We’re waiting for Godot.
Waiting for Godot, Act 1
Today is a momentous day in British politics, and indeed British history. Today marks the long-awaited date of publication for the Chilcot report, the conclusion of the Inquiry of the same name into the Iraq War. If it seems an age since the Inquiry was first established, that is understandable. After all, it has been seven years since the Inquiry was first commissioned by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009. The public hearings may have concluded in 2011, but it has taken more than five years for the final report to appear. It was no secret that there was a battle within Whitehall regarding the declassification of secret papers, whilst there was also a lengthy legal process in consulting those criticised in the report.
But I feel we should consider that if seven years has felt a long time to us, mere members of the public sphere, imagine how long the wait must feel for the families and friends of the 179 British servicemen and women who died between 2003 and 2009. Indeed, imagine how long the investigation to determine the grounds for UK intervention must feel to those Iraqi families who have lost loved ones as a result of the war. No one knows how many civilians died during the war, as figures about Iraqi deaths vary from 90,000 to more than 600,000.
This controversial report of the Chilcot Inquiry is not the first inquiry into the Iraq war, believe it or not. There have already been four separate inquiries (as someone from Northern Ireland, I find that Iraq must be catching up with The Troubles in terms of inquiries) into different aspects of the conflict. Firstly in 2003 there was the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the joint Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee and their joint investigation into the intelligence used to justify the decision to go to war. Secondly, there was the Hutton Inquiry in January 2004 which examined the circumstances surrounding the death of scientist Dr David Kelly. Thirdly, there was the Butler Inquiry which in July 2004 sought to examine once again the intelligence used to justify the war.
It is expected that Tony Blair shall be largely acquitted of blame for the Iraq War in the Chilcot report. This conclusion will derive from the report’s main focus, i.e. what commitments Mr Blair gave to President Bush, and whether Mr Blair misled the UK public over the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction – which, it transpired, turned out to be non-existent.
Also expected within the report is the criticism of misjudgements that contributed to the chaos which erupted in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. I doubt these criticisms in the report will satisfy those campaigners who have for years demanded that Mr Blair be tried as an alleged war criminal. For example, the website of the Stop the War Coalition, an organisation of mainly left-wing anti-war activists, includes an article by the Conservative commentator Peter Oborne which argues “if Chilcot fails to nail Blair’s lies, it’s final proof our democracy is broken”. (Ouch.)
The war might have ended Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, but its aftermath unleashed sectarian violence that has killed many since. It should be noted such devastation and violence sadly continues to this day: last Sunday saw a horrific suicide car bomb attack in a Baghdad shopping district, which has killed at least 215 people. To understand the scope of the Inquiry and the context of same, I would recommend reading this timeline of the Iraq War, and this timeline of the workings of the Chilcot Inquiry.
So, I have mentioned the words ‘Chilcot report’, but what does the report actually seek to determine? Well, Sir John Chilcot’s report aims to examine the path towards war in Iraq in 2003, and the country’s subsequent descent into civil war and terrorist violence after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Inquiry’s remit was to examine the UK’s decision to intervene in Iraq, how the British army’s offensive was conducted, and to determine where there lessons to be learnt from same. To undertake this, the Inquiry sought a wide timeframe: from the commencement of war in 2003, to when combat troops were remove from Iraq at the end of July 2009.
The report stands at a record 2.6 million words over some 13 volumes and includes an executive summary. It should be noted the Inquiry panel scrutinised and drew on more than 150,000 government documents, and called more than 150 witnesses to public and private oral hearings. The report will see the publication of hundreds of previously classified documents, including sections of notes exchanged from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-President George W Bush.
Sir John Chilcot intriguingly confirmed in a TV interview that some individuals will be subject to criticism in the report, saying:
“The essence of this Inquiry is that the committee is impartial— we’re independent of government, none of us are politicians, and we haven’t set out to criticise individuals or institutions…
“However, I made very clear at the start of the inquiry that if we came across decisions or behaviour which deserved criticism then we wouldn’t shy away from making it. And indeed, there have been more than a few instance where we are bound to do that.
