The published report of the British inquiry into the Iraq War of 2003 is five times the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I have a day job, so I read the 150-page executive summary. The report was seven years in the writing, and many who followed its winding process assumed it would unearth little that was new. Its line of questioning at public settings was anemic. And it was released at the moment when Britain is facing a crisis about its place in Europe, when the Conservative Party is electing a new leader, and when the Labour Party is attempting to stage a coup against its own leader.
And yet despite the low expectations, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, more often known as the Chilcot Report after its lead member, has managed to make an impression.
Its focus was on British decisions to join the invading force, debates about Iraq’s WMDs, the legality of military action, and planning and execution for the post-invasion period. In each instance the focus was on Britain, its government, and its armed forces, and so it is in Britain that the Chilcot Report’s findings will and should be most closely read and will seem most relevant.
Nonetheless, the Report’s conclusions should be essential reading for U.S. audiences because of the light they throw on the Bush Administration’s attitude toward Iraq, what existing intelligence suggested about the consequences of the war, and the lessons it might offer us in an election year when we scrutinize the pronouncements of national politicians.
I’ve outlined a number of core findings of the report below, grouped roughly into different categories:
Much of the document is devoted—at times deliberately, and at times unintentionally—to demonstrating how little leverage Britain actually had with the U.S., whether when it came to the timetable for war, planning for the aftermath, de-Baathification, or other matters.
This of course undercut a key component of Tony Blair’s argument, which was that by joining the invasion Britain could influence its course. Blair also argued that if Britain declined to join the invasion, its relationship with the U.S. would suffer (51). He argued as much even though intelligence assessments reassured him that British opposition to the war would not have had long-term impacts on the US-UK relationship (53).
The question of whether Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, what work had been done on its weapons program, and the kind of weapons it did or did not possess became central to the case for war, particularly in Britain and the United Nations, but also in the United States. Who could forget Colin Powell’s breathless case to the WMD about the imminence of the threat Saddam posed to global stability?
The British Prime Minister’s office commissioned a report to warn the public about threats from WMDs associated with North Korea, Iran, Libya, and Iraq, and the Foreign Secretary pressured the report’s authors to emphasize why it was important to focus on Iraq. “The paper,” he argued, “has to show why there is an exceptional threat from Iraq” (70). The U.S. national security establishment had knowingly inflated Iraq’s military capabilities for twenty years for political ends, but it is still difficult to understand how anyone could believe that Iraq’s program—assumed by experts to be largely dismantled, and with those experts having an opportunity to confirm as much—could be regarded to pose a more serious threat than those of Iran and North Korea, for example.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed that Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction programme is active detailed and growing” (18), and President Bush warned that “the safety of the American people depended on ending the direct and growing threat from Iraq” (25).
Saddam Hussein declared himself willing to open Iraq to renewed scrutiny, claiming that he had dismantled the country’s weapons program. His refusal to admit inspectors had been a cornerstone of the U.S. case for immediate war, and the foundation of Britain’s legal justification for joining in the war.
When Iraq committed to working with inspectors and claimed that it no longer had a WMD program, the U.S. cited this as proof that Iraq would not comply and a reason to escalate preparations for war, a truly outlandish reaction, however much Iraq’s claims should have been greeted with some skepticism (20-21).
British intelligence judged that Saddam’s behavior was shaped first and foremost by a desire to avoid a U.S. attack, which created context for his willingness to submit his country to UN inspections. The U.S. still bizarrely insisted on reading this evidence that he possessed a weapons stockpile. And Tony Blair insisted that Saddam’s decision to accept inspections was inexplicable and therefore disingenuous. Demonstrating a genuine lack of self-awareness, the centrality of self-preservation did not occur to Blair as a potential motive.
Moreover, the head of MI-6 testified that the U.S. and Britain conspired to “set the threshold on weapons inspection so high that Iraq would not be able to hold up US policy,” and also “would not countenance the use of benchmarks [in the course of UN negotiations] that risked delaying the military timetable” (29).
The Report confirms conclusively that the British government’s focus on Iraqi WMDs at the expense of other national security threats “was not the result of a step change in Iraq’s capabilities or intentions” (71). It was a political exercise.
“The assessed intelligence,” Chilcot wrote, “had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons” (74).
To highlight the disingenuous nature of the focus on WMDs, Chilcot notes that “at no stage was the hypothesis that Iraq might not have chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons or programmes identified and examined” by the intelligence or policy communities (76). Until, at least, the invasion commenced, at which point “UK ministers and officials sought to lower public expectations of immediate or significant finds of WMDs in Iraq” (77).
In laying out the case for war, Blair focused intently not just on WMD, but on their capacity to fall into the hands of terrorists. Iraq, he argued, represented a likely point of contact between rogue regimes like Saddam’s with WMD and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. This anticipated nexus, Blair argued, “constitute[s] a fundamental assault on our way of life” (41).
In contrast, British intelligence assessed that collaboration between Al Qaeda and Saddam was unlikely, and could find no evidence to suggest any such collaboration (43).
