Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The coming Chilcot report

We now know that the Chilcot report into the Iraq War will be published next week, on 6 July.  Sir John Chilcot's inquiry sat from 2009 to 2011, but it has taken until now for the report to be cleared for publication.

The United Kingdom's participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was our biggest foreign policy error since Suez.  There is a lot of blame to be handed out for it.  Yet official inquiries almost never go in hard against the authorities.  It was noted that the members appointed to the Iraq Inquiry panel were mostly establishment figures, and that in some cases they had expressed favourable sentiments towards Tony Blair.  There are credible rumours that they have decided to subject him to criticism, but we will have to wait and see how far the criticism goes.

In the rest of this post, I want to summarise what we already know about the Iraq War and how it came to be fought.  The big question will be what new insights and lessons the Chilcot team are able to provide.

Iraq comes on to the agenda

When Tony Blair began his second term as prime minister in June 2001, very few people expected that British soldiers would be marching into Iraq within two years.  The key event that opened the way to war was 9/11.  From that point onwards, Blair was, by his own account, no longer prepared to live with the risk of rogue states having access to WMDs.  This new policy line didn't in itself make military action inevitable.  There was some discussion of a new sanctions regime against Iraq, but Blair doubted that it would work.  If Saddam couldn't be contained by sanctions, the options left were an effective UN weapons inspection programme - or war.

The Americans had followed a vaguely similar path.  Iraq was not really on the agenda at the start of George W. Bush's first term in January 2001.  The new president was largely preoccupied with domestic policy.  Insofar as he had any objectives in foreign affairs, they were to be found in the areas of ballistic missile policy, relations with Russia and the second Palestinian intifada.  Then came 9/11.  It looks like Bush was actively thinking of attacking Saddam in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and there is further evidence that policy in Washington was geared towards war by March 2002.  By this point in time, British diplomats were already telling the Bush administration that Blair was firmly behind it.  But there was a difference of emphasis - the Americans wanted Saddam removed because of (amongst other things) the WMD issue, whereas the British wanted the WMD issue dealt with by (if necessary) removing Saddam.  Blair remained willing in theory to leave Saddam in power in the event that the WMDs could be dealt with through UN inspections.

The key fact in all this is that Blair never doubted the rightness of his own judgement.  He never questioned the notion that Saddam had WMDs, nor that the West had to coercively separate him from them.  He accepted that other leaders of major democratic countries didn't share his analysis, but he seems not to have contemplated the significance of this.  He simply assumed that he was right and they were wrong.

Everything else followed from this.  If Bush and Blair had decided that Saddam had WMDs and that he had to be coerced into giving them up, the facts had to be interpreted through that lens.  An insight into the thought processes involved was provided by the "Downing Street Memo" of July 2002.  In this well known document, Sir John Scarlett, the then head of MI6, stated in reference to the Americans that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy".  When the memo emerged, this phrase sounded especially damning to speakers of American English, in which the word "fixed" is apt to be used to refer to fraud.  But what was going on was not conscious deceit - bare-faced lying by men who knew damn well all along that there were no WMDs.  Instead, it is a story of folly, arrogance and near-criminal negligence.  It is a story of men who refused to contemplate the possibility that they were wrong.

The missing WMDs

Saddam Hussein had active WMD programmes in the 1980s and had used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War.  However, the Iraq Survey Group's final report in 2004 confirmed that he had closed down these programmes after the 1991 Gulf War.  It appears that he did have a continuing intention to reactivate them when he was able to do so, but the primary target he had in mind for them was not the West but his old enemy Iran.

On 24 September 2002, the Government released the infamous "dodgy dossier", which claimed on the basis of intelligence data that Saddam had active WMD programmes.  This was false.  How could the Government have got it so wrong?

One possible answer was that the dossier had been deliberately falsified.  The previous inquiries that were held into the Iraq conflict cleared the Government of this charge.  The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee found that the dossier was "founded on the assessments then available".  Lord Hutton held that the dossier had not been "embellished with intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable".  The Butler inquiry came to a similar conclusion.

Blair and his defenders seized on these findings and claimed that they exonerated him.  But this missed the point.  Blair's critics didn't claim that he or his staff had just made up the faulty intelligence out of nothing.  The charge was not lying but spin - he and his administration had acted like lawyers tasked with aggressively arguing a case, not like statesmen weighing up whether or not to send British troops into battle.  The intelligence evidence was authentic but weak, yet the dossier presented it as being strong enough to go to war on.  And this charge was not rejected by the previous inquiries - on the contrary, it was upheld.  The Butler report famously concluded that the intelligence material on WMDs had been "limited, sporadic and patchy", and that the dossier "went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence".

The dossier was produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, but Number 10 had submitted specific amendments to its chairman Sir John Scarlett, some (though not all) of which he accepted.  This raised the possibility that the aggressively lawyering stance of the dossier was down to Alastair Campbell; but none of the four previous enquiries was prepared to go so far as to say outright that the dossier had been corrupted by political interference.  Lord Hutton merely suggested, rather lamely, that the JIC might have been "subconsciously" influenced to publish a biased document.

Blair before Chilcot

It will be interesting to see what lessons Chilcot draws from the whole sorry episode for British foreign policy.

Blair was often presented in the media as the Americans' poodle.  This was never entirely accurate, as the evidence is that he played the key role in influencing Bush to go initially to the UN (and to attempt to give impetus to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process).  But Blair's determination to follow the Americans wherever they led, even straight off a cliff, was remarkable.  The most astonishing thing that our former premier said before Chilcot was the following reflection on British foreign policy and the USA:
Look, this is an alliance that we have with the United States of America.  It is not a contract.  It is not, "We do this for you, you do this for us".  It is an alliance and it is an alliance, I say to you very openly, I believe in passionately.
This is an utterly perverse view to take.  Of course alliances with foreign states are contracts.  Of course they are based on mutual assistance and mutual interests.  Of course you don't allow the emotion of "passion" to get in the way of a rational foreign policy, particularly when it comes to questions of war and peace.  How could this man possibly have thought otherwise?