The story of why Britain invaded Iraq with the U.S. is of a once-powerful empire yearning for its former military stature in the world. Some say it was Iraq’s oil that seduced Tony Blair into joining George Bush; others point to Britain’s eagerness to interfere in the Middle East. These charges have some truth to them, but sometimes the simplest explanations are the most painful ones.
On Wednesday 6th July, Sir John Chilcot, a retired British civil servant, delivered his long-awaited and devastating report on the country’s role in invading Iraq. Commissioned seven years ago, the Iraq Inquiry took longer than the entire time British troops spent in southern Iraq: 2003—2009. At 12 volumes and 2.6 million words long, it is four times the length of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. At a cost of £10 million with over 150 witnesses interviewed, it is one of Britain’s biggest inquiries yet.
But it only needed six fateful words to deliver a body-blow to Blair’s already tattered reputation, before he could even begin to defend himself after its publication. “I will be with you, whatever,” the former British Prime Minister had apparently said to then U.S. President George W. Bush in a private message in July 2002, eight months before the invasion started. The media and many commentators leapt on those words as confirmation that Blair had tied Britain’s fate to American actions before his nation had even given consent.
“Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost and [Iraq] is still living with the devastating consequences of the war and the forces it unleashed. They have paid the greatest price for the most serious foreign policy calamity of the last 60 years,” Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British opposition party, Labour, told Newsweek Middle East in an exclusive interview.
Tony Blair said those words were merely meant to reassure Bush so he could slow the rush to war. “The whole purpose of my intervention with the president was to get him to go down the U.N. route,” he said to reporters in a press conference after the Inquiry was published. But few seemed to believe him.
There is of course, more to this than meets the eye. Blair was elected leader in 1994 by a Labour party scarred by defeat, haunted by constant rejection from voters who thought it was too soft on national security and foreign policy.
Back then, however, Britons wanted a government that wasn’t afraid of flexing its muscle on the international stage, one that lived up to its status as a Permanent Member of the U.N. and as opposed to one that once controlled a quarter of the planet.
In other words, Blair was willing to satisfy Britain’s thirst for a role as a global military world power, as a route to electoral victory. As Steve Richards put it in the Guardian recently, the question he asked himself wasn’t “Why go to war?” but rather “Should I support President Bush who has decided he wants to remove Saddam Hussein?” His political instincts told him that Britons would punish his party if its leader behaved like his predecessors. Standing “shoulder to shoulder” with Bush wasn’t just a moral conviction for Blair, it was also a political calculation.
Ironically, Blair’s attempt to change how New Labour was perceived on foreign policy pushed his party and his country in the opposite direction. A recent opinion poll showed something interesting: in 2003 around 54 percent of Britons thought it was ‘right’ to go to war (though this varies depending on how the question is posed). But asked again in 2015, only 37 percent recalled as having thought it was ‘right’ to go to war at the time. In other words, a significant number of Britons now imagine themselves as having taken the right decision to oppose the Iraq war in 2003, even though they likely supported it at the time. They have corrected their own memories to the morally right decision. The same trend has taken place in America.
The Chilcot Inquiry has now largely ended the debate over whether Blair’s war was justified. Of course Blair still has die-hard supporters, but they are now a shrinking minority. The report came to three main conclusions: The British government exaggerated the case for war, it invaded without exhausting other options and it was woefully unprepared for the aftermath. The Inquiry didn’t end Blair’s career with one big body-blow, instead it left him fatally wounded with hundreds of incisive and well-researched wounds.
The Iraq Inquiry finds Blair had exaggerated his case for war, saying the intelligence was “presented with a certainty that was not justified.” That wasn’t all. Sir Chilcot went on to ramp up his ire: “We have concluded that the U.K. chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”
But Chilcot also laid bare Britain’s minor role in the whole operation, a point largely glossed over by the media. “[The U.K.] had limited influence over a process dominated increasingly by the U.S. military,” the report stated, pointing out the obvious. The British government did not have “satisfactory plans” for what would happen after, nor was it prepared for a “huge commitment of U.K. resources” if they were needed. But worse, there was “a shortage of expertise in reconstruction and stabilization” and there were severe shortages in the U.K.’s military capability, which hindered soldiers as well as the government’s overall contribution.
Most devastatingly, the report included Blair’s statement to the Inquiry in which he said: “…with hindsight, we now see that the military campaign to defeat Saddam was relatively easy; it was the aftermath that was hard,” and responded to that with a sharp knife to the throat: “The conclusions reached by Mr. Blair after the invasion did not require the benefit of hindsight.” The former prime minister didn’t stand a chance against the civil servant.
