Chilcot: An Abject Lesson in How Not to Go to War

If one word sums up Chilcot's approach to future 'interventions' of which recent British governments have been all too fond it is 'caution'. This is as it should be.

Demonstrators protest before the release of the John Chilcot report into the Iraq war, at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London, Britain July 6, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Paul Hackett

Demonstrators protest before the release of the John Chilcot report into the Iraq war, at the Queen Elizabeth II centre in London, Britain July 6, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Paul Hackett

To anyone outside the UK, it might be difficult to grasp the levels of anticipation for the Chilcot inquiry of British involvement in the Iraq war. Iraq has been truly toxic, not least for the perception of politics and politicians. The main reason for this, amongst many, was the popular view that former prime minister Tony Blair had misrepresented the case for war and that he exaggerated the risk posed by Iraq’s supposed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMDs), which, unfortunately for Blair and his government, were proven not to exist.

Several inquiries over the past decade have mulled over these matters. One, led by former civil servant Robin Butler, adopted the usual tone of the British establishment and prevaricated. Another probe was led by a former judge Brian Hutton, although it was technically an inquest into the death of a government scientist who had killed himself after being exposed by the government as the source for a report by a BBC journalist. The journalist had alleged that the government had “sexed up” the case for WMDs. Hutton’s findings were widely viewed to be little more than a whitewash, placing no blame whatsoever on any government body and essentially exonerating Blair and his team from any culpability in “sexing up” intelligence or causing the scientist’s death.

Surprisingly critical

After a great deal of pressure, in 2009, Gordon Brown, who was prime minister at the time, agreed to set up a more definitive panel to be led by John Chilcot, yet again a pillar of the establishment. For two years, evidence was taken from many senior officials, civil and military, involved in the war. Given Chilcot’s background and that of his colleagues on the inquiry team (a couple of senior academics, a former diplomat and an expert in British social policy), hopes were not high for a forensic and critical examination of Britain’s involvement in the war.

Those hopes were dampened even more by a constant drip of delays. It was regularly pointed out that the report was taking longer to produce than Britain’s involvement in the war had lasted. Rumours abounded of attempts by individuals and institutions to obstruct the inquiry or restrict access to relevant documents. US officials became involved in a long wrangle over whether certain US cables, long in the public domain, could be formally reviewed by the committee. Needless to say, these documents were potentially embarrassing. Throughout all of this process, the inquiry chairman maintained a dignified silence, despite being blamed for delays that were outside his control.

So when he stepped up to the podium on Wednesday morning to deliver a calm but highly critical report summarising his conclusions, the surprise was palpable. The report is 2.6 million words, and outside the inquiry team, it will be a long time before anyone will have read all or even a large portion of it. It is said to be six times longer than the Bible and seven times longer than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Yet the tone is now clear and its results are becoming apparent.

For many years most people, or most interested people in the UK, have fallen into one of two camps. Either they accept that Blair was justified in his actions or they believe that he is at best deluded but perhaps serially dishonest. Wherever people stand – and the latter group is far larger than the former – there is now official sanction for the view Chilcot has now put forth: that “the options had not been exhausted” prior to the invasion of Iraq.

The conclusion, in other words, is that the war was not a last resort and that its legal basis was unsound.

The report states that the evidence available to the government did not justify the case that was made and the decision was based upon “flawed information”. Planning for the post-war phase was poor to non-existent and the army was ill-equipped for the war it found itself in –  a counter-insurgency – after the initial invasion. Finally, he stated that Blair had committed the UK to going to war alongside the US prior to any serious consideration of the merits, let alone legality.

Given the lamentable performance of previous investigations into the Iraq war, many people were surprised at the relatively definitive and firm tone of the Chilcot inquiry. That notwithstanding, it now stands, effectively, as the establishment’s verdict on the conduct of the conflict from the British perspective. Therein lies its importance. It is tempting, therefore, to see it as an end in itself. This would be a mistake.

The fixing that’s needed

At least of equal importance to the nature of the report as a landmark is what happens now. What is its significance? Clearly it will take many weeks for the report itself to be digested. By that time, the news cycle will have ploughed on. First, it is entirely possible that there may be some attempts at legal action against Blair and his associates. My own view, for what it is worth, is that these are unlikely to bear much fruit, unfortunate though that may be. In the longer term, however, there is much to be gained from a close study with a view to looking critically at civil and military procedures, and culture and practices relating to how we conduct war.

Other countries do this far, far better. The US report into the 9/11 attacks –  taking less than the two years provided for it – for better or worse, is a roadmap to how the country’s security services were to go forward in a very different world. Similarly, after the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel’s Winograd Commission savagely indicted the Israeli political and military leadership with a view to ensuring that the nation’s security and defence structures were reformed.

With a seriously compromised military and political class, it is clear to many that the UK needs a similar overhaul. For example, there is a culture of compliance within the UK military that is deeply embedded within its current DNA. In the past, failures in warfare ensured that the right cultures were developed and the right people promoted. I have in mind particularly World War II, when the equivalent of the chief of the defence staff, general Alan Brooke, was very commonly heard to inform his political masters, notably Winston Churchill, “I flatly disagree” when the prime minster came up with ideas that were impracticable or down right ill-advised.

If only we had such officers now. The current crop may be better, but our military commanders during the Iraq war would rarely be heard openly disagreeing with Blair. On the contrary, they seemed rather more keen to ‘crack on’; in Blair’s own words they were “up for doing it”, by which he meant invading Iraq. It is the first duty of a military advisor to a senior political leader to ensure that there is a strategy in place prior to engaging in conflict. As the famous Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz put it, “No one in their right mind should start a war…without being clear as to what he is trying to achieve and how he proposes to achieve it”. It’s his duty to ask, “What do you require of us?”

It is this sort of reflection that needs to migrate from academic and journalistic discourse to reality. Sadly, having had some close interactions with senior military command over the last decade, I think that this may be a step too far. Still, one can hope but one will not be holding one’s breath.

One area where there really does seem to have been some serious reflection and change has been intelligence. The SIS (Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6) were badly burnt by the WMD fiasco. Their reputation was if not quite trashed, then very seriously compromised. The report raised some matters that I certainly had never heard of, including accounts of quite breathtaking credulity.

This naivety accompanied the rather better known failure of integrity implicit in their various ‘dodgy dossiers’ presented as ‘intelligence’ but really little more than propaganda. There is no doubt at all that they are fully aware that their watchword must be caution. I believe it is highly unlikely that MI6 will be caught out again, at least not in such an unconscionable manner.

If one word sums up Chilcot’s approach to future ‘interventions’ of which recent British governments have been all too fond it is ‘caution’.  This is as it should be.

A former British military intelligence officer, Frank Ledwidge is a senior fellow at the Royal Air Force College at the University of Portsmouth.