The Chilcot Report on Blair and the War on Iraq

Sir John Chilcot has finally come out with his 2.6 million-word report that was actually due in 2010.  It will take a person seven days to read the report in full, if read non-stop.  In terms of length, the report is three times the size of the complete works of Shakespeare.  We might assume that none outside the Chilcot Inquiry might have read it in full so far since its publication on July 7.  Perhaps, none in the Inquiry Committee too – four others in addition to Chilcot, including Baroness Prashar of Indian origin – might have read the report in full.  The hard copy costs Pound Sterling 767 and we do not know whether the families of the 200 British citizens killed in the war might get a copy gratis.

Let us see what British democracy has done after coming across enough evidence, before and after the 2003 war, that Prime Minister Blair had unnecessarily, unwisely, and immorally taken the nation into a war, which almost destroyed Iraq and begat the deadliest terrorist organization known as the Islamic State, especially when Iraq had posed no threat to the United Kingdom.

The BBC carried a report by Andrew Gilligan in July 2003 to the effect that the Prime Minister’s office had ‘knowingly embellished’ a dossier on Iraq’s military capabilities.  The report was based on a conversation with Dr. David Kelly, a scientist and an authority on biological weapons working for the government.  The BBC did not reveal the name of the scientist, but the government deliberately leaked it out.  The government denied the veracity of the report and Kelly was questioned aggressively by a House of Commons Committee, which summoned him to appear before it on 15 July 2003.  Kelly was subsequently found dead on the 17th.

Lord Hutton, a former Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, conducted an enquiry and concluded that Kelly committed suicide and that the government was not to be blamed for his death.  The Independent summed up the general impression in one word “Whitewash?”  Lord Hutton also decided, strangely enough, that all evidence related to Kelly’s death, including the post-mortem report and photographs of the body, should remain classified for 70 years.  Hutton absolved the government of the charge of ‘sexing up’ the dossier.  The BBC’s Chairman and its Director General resigned.  Ten years later, when Blair had ceased to be Prime Minister, the BBC carried a report stating clearly that there was deliberate ‘sexing up’ and that the government of the day kept quiet.

Next came the Butler Review of intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction.  It came out in July 2004, concluding that that the key intelligence used to justify the war was unreliable.  Yet, the Review asserted that there was enough intelligence to make a ‘well-founded’ judgment that Saddam Hussein was seeking to obtain uranium from Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Hence, the political leadership was blameless.

It is strange that the Butler Review should have said that about Niger in 2004, as the IAEA had categorically stated in March 2003 that the reports about Iraq’s attempts to buy uranium from Niger were not ‘authentic’.  As a matter of fact, it was widely known by 2002-2003 that the documents produced by the Italian intelligence agency (SISMI) included the forged signature of the ‘foreign minister of Niger’ and that the man named had ceased to be foreign minister years ago.  Incidentally, Chilcot was a member of the Butler Review.

In the name of SPCEL (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the English Language), it is important to look carefully at the phrase “flawed intelligence” that has been used widely by the UK media.  Reflection will show that there is a world of difference between ‘flawed intelligence’ and ‘manufactured intelligence’ and that mostly it was the latter that was used to justify the war.  The correct expansion of WMD is weapons of mass deception.

The Chilcot Inquiry was instituted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 two years after Blair reluctantly resigned. Chilcot announced the terms of reference as follows:

It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath.  We will therefore be considering the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned.  Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.

The government, especially the Cabinet Office, initially refused to part with papers.  Washington exerted diplomatic pressure on London for guarding the confidentiality of the ‘privileged communication’ between the Prime Minister of the UK and the President of the United States.  The compromise was that Chilcot conceded that the Cabinet Office will take the final decision.  Chilcot did not have full access to the papers.