But we shall do it on a base of a rigorous analysis of the evidence that supports that finding. We are not a court- not a judge or jury at work – but we’ve tried to apply the highest possible standards of rigorous analysis to the evidence where we make a criticism.”
Sir John Chilcot told BBC News he expected that it would no longer be considered possible to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and such a gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgment being applied.”
I wrote previously of the five-year wait between the final public hearing and today’s publication. This has led to protests in Parliament that it was taking too long. Sir John however claimed the delay was unavoidable, citing the sheer scale of the Inquiry and amount of evidence, both oral and written, which must be examined:
“There is no doubt that it’s taken a lot longer than the government which set us up expected, or indeed what we expected at the start, but to get to the bottom of what happened over a nine-year period with all the legal, military, diplomatic, and intelligence aspects of its has proved very great…
That’s a huge task and takes a great deal of time if you’re going to get to the bottom of all of that.”
This report will not just affect how the past is viewed. It will also have consequences for contemporary politics – already in a jumbled mess following the resignation of the Prime Minister in the aftermath of the Leave victory, a subsequent Conservative Party leadership contest, and the coup-which-wasn’t-a-coup-which-still-threatens-Jeremy-Corbyn within the Labour Party.
It is expected that David Cameron will make a statement upon the publication of the report, whereupon he will respond for the Conservative government in the Commons debate today. Mr Cameron is due to stand down as Prime Minister in September, thus in relation to the implementations of the report’s recommendations, this will be a task for his successor.
The Conservatives aside, the report will be significant for Labour, the party of government under Mr Blair. It could cause further strife amid the party after the past two weeks of division. This is because the Labour party has had to live with the decision to intervene in Iraq in recent years. This decision still resides in arguments over the party’s foreign policy and how it perceives military intervention.
The decision to go to war still runs through party members: leader Jeremy Corbyn was an ardent opponent of the war, whilst those currently threatening a leadership contest against him, such as Angela Eagle voted in favour. Mr Corbyn is expected to fulfil a promise he made during his leadership campaign to formally apologise on behalf of the Labour party for the conflict. There has also been speculation as to whether Mr Corbyn will openly criticise Mr Blair and accuse him of war crimes. The latter would surely trigger another row within the Labour party.
As for myself – I can remember the Twin Tower attacks, watching the horrific coverage on the television as a seven year old after primary school had concluded for the day. I can recall how parents talked about a terrible event in hushed, shocked tones in the playground. My parents had bought ice cream as a treat for the family as we headed home from school, and I can remember watching a loop of smoke and collapsing buildings as I dug my spoon in the tub. I might not have understood all that had occurred, but I knew something awful had happened in New York that day. The moments of silence in primary school and in church reiterated this.
I can remember the first strikes in Iraq. I was getting ready for school in the morning, and was pulling on my uniform as Sky News’ rolling coverage showed a dark sky being it up as one missile after another was dropped. I remember staring at the television screen, thinking how strange it felt to see villages being destroyed as I was heading off to a day of school. I knew this was a result of a joint objective by then President Bush of the USA and then Prime Minister Tony Blair – as a young child, I had found President Bush ‘funny’ and thought Prime Minister Blair had a lovely voice to listen to. I knew also that many people were deeply unhappy at the decision to invade a country. I can recall watching angry protesters march through London on the news, for example. I heard their chants, their cries of “war criminal” which I did not fully understand, but thought that if so many people were this angry, perhaps there was a reason for it. Yet I suppose I thought that these leaders, Mr Blair and President Bush, were powerful men. Powerful men who had reached the decision to do so carefully and after much thought and deliberation with lots of evidence at hand. I thought they knew what they were doing; that it was a tough decision but one for the best. I realise now that this was probably what they thought then, too.
But there are times when the best of intentions are simply not good enough to rely upon in light of a decision to take countries to war. Not when such a loss of life has been left behind in the decision’s wake. I hope today marks a beginning of accountability and reconciliation, bringing what little peace it can to families who have lost loved ones. I hope too that today reminds us all of the futility of war, of the devastation and grief it brings. How sadly poignant that the Chilcot report shall be published so shortly after the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.