John Bew essay on the Chilcot Report

Sep 18, 2016

At 2.6 million words, and seven years in the making, there is no question that the Chilcot Report is comprehensive, if not quite the final word on British involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[8] In one sense, it is an antidote to some of the wilder conspiracy theories surrounding the war and does little to support the suggestion that the government acted in an illegal manner. Nor is it full of new ‘revelations’; most of the more controversial stories surrounding the war (such as the so-called ‘dodgy’ intelligence dossier) have long been in the public domain, or were aired during the public sessions of the Inquiry. Rather, Chilcot’s importance is that it offers an overall political judgment on the war, based on a clear-headed synthesis of all the information available. That judgment is unambiguously critical in three respects. It raises questions about the decision-making process by which the British government decided to go to war (and confirms that the Blair government committed itself to an invasion at a very early stage in planning); it underlines the failure to make appropriate plans for stabilizing Iraq after the initial invasion (specifically rejecting Prime Minister Tony Blair’s argument that the effects of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s removal could not have been known in advance); and, to an extent that has not yet been appreciated, offers a set of searing criticisms of the UK’s military performance in Iraq after invasion. In addition to this, the report is particularly constructive on the deeply complex nature of alliance politics, from coalition building to coalition fighting.

It may be that Anglo-American relations in this era were more intimate than at any point since the Second World War. Yet it is worth pausing for a moment to consider how this relationship developed over the course of the lead-up to war, and its conduct – on which Chilcot’s report provides some fascinating insights. On the one hand, the intimacy of the relationship between Blair and President George W. Bush underlay the whole venture. While they had taken different journeys to get to the point that they both hoped for regime change in Iraq, their worldviews were remarkably complementary. On the other hand, when one looks at the relationship beyond the two leaders, there were striking divergences – or at least different emphasis – on issues surrounding presentation, process, and procedure. Under the strain of events, some of these morphed into bigger issues that bedeviled planning for the war, and spilled into its conduct too.

The first thing that shines out of Blair’s correspondence – as documented in the report – is that, on the fundamentals, he was fully committed to regime change in Iraq by the end of 2001. This had a direct knock-on effect on policy in Afghanistan, following the successful ousting of the Taliban government. One of the most interesting documents to emerge in the inquiry is a note from Blair to Bush as early as 4 December 2001 in which he urged the President to focus on reconstruction in Afghanistan. British officials were particularly concerned that the United States’ focus on Iraq would leave the UK with overwhelming responsibility for security in Afghanistan. Yet Blair was also ambitious in his plans for the country as part of a desire to give interventionism a good name – partly because it would help make the case for the invasion of Iraq. He explained his logic to Bush: “How we finish in Afghanistan is important to Phase 2. If we leave it a better country, having supplied humanitarian aid and having given new hope to the people, we will not just have won militarily but morally; and the coalition will back us to do more elsewhere. In particular we shall have given regime change a good name, which will help us in the argument over Iraq.”[9]

Another theme to come out of the report is that, as war planning gained momentum in 2002, Blair felt that he was forced to operate within tighter parameters than his counterpart. This was partly due to growing opposition to the prospect of war domestically and internationally. It was also because of the British government’s desire to style itself as an international arbiter, reconciler, and the ‘bridge’ between the United States and Europe. Although this may not have been compatible with his firm commitment to going along with the United States in any case, it was a balancing act that he was anxious to maintain. In a minute of 17 March 2002, he wrote, “The persuasion job on this seems very tough. My own side are worried. Public opinion is fragile. International opinion—as I found at the EU—is pretty skeptical.”[10] Two months later, in July 2002 memo, his concern that the “international community” was fragmenting on the issue came out even more strongly: “In Europe generally, people just don’t have the same sense of urgency post 9/11 as people in the US; they suspect—and are told by populist politicians—that it’s all to do with 43 settling the score with the enemy of 41 …”[11] The way in which the case for war was presented in the United States also caused difficulties in the UK. Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech – which named Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the three principal rogue regimes – caused further difficulties for the British government. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, commented: “A lot of work will now need to be done to delink the three, and to show why military action against Iraq is so much more justified than against Iran and North Korea.”[12]