The important findings of Chilcot are:

  • The UK chose war without exhausting peaceful options.
  • There was no imminent threat to the UK.
  • On July 28, 2002, Blair committed in writing to join the US, should there be a war.
  • Judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
  • The circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were “far from satisfactory.
  • The UK‘s action undermined the authority of the UN Security Council.
  • Before approving military action, the Cabinet did not seriously discuss the legality of action with the Attorney General.
  • The government failed to achieve the stated objectives it had set itself in Iraq. More than 200 British citizens died as a result of the conflict.  The Iraqi people suffered greatly.  By July 2009, at least 150,000 Iraqis had died, probably many more.  More than one million were displaced.
  • Blair overestimated his ability to influence US decisions; and the UK’s relationship with the US does not require unconditional support.
  • In future, all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated, and challenged with vigour.

One cannot say that Chilcot has come up with any startling or original insight.  But it is useful to have solid documentary evidence in a consolidated form for the conclusions generally accepted.

Blair has stoutly defended himself.  His main argument, repeated too often, is that the world is a safer place without Saddam Hussein.  That argument does not hold water.  It is obvious that the invasion and occupation of Iraq provided the necessary pre-condition for the birth of the Islamic State, which has already carried out terrorist attacks in the West and elsewhere apart from holding millions of Iraqis and Syrians in inhuman conditions in flagrant violation of their human rights.  Is all this part of Blair’s idea of a ‘safer world’?

The question uppermost in the minds of the bereaved families, some of whom have demonstrated with placards “Blair lied, thousands died, and the millions the world over who demonstrated against the war in 2003 is this: Will Blair be brought to justice?  If he is to be brought to justice, it has to be either at The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) or in the UK.  The chances of Blair being brought to the ICC appear to be remote right now.  In the UK, he can be brought to the House of Commons or in a court.  Tory MP David Davis has announced that he would bring it up in the House and the charge will be ‘contempt of the House’.  As regards the court, there is a 19th century law that deals with ‘malfeasance in public office;’ the last case under it was in 1806.  Blair can be charged with abusing the trust of the public in him as Prime Minister when he argued the case for war and lied.  We do not know right now whether Blair will be brought to justice.  But, as the philosopher Schiller put it, world history is the ultimate world court of justice.  That court’s verdict on Blair is loud and clear.

Does the UK have separation of powers and the resultant checks and balances advocated by Montesquieu (1689-1755)?  Governments have an attorney general to advise them on the legality of decisions taken by them.  In the present case, Blair bulldozed the initial resistance of a weak attorney general.  When the Cabinet met to approve Blair’s proposal to go to war, its members showed no interest in asking searching questions to the attorney general who meekly kept quiet.  All this shows that Blair dominated decision-making to an absurd extent and raises serious questions about the quality and maturity of the UK’s democracy.

Incidentally, if Blair dominated his Cabinet colleagues and frightened them into compliance with his line of thinking, they also should shoulder a good part of the blame.  Deputy Prime Minister Prescott wrote the other day in a paper that he knew that it was an illegal war.  Why is he coming out now?  Why did he not resign at that time?  If he had resigned, Blair might have been stopped from rushing to war.  In other words, there are checks and balances, but we need individuals, fearless, honest, and upright, to avail of them.

Why did Blair do what he did?  The explanation is in two parts. Post World War II, the UK took a conscious decision that if it wished to punch above its weight in the international arena it had to be a junior partner to the US.  As regards Blair, he was proud to play the role of an ‘attendant lord,’ as T. S. Eliot put it, “one that will do to swell a progress” and be “deferential, glad to be of use.”  In ancient Greece, they said that character is destiny.  It is highly unlikely that there will be another Blair in future, but it will be beneficial for the UK to bring to book this Blair.

There is demand in Australia for a Chilcot-type of inquiry into then Prime Minister Howard’s role.  Should not India have a Chilcot-type report on the 1987 decision to send troops to Sri Lanka?  As against the 200 UK citizens killed in 2003, the toll was at least 1,200 in the ill-starred military intervention in Sri Lanka.  It was a decision taken without consulting the Cabinet even, let alone the Parliament.  Those who do not know what happened in the past and do not want to learn from the mistakes committed in the past are not unlikely to repeat them.

Editor’s Note: The above article was initially published on the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses Website.  This article also appeared on July 14, 2016 on Ambassador Fabian: Reflections on International Policies, Books & Lives, a website featuring commentary by Ambassador KP Fabian.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Ambassador Fabian.

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