Blair had no real answer to this so he did what he does best: change the topic. The Iraq Inquiry did not accuse him of lying, he pointed out, which was true in the technical sense but perhaps not in the broader sense. “I did not mislead this country,” he said for the 500th time. “I made the decision in good faith on the information that I had at the time,” he repeated like a robot, again. Whether anyone still believes him now is a matter of debate. Even The Sun, Britain’s biggest selling newspaper and a cheerleader for the war, ran the headline: ‘Weapons of Mass Deception.’ And that was one of the gentler verdicts.
So does this mean Blair can now be tried as a war criminal? Not so easily. The Chilcot Report cannot answer whether the invasion was legal because it isn’t a court of law. In fact, it had no such remit. But it did say the legal basis for military action was “far from satisfactory.” It pointed out that Britain’s Attorney General at the time, Lord Goldsmith, first said the U.N. needed to pass a new resolution authorizing war to make it legal, and then changed his mind a few days later. Government ministers were not made aware of the “legal uncertainties” surrounding the legitimacy of the invasion, the report pointed out. But that’s as far as it went.
“In the case of Iraq, some people maintain the war was legal,” the former U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told the Inquiry in 2010. “I am of the firm view that it was an illegal war. I think the vast majority of international lawyers feel that way.”
Since the report’s publication, the deputy prime minister at the time, John Prescott, has written that he now believes the war was illegal.
Corbyn tells Newsweek Middle East that lessons now need to be drawn from the war and the Chilcot Inquiry. “They include the need for a more open and independent relationship with the United States particularly as we face the prospects of a new and potentially more hawkish presidency and for a foreign policy based on upholding international law and the authority of the United Nations.”
He adds more specifically: “We also need much stronger oversight of the security and intelligence services, full restoration of proper cabinet government and to give parliament the decisive say over any future decision to go to war based on objective information not through government discretion but through a War Powers Act.”
More importantly, he says Britain needs to join the 30 countries (that includes Germany and Spain) that support giving the International Criminal Court (ICC) the power to “prosecute those responsible for the crime of military aggression.”
It would be difficult to take Blair to the ICC right now since the U.K. has a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and the government of the day is highly likely to veto any such action. And it’s unlikely any domestic court in the U.K. would have the jurisdiction or powers to take on such a case.
So what was the point of the Chilcot Report? It may not have settled all questions, but it has sealed Blair’s legacy and will be the final, damning word on this ill-fated show of arrogance. Its impact will be felt for years.
“Public opinion has become very disillusioned with politics and the establishment ever since the Iraq war,” the MP Diane Abbott told Newsweek Middle East. She had also vociferously opposed the war. “Chilcot just reinforces that.”
I asked whether she thought the war had changed anything. She wasn’t hopeful. Even though Iraq was shown to be a disaster, she said that “foreign policy elites are still keen on neo-imperialist intervention in the Middle East.”
And what about British foreign policy in the Middle East? Would that change as a result of our role in the invasion? She said Britain’s Foreign Office policy on Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East more generally is “in stasis” due to events elsewhere. “We are all waiting for the result of the U.S. presidential election,” she added.
But others take a different view. Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow at the defense think-tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) says that while the invasion had a terrible impact on the Middle East, British foreign policy in the region didn’t suffer as badly.
“The war immeasurably increased Iran’s power in the Middle East, and that has been transformative; but our relationship with the Gulf states, most of which fiercely opposed war, has actually strengthened since 2003. So I’d say the impact has been complex and mixed, rather than straightforwardly negative.”
Many point to Britain’s unwillingness to join President Obama’s actions against Bashar Al Assad as a sign that British foreign policy has since become far more cautious. “One key message of Chilcot, that Britain need not stand by America no matter what, reinforces this and will encourage the next government to intensify engagement both with the Gulf states and Iran,” adds Joshi.
The impact of the Iraq invasion had an enormous impact on British politics too. As the war turned sour, thousands of Labour party members abandoned the party in disgust, public trust in the political class fell further (accelerated later by the MPs’ expenses scandal) and Labour’s most successful leader was ousted by his own MPs. His successor Gordon Brown ordered the Iraq Inquiry, but that was not enough. When he lost the General Election in 2010, the party opted for Ed Miliband, who had opposed the war and said it was a “mistake” in his first speech as leader. But even that was not enough—when he lost the election in 2015, Labour party members opted for an outright pacifist as leader in Jeremy Corbyn, who last week apologized on behalf of the party on the day the Chilcot Inquiry was published. The reverberations of 2003 are still ringing loudly in British ears.
But if there’s one lesson that British politicians have learnt since their first invasion of a sovereign nation since the Second World War, it’s that Britons would rather their politicians focus on domestic problems than on international missions. Instead of demonstrating its strength on the international stage, the Iraq war served to expose the limits of British power and influence.