Chilcot Revisited.

Summer has come and gone, and Autumn is now here. The new academic term is upon us, and I will soon traipse back towards university for a new challenge: my Masters in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice.

I suppose I am drawn to the notion of studying political violence, identity conflicts and the transition from a state of war towards one of peace and shared spaces. I am a citizen of Northern Ireland after all, and transitional justice and political pathways towards peace is what I grew up knowing. I cannot wait to commence my studies, and see where my studies take me.

As I thought about my upcoming back-to-school adventures, I realised that I had not written about my thoughts and summary of the Chilcot Report, that long-awaited report which was finally published on the 6th July of this summer. I thought about this report as I thought about my studies, because it signifies to me at least of the need for a plan for post-conflict: how to rebuild the state, how to integrate all identities, how to ensure stability and peace. Alas, that this has not been found to date in Iraq in the aftermath of that fateful decision undertaken by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to invade the country.

I wrote about the report in a blog post on the date of publication. I explained how Sir John Chilcot’s report aimed 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, I noted, 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. I noted too how it was expected that Tony Blair would be largely acquitted of blame for the Iraq War. This conclusion was expected to be derived from the report’s main focus, i.e. what commitments Mr Blair gave to then-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.

I thought to write a fresh blog post several months on, to highlight the key findings of the inquiry.

Prior to the immediate publication of the report, Sir John spoke about his inquiry and its findings. The main conclusions that he reached in this statement included:

  • Whilst military action against Saddam Hussein ‘might have been necessary at some point’, in the vital month of March 2003, he posed no imminent threat.
  • The strategy of containment, having been ongoing at the time, could have been continued for ‘some time’ further, and the majority of the Security Council supported continuing UN inspections and monitoring. ‘Military action at that time was not a last resort,’ Sir John held.
  • The manner in which the UK government decided there was a legal basis for military intervention was deemed to have been ‘far from satisfactory’. However, I should point out that report doesn’t express a view of legality of military action, something that can only be resolved by a constituted court.
  • Sir John found that ‘flawed intelligence and assessments’ formed the basis of government policy on Iraq. Chilcot said of the intelligence provided that ‘they were not challenged, and they should have been’. Moreover, the statement delivered by Mr Blair on the 24th September statement before the House of Commons containing judgements on the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction was ‘presented with a certainty that was not justified’.
  • The point which bears ongoing relevance today: planning for a post-Saddam Iraq was found to have been ‘wholly inadequate’. Despite repeated, clear warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. It was found that Mr Blair ‘did not establish clear Ministerial oversight of US planning and preparation.’ Moreover, he ‘did not ensure that there was a flexible, realistic and fully resourced plan that integrated UK military and civilian contributions, and addressed the known risks.’
  • The Inquiry apparently took rather a dim view of Tony Blair’s claim that the difficulties encountered in Iraq could not have been known in advance: it did ‘not agree that hindsight is required’. The Inquiry held that ‘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’ and therefore provided the foundational evidence upon which to undertake planning for a transitional Iraq post-invasion.

As the statement was delivered, comments from various journalists who had had a preview of the report made the rounds on social media. What quickly became a topic of discussion was the collection of letters Mr Blair had written to President Bush, now released as part of the report. The letters could be read as an attempt to impress the US Preisdent with his statemanship and determination, or read as evidence of Mr Blair’s belief in his own importance, and his role in shaping destiny and the future. I however see the letters differently: they read as though written by one trying to convince himself of the merits of his own arguments.

Two notes in particular stood out. One was dated eight months before the war commenced, and within Mr Blair offered his unqualified backing for invasion far in advance of when the beleaguered UN weapons inspectors had completed their work. Blair devoted a mere six lines to post-invasion planning. He said the removal of Saddam “should lead in time to a democratic Iraq governed by the people”, but concluded “just swapping one dictator for another seems inconsistent with our values”. Bu the true line du jour?  “I will be with you, whatever.”

The other note was dated June 2003, and is tinged with panic and a touch of desperation – recognition, it seems, of the scale of the invasion and the sheer size of the project post-conflict. Mr Blair wrote: “But the task is absolutely awesome and I’m not at all sure we’re geared up for it. This is worse than rebuilding a country from scratch.We start from a really backward position. In time, it can be sorted. But time counts against us… My sense is: we’re going to get there but not quickly enough. And if it falls apart, everything falls apart in the region.” How oddly prophetic that note was.

Interestingly, Chilcot rejected the view that the UK would lose diplomatic influence if it had refused to join the war and support the US. Sir John found that ‘Blair was right to weigh the possible consequences for the wider alliance with the US very carefully’, but went on to say that ‘if the UK had refused to join the US in the war it would not have led to a fundamental or lasting change in the UK’s relationship with the US.’

I was in work on the 6th July, and whilst in the office I followed the flurry of news around the publication of the report, especially as Tony Blair himself took to the stage for a two hour-long press conference after Sir John’s statement. This conference served as the former Prime Minister’s platform to offer a defence of his actions. He knew he needed to: his role in the decision to invade was rather roundly damned by the report’s findings.

It was a strange, surreal, and memorable press conference.

For two hours, Mr Blair endured question after question, grilled on the finer points of detail raised by Sir John. Mr Blair submitted the decision to removal Saddam Hussein had been the “hardest, most momentous, most agonising” decision of his time as Prime Minister. Mr Blair took note of Sir John’s criticisms and said he took full responsibility for the failure of post-transitional planning. He however stated firmly that he would take the same decision to proceed with military intervention again, despite Sir John arguing the UK intervention went badly wrong and ‘with consequences to this day’.

It was a press conference that could have taken placed in a theatre. Mr Blair’s voice cracked, and he appeared to fight away tears as he said, “for all of this I express more sorrow, regret, and apology than you may ever know or believe”. Yet Mr Blair on the same stage argued he could not apologise for the decision to invade – “I cannot do that” – and argued he did not make the wrong decision, and he did not mislead the country.

Arguably, that is the problem: what can we believe, truly? With evidence of flawed intelligence that was readily followed, of evidence suggesting the decision to go to war was made before the UN inspectors had finished their work, with evidence of no thorough planning for the aftermath – how can we believe, other than in the very human mistake of believing in overestimated power and leadership credentials?

Ultimately, the overall objective of the long-awaited, controversial report was to identify what lessons should be learnt from this debacle of an experience. Such lessons as identified by the report include:

  • Mr Blair overestimated his own ability to influence US decisions and policy on Iraq. (The Americans would do as they saw fit, with their own intelligence to guide them).
  • The UK-US relationship is in fact strong enough to endure frank and honest disagreement. (Personal grumbles of politicians cannot, and should not, dictate the charted course for their respective nations).
  • Understand the importance of collective ministerial discussion which encourages frank and informed debate and challenge. (A leader should listen to challenges, and understand why his plan is being so challenged).
  • There is a real need to assess risks, weigh options and set and achievable and realistic strategy before any intervention, and to pursue this on a continuous basis.
  • The recognition of the vital role of ministerial leadership and co-ordination of government activity.
  • The pressing need to ensure that civilian and military arms of government are properly equipped.

Of course, the most important lesson to take away from the Chilcot report is that  ‘all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour.’ Whether this will be understood and remembered in the future is another story. We can but hope the lessons of Iraq resonate with future politicians and governments. Such a painful mess cannot be allowed to be repeated.

Mr Blair said during his press conference that he was “a decision maker, not a report writer” when asked about the criticism of his conduct within the report. Hopefully future Prime Ministers can prove adept at both decision-making and report reading.

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