "it really depended on whether you thought post-September 11 we had to be change makers or whether we could still be managers. Up to September 11 we had been managing this issue. After September 11 we decided we had to confront and change." Threats—and potential threats—had to be eliminated promptly. Enemies had to be struck first, and at the time of “our” choosing. The 9/11 mass-casualty attacks, they assumed, were harbingers of things to come. The attacks were part of a serial wave of catastrophic, first-order threat events that directly threatened the homeland, rather than aberrations, in a world where most violent threats can be kept at bay. The threat matrix included the possibility of a linkage between rogue regimes, the most destructive weapons technology and terrorist networks. This helps explain a revelation of the inquiry, about the notorious claim that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to deploy chemical and biological weapons at “forty-five minutes” notice. The hearings suggest that policymakers had genuinely not appreciated the distinction between tactical “battlefield” and strategic range weapons, and that there was a striking incuriosity about the actual geographical extent of the threat. The exchange between Sir Lawrence Freedman of the Inquiry and Tim Dowse, the Foreign Office head of counter-proliferation, is revealing on this point:
Sir Lawrence Freedman: What we are trying to work out is what it meant. Now, you have indicated what seemed to you to be a pretty nondescript observation, but it got an iconic status because, in a sense, it got lost in translation. It became not a chemical weapon for use on the battlefield, but a weapon of mass destruction for use in an interstate war; otherwise, why mention the 45 minutes?
Mr. Tim Dowse: I don't think we ever said that it was for use in a ballistic missile, but—
Sir Lawrence Freedman: But you didn’t say it wasn't.
The point here is not the issue of duplicity, but a proneness to belief that threats were globalized, a theme underscored in public media at the time. Through a prism of fears about globalized insecurity, tactical and localized military capabilities could easily be conflated with long-range ones.
Also evident is the closed quality of decision-making in the Blair government, observed during the hearings. Incuriosity and confusion of this type could thrive at high levels of government because of the way that government operated. It sidelined cabinet and cabinet committees and lacked a devil’s advocate for its thinking as major decisions fell to a small inner circle. In such a cabalistic decision-making style, it is harder to probe assumptions or evaluate choices with rigor. Hence the susceptibility to threat inflation, treating limited or remote risks as imminent and the strong presumption that threats anywhere were threats everywhere. Another source confirms that by November 2002, the commitment to remove Saddam had become theological beyond calculations of cost and risk. The threat had become personified, as liberation largely meant removing an atrocious ruler. In November 2002, when six academic experts assembled at Downing Street to brief Blair on the potential problems that invading Iraq would encounter: “Professor Joffe emphasized the rigid power structures in Iraq that defined Saddam Hussein as much as he defined them, but became frustrated when the Prime Minister responded by personalizing the problem again, saying: ‘but the man is evil, isn’t he?’”