It is also fair to conclude that the difficulty of making the case for war had an adverse impact on the making of plans for it. Simply speaking, it meant that some things were prioritized instead of others. The lack of serious post-war planning was something that Blair identified early on. In minute to Jonathan Powell, his Chief of Staff, on 17 March 2002, Blair asked for more information on this before his summit with Bush in Texas: “In all my papers, I do not have a proper worked-out strategy on how we would do it. The US do not either, but before I go [to Crawford], I need to be able to provide them with a far more intelligent and detailed analysis of a game-plan. I will need a meeting on this with military folk.”[13]

Blair’s close relationship with Bush meant that he had significant political capital to spend. US Secretary of State Colin Powell reported to Bush on 28 March 2002, that Blair is “convinced on two points: the threat is real, and success against Saddam will yield more regional success … Blair knows he may have to pay a political price for supporting us on Iraq, and wants to minimize it. Nonetheless, he will stick with us on the big issues. His voters will look for signs that Britain and America are truly equity partners in the special relationship.”[14]

Yet one of the things that Chilcot underlines out is that Blair chose to spend this capital on issues relating to the broader optics of the war, rather than specifics. First, as we have seen, was his emphasis on reconstruction in Afghanistan to improve the case for regime change in Iraq. Second was in his plea to Bush to make a renewed effort on the Middle East peace process. “You are a bridge not a poodle!” Powell told Blair on 28 March 2002, before his visit to Crawford, urging him to seek reassurances on Israel-Palestine. According to Powell, the issue must be raised to “demonstrate we do not have double standards by showing we are persuading the Americans to engage seriously on the MEPP.”[15] As Blair put it in his diaries, “this was the indispensable soft-power component to give equilibrium to the hard power that was necessary if Saddam was to be removed.”[16]

Finally, and arguably most important, was Blair’s desire to preserve the cohesion of the ‘international community’ by his emphasis on the need to seek a second United Nations resolution. As Powell explained to the inquiry, we were “talking about how we could influence the Americans … we were trying to replicate what we had done after 9/11 on Afghanistan. We were trying to say to them, ‘Don’t rush into anything. Move at a deliberative pace and, above all, build a coalition. Talk to people, go the UN route. Don’t rush into unilateral action.’ We believed unilateral action would have been a terrible thing by America, and we wanted to try and put it in a much wider political context.”[17] One cannot accuse the British government of not having situational awareness, an appreciation of the importance of perception, or the balance between soft and hard power in international affairs. At one level, there was a degree of sophistication to such big-picture thinking and a desire to preserve the role that Blair believed he had carved out for the UK in the intervening years. But it is not clear that the focus on framing the war – or creating a better atmosphere around it – contributed to creating the conditions for success.

This essay was published on 18 September 2016 as part of the International Security Studies Forum’s H-Diplo Policy Roundtable on the Chilcot Inquiry, alongside essays by James Ellison, William Inboden, Robert Jervis, Louise Kettle and Joshua Rovner.

[8] Report of a Committee of Privy Counsellors, ‘The Report of the Iraq Inquiry: Executive Summary’, 6 July 2016, https://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/246416/the-report-of-the-iraq-inquiry_executive-summary.pdf

[9] Blair to Bush, “The War Against Terrorism: The Second Phase,” 4 Dec 2001, quoted in Chilcot Report, 370, section 3.1, point 345.

[10] Minute Blair to Powell, “Iraq,” 17 March 2002, quoted in Chilcot Report, 463, section 3.2, point 429.

[11] Blair to Bush, “Note on Iraq,” 28 July 2002. See Chilcot Report, 72-75, section 3.3, points 415-434.

[12] Minute Straw to Prime Minister, 25 March 2002, “Crawford/Iraq,” quoted in Chilcot Report, 471, section 3.2, point 471.

[13] Minute Blair to Powell, “Iraq,” 17 March 2002, quoted in Chilcot Report, 463, section 3.2, point 429.

[14] Memorandum Powell to Bush, 28 March 2002, “Your Meeting With the United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair, April 5-7 2002 at Crawford,” quoted in Chilcot Report, 487, section 3.2, point 552.

[15] Minute Powell to Prime Minister, “Crawford’, 28 March 2002,” quoted in Chilcot Report, 479, section 3.2, point 514.

[16] Tony Blair, A Journey, Hutchinson (2010), quoted in Chilcot Report, 523, section 3.2, point 732.

[17] Public Hearing, 18 January 2010, pages 22-23, quoted in Chilcot Report, 480, section 3.2, point 517.

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Professor John Bew

John Bew
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