The Iraq war inquiry, Tony Blair, Britain's intelligence agencies, and the rise in domestic terrorism
When some began to wonder if the long-running Chilcot Report into the Iraq war would ever be published, the English journalist Peter Oborne wrote a pre-emptive book.
Not the Chilcot Report was published on 26 May 2016, identifying Britain’s failures in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the consequences for the Middle East and the UK.
In the meantime, Chilcot Inquiry — the Iraq Inquiry, to give it its full name — announced its publication on 6 July, 2016. Not the Chilcot Report was published before its author had seen the official, government-funded report.
The reports have very different styles: one is a professional writer’s account for a lay reader of Britain’s worst foreign policy mess since Suez in 1956. The Chilcot Report is a cooler official account which seeks to adjudicate between competing claims to reach definitive verdicts on the conflict.
While freely acknowledging my role in publishing one of these books, my intention here is to compare them as resources for the general reader and to ask what they tell us about the Iraq War.
Not the Chilcot Report is a thorough assessment of the perplexing determination of the UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to join the US invasion of Iraq.
It shatters Tony Blair’s reputation, at least on the war. It is especially good at analysing whether the Prime Minister lied to the country when he suggested that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that they posed such a threat to the West that they must be urgently disarmed, when the intelligence to that effect was threadbare. It too assesses whether the Iraq war was illegal and whether Blair may be considered a war criminal: a claim sometimes made against him.
Oborne recounts how Blair persuaded the US President George W. Bush to seek international support for his plan to topple his Saddam Hussein. This led to a new United Nations resolution, 1441, passed on 8 November 2002, which gave Iraq’s president one final opportunity to comply with inspections checking for chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry.
At this point, after Blair’s other successful foreign policy interventions, Oborne makes a startling point:
“Had he fallen under a proverbial bus at this point, Tony Blair might now be classed among the greatest international statesmen of modern times. He might be remembered as the man who persuaded a reluctant President Clinton to make his humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, authorised a brilliant British raid to change the course of a civil war in Sierra Leone, and persuaded a bellicose George W. Bush to take the path of legality rather than going to war in Iraq.
“Unfortunately, from this point nothing at all went to plan for Tony Blair.”
Not the Chilcot Report makes plain that Bush and Blair had laid a trap for Saddam Hussein: they expected him to meddle in the work of the weapons inspectors. Desperate to avoid an invasion, Saddam Hussein didn’t obstruct the weapons inspectors. The US and UK invaded anyway.
There had always been two sides to the conflict: a private one and a public one. The private goal of the United States, supported by Tony Blair, was for “regime change.” The case Blair presented to the British public was that Iraq was a threat because of his “WMD”, which might fall into the hands of terrorists.
Not the Chilcot Report sets out the “false” statements Blair made about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
One example. In March 2002 a British government dossier compared the relative threat posed by four rogue states – Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Korea. There was just one problem: the intelligence services deemed Iraq to pose less of a threat than those other countries.
Without comment, I refer to the solution offered up to the government by John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee:
“You may still wish to consider whether more impact could be achieved if the paper only covered Iraq. This would have the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD, Iraq is not that exceptional.”
An Iraq-only dossier was duly published on 24 September 2002. In his foreword, Tony Blair stated:
“What I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.”
Oborne writes: "Almost of these assertions turned out to be misleading."
Not the Chilcot Report is refreshing in its readiness to hold the incompetent and deceitful to account. However its greatest strength is that it puts the war in Iraq into its historical, military, and political context.
What is clear is that far from improving Iraq the US-UK invasion killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and caused the country to implode in a maelstrom of neglect, corruption, and violence. Despite its stated aim to make Britain more safe, the Iraq war made Britain more dangerous.
The result has been an upsurge in Islamic fundamentalist extremism fuelled by resentment at unjustified western wars against Muslim states, such as against Iraq.
This is precisely what the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee warned Blair about before the war. One of the eye-popping facts in Not the Chilcot Report is that in its aftermath the director general of MI5 was forced to ask for a doubling of its budget to counter the domestic terror threat.
Oborne sums up:
“The Iraq War… cost our country the lives of 179 soldiers and thousands more permanently wounded, physically and mentally. Financially, it cost at least £10 billion. It increased the terrorist threat to Britain. The loss of life in Iraq is beyond calculation, and the country is no longer a functioning state. The war and the occupation led to the renaissance of al-Qaida, the emergence of ISIS and the destabilization of large parts of the Middle East.”