In fact, Britain’s MI5 chief said that her agency and colleagues had no immediate or medium-term concerns about the links between Saddam’s WMDs and terrorist aspirations (50).
Moreover, Blair knew “that an invasion of Iraq was expected to increase the threat to the UK and UK interests from Al Qaeda and its affiliates” (47). Intelligence warned that “the greatest terrorist threat in the event of military action against Iraq will come from Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists” (48).
Clearer still was the assessment that “Al Qaeda and associated groups will continue to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to western interests, and that threat will be heightened by military action against Iraq. The broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war.” Analysts noted the further danger that could result from the collapse of the regime (which they argued would worsen the WMD situation, if such weapons existed) (48).
MI-5’s director confirmed that a war against Iraq “would aggravate the threat from whatever source to the United Kingdom,” and noted that intelligence reports conveyed as much to the government (50).
The Blair government responded to all of this by compiling a dossier designed to make a comprehensive case for war. This dossier was widely cited by the Bush Administration. Subsequent criticisms of Blair involved claims that he and his aides “sexed up” the dossier to inflate intelligence.
Chilcot’s findings bear out the spirit if not the letter of the accusation. The Report found that the intelligence language in the dense dossier itself was not changed. But the intelligence assessments “contain careful language intended to ensure that no more weight is put on the evidence than it can bear.” The care that went into the dossier was undermined by its political packaging. In an introduction to the dossier—which was what most people read—Blair made much more dramatic claims about what the intelligence suggested and the action that it justified.
Blair didn’t “sex up” the document: he prefaced it with commentary that lied about its contents.
British and American officials clearly knew that they faced adverse conditions in the aftermath of an invasion, one likely to exacerbate the security threats their war was supposed to avert. Not only did Britain and the U.S. press on despite the warnings about the post-invasion security situation. They chose to press on without engaging in preparations.
British and American officials were warned that they would have to “provide security in a country faced with a number of potential threats, including: internecine violence; terrorism; and Iranian interference” (79). Intelligence predicted the strong “likelihood of internal conflict in Iraq” and identified the significant “scale of the political, social, economic, and security challenge” (83).
And yet in spite of British knowledge about the appalling state of U.S. postwar planning, the country declined to use its leverage or make its participation (genuinely valued for political reasons by the Bush administration) contingent on better planning (80).
When interviewed by the Inquiry Commission, Blair whined that “with hindsight we now see that the military campaign to defeat Saddam was relatively easy; it was the aftermath that was hard. At the time, of course, we could not know that.”
Chilcot disagreed, and was very clear that “the conclusions reached by Mr Blair after the invasion did not require the benefit of hindsight” (80).
Unlike in the U.S., much British debate about the Iraq war revolved around its legality. At the heart of this debate was evidence given by the Attorney General to both the British Cabinet and Parliament.
The Attorney General’s advice about the legality of the war rested on Iraq’s alleged failure to “to comply with its disarmament obligations offered by resolution 1441”. And yet in the Attorney General’s evidence, there was no explanation of “the legal basis of the conclusion that Iraq had failed to take ‘the final opportunity’” to comply. Evidence available to a lay-person suggests that Iraq was in fact attempting to comply—not from the goodness of Saddam’s heart, but to avoid an invasion—but was facing sabotage and basic disbelief from Britain and the U.S., who in term hamstrung UN efforts to inspect (68).
These might be the most damning sentence in the entire document: “The point had not been reached where military action was the last resort” (47).
The Chilcot Report makes dramatically clear that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a war of choice and a war of aggression. This is not necessarily novel.
What does seem new is the intelligence context in which British and American leadership decided to undertake this war of choice and aggression. They knew the risks. Their intelligence made it crystal clear that this war would be followed by some combination of insurgency, civil war, and terrorism, and would create a power vacuum in Iraq.
Their intelligence told them that the invasion of Iraq would have no overall positive effect on the threat from terrorism. Intelligence made it unambiguously apparent that their citizens would be in more danger from Al Qaeda in particular and terrorism in general if they invaded Iraq.
Many of us guessed most if not all of this, and said as much at the time.
But there is something chilling about knowing that the Bush administration and Blair government—and any member of Congress or Parliament who cared to get briefings—knew that invading Iraq was likely to create conditions of chaos and still chose not to plan for such chaos.
There is something profoundly unsettling about knowing that officials in our governments knew that invading Iraq would make the threat from terrorism worse, and yet let slip the dogs of war.
Whether their folly was due to their profound trust in their “gut” instincts, ideological convictions, or the hubris and exceptionalism that led them to believe that our nations transcended facts and evidence and the gravitational pull of cause and effect, the results have been catastrophic.
I would argue that the most important contribution of the Chilcot Report is that it has allowed us to understand clearly that Bush and Blair, along with their neo-conservative fellow-travelers, embarked on a war based not just on faulty logic and misplaced priorities, but with the full knowledge that they were putting the citizens they were supposed to serve in grave danger and were about the plunge Iraq into incredible depths of violence from which it and its people have yet to emerge.