Oborne argues that the war still matters because it poisoned the relationship between the British people and the British state, between the politicians, civil servants, and spies, with their prerogatives and privileges — and the ordinary voters who fund them and in whose name they operate.
“This is why the Iraq Inquiry matters a great deal. It is the last chance for the British establishment to show that it can learn the lessons of its failures — and hold those who fail to account.”
So, how did Sir John and his team of Privy Counsellors fare?
Sir John Chilcot was a career civil servant and his inquiry team (Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne, Baroness Usha Prashar) were establishment figures. The executive summary is set out in numbered paragraphs and bullet points. It lacks the long historical view offered by Oborne. Sometimes it lacks Oborne’s punch.
Instead it wields a wet flannel and on occasion a rapier. While picking its way through the debacle of Iraq, its language is plain; its brevity sporadically bracing. As a whole the Chilcot Report accords with the picture of a dismally-prosecuted war painted by Not the Chilcot Report.
The Chilcot Report damns without giving the impression that it is making much of an effort. Consider the ordering of these consecutive paragraphs in a timeline of the UK decision to support military action:
146. Lord Goldsmith gave Mr Blair his draft advice on 14 January that resolution 1441 would not by itself authorise the use of military force.
147. Mr Blair agreed on 17 January to deploy a UK division with three combat brigades for possible operations in southern Iraq.
148. There was no collective discussion of the decision by senior ministers.
It dismantles Blair’s argument that it was essential for Britain to leap into the conflict alongside the United States.
Opposing the war has not done any lasting damage to the relationship with the United States enjoyed by France and Germany, the Chilcot Report points out. Yes, Britain should seek to have a close relationship with the US, but not a craven one damaging to our national interests. (Paragraph 16: "The timing of military action was entirely driven by the US Administration.")
The book criticises the extent to which the Cabinet was kept in the dark about Lord Goldsmith’s full legal advice, and the failure of Blair’s ministers to scrutinise or challenge this vast undertaking.
It appears to bridle with anger at the failure to do anything more than cursory planning for how to run Iraq after its conquest. In response to Blair’s claim that “with hindsight” one could see that the military campaign was relatively easy but the aftermath hard, paragraph 623 spits out:
"The conclusions reached by Mr Blair after the invasion did not require the benefit of hindsight."
The misleading and hyperbolic statements of Tony Blair are quoted in full. Such as on 128 March 2003, Blair warned the House of Commons that if MPs “back away from this confrontation now, and future conflicts will be infinitely worse in their effects.” Blair added:
“The real problem is that… people dispute Iraq is a threat, dispute the link between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and dispute in other words, the whole basis of our assertion that the two together constitute a fundamental assault on our way of life.”
Weak Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
Secular Iraq opposed Al-Qaida.
There was no link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism.
Chilcot’s summary does not detail the tragic rise in terrorism following the war.
So I will give a little. On 7 July 2005 suicide bombers targeted London’s transport system, blowing up three packed Underground trains and a London bus, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700. In videotaped statements, two of the four bombers referred to western aggression against Islamic countries, with one saying:
“What have you witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq. And until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel.”
There have been countless plots since to kill and maim members of the Armed Forces and the public, most of which have been detected and thwarted.
Astonishingly, before the Iraq war the British intelligence services predicted that a war in Iraq would increase the terrorist threat to the UK.
Paragraphs 340 to 358 deal with this intelligence warning.
Paragraph 344 reads:
“Addressing the prospects for the future, the JIC assessment concluded:
“…Al Qaida and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq. The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-US/anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West…”
Asked if that assessment was based on hard evidence, Baroness Manningham-Buller, the head of Britain’s domestic spy agency MI5, told the inquiry:
“I think we can produce evidence because of the numerical evidence of the number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and the correlation to that to Iraq and statements of people as to why they were involved… So I think the answer to your… question: yes.”
The Chilcot Report concludes that the Iraq War failed to meet its objectives. By 2009 (the inquiry’s deadline), the post-war construction of Iraq had failed:
“The UK did not achieve its objectives, despite the best efforts and acceptance of risk in a dangerous environment by military and civilian personnel.”
In his letter introducing the report to Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2016, Sir John Chilcot wrote: “The Report provides an impartial, far and accurate account of events from which the Inquiry has drawn its conclusions, but which will also allow the reader to draw their own.”
Separately and together Not the Chilcot Report and the Chilcot Report are all the evidence we need to come to a judgement about Tony Blair’s conduct of the Iraq war.
Publisher, Canbury Press