On July 6, an independent inquiry into British involvement in Iraq from the summer of 2001 to July 2009 released its report. Chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a veteran Whitehall mandarin, the inquiry was set up in 2009 by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The delay in publication of the report was partly a result of the sheer volume of material—nearly 150,000 documents and countless interviews, including several with Tony Blair, prime minister at the time of the 2003 invasion—that the panel examined. And it was partly a result of efforts that crossed party lines to wiggle out of publication. The Chilcot report, consisting of 2.6 million words in 12 volumes and a 200-page executive summary, is now regarded as the official assessment of British involvement in the Iraq war. It is just beginning to be digested for fresh insights into British strategy in Iraq, as well as the possible legal culpability of the figures leading Britain into war, including Blair. We asked a few MERIP friends and Iraq scholars for their reflections on what they have read so far.
The invasion of Iraq has had a huge impact on the debate about democracy in the Middle East—and almost entirely a detrimental one. Analysts in both the Middle East and the West routinely suggest that the war was an ill-conceived attempt to impose democracy on the region overnight with the barrel of a gun. The assumption is that democracy promotion was a key driver of the decision to go to war. Many go on to argue that the West should be less focused on promoting democracy.
This argument is confused. Democracy in the Middle East has never been a primary interest of Western states. Sometimes they have actively opposed it. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made the case that this orientation should change. They argued that authoritarianism fostered extremism, including in Saudi Arabia (where most of the hijackers came from), and that democracy in the region was in the long-term interest of the United States. Against this backdrop, democratizing Iraq was one of several goals adopted in the run-up to the war. But it was seen as at best a bonus or a byproduct of a military intervention that was motivated by geopolitical interests—along with a host of other mooted benefits, such as unlocking the secret to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Had democratization been the fundamental driver of US and British policy, it is not clear why they would have picked Iraq as the single country to invade, or why they simultaneously reinforced military alliances with other authoritarian states in the region.
Instead, the Chilcot report’s 200-page executive summary does not mention the word “democracy” once. (Weapons of mass destruction are mentioned on 24 pages; terrorism on 19. Oil is mentioned six times.) The full report indicates that in the run-up to the war, there were significant debates among decision makers over whether democratization would be feasible after a regime change in Iraq. In early 2002 the Foreign Office was committed to countering WMD proliferation but the foreign secretary expressed doubts about whether a new regime would be better than the existing one in terms of democracy, while a research paper said that the external opposition was not capable of forming a credible government. The report argues that “for the UK, regime change was a means to achieve disarmament, not an objective in its own right.”
Among those more convinced of the need of regime change, democracy was still not a certainty. In July 2002, Tony Blair wrote to President George W. Bush that regime change “might involve another key military figure” in the interests of stability—but that if it were feasible for this to lead “in time” to a democratic Iraq, that would be “very powerful.” In August 2002, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the US wrote that the question of what to do on the “day after” was the “most vexed” issue, but that a senior State Department official had said that they were “increasingly thinking in terms of some form of democracy.”
Blair’s desire to stand “shoulder to shoulder with the US” is also mentioned early on as a key motivator. Blair of course did speak about democracy as part of validation for liberal intervention—and after the WMD threat was proven to be untrue, and the intelligence to have been deliberately exaggerated, his retrospective justifications for the war increasingly focused on ridding the world of a brutal dictator. A vision of transformational change for the region may have helped to shape his conception of British interests in joining the war, just as it did for the neoconservatives in Washington, but this idea was not what brought the government and parliament on board.
Adding democratization into a mix of other stated motivations for the war—including WMD non-proliferation, removing a ruler who had been belligerent toward US-allied neighbors, supposedly fighting al-Qaeda—confused the issue, and created a damaging association between Western democracy promotion and violent intervention. Iraq after 2003 has not been so much a failure of democracy as a failure to bring about the basic peace and security that are needed before a democracy can function.
Prior to the Iraq war of March 2003, the Blair government released a series of “intelligence dossiers” to sway public opinion and votes in Parliament. One of these documents was given to Secretary of State Colin Powell in January 2003, who referred to it during his presentation the next month at the United Nations on Iraq’s alleged WMD program. The following day, Channel 4 News revealed that whole sections of the “intelligence dossier” were copied off the Internet by the British government from an online article I published, based on my doctorate at Oxford University. From that day forward, this document has been referred to as the “dodgy dossier.”
The Chilcot report provides some understanding as to how this mistake occurred. I am mentioned in Section 4.3 of the report, entitled, “Iraq WMD Assessments, October 2002 to March 2003.” Paragraph 235 of the report includes a February 3, 2003 statement from Tony Blair referring to an intelligence dossier: “We issued further intelligence over the weekend about the infrastructure of concealment. It is obviously difficult when we publish intelligence reports, but I hope that people have some sense of the integrity of our security services. They are not publishing this, or giving us this information, and making it up.”
Blair’s statement was misleading on two counts. The dossier to which Blair is referring is made up of three sections. It is the second part that was based primarily on my research. That section, thus, was not based on intelligence about Iraq from MI-6, but on plagiarized material from an unrefined rough draft of chapter two of my thesis, at a time when I was about to change the entire argument of the manuscript.
With regard to Blair’s reference to not “making it up,” it was Part One of the dossier that proved to be contentious and, in fact, made up. Paragraph 238 of the report notes: “In Part One, the document stated that Iraqi security organizations worked ‘together to conceal documents equipment and materials’ and the regime had ‘intensified efforts to hide documents in places where they were unlikely to be found, such as private homes of low-level officials and universities.’” Thus, the public was led to infer that MI-6 had confirmed that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction. This statement in the dossier was a small part of the US and British narrative about the putative threat of Iraq’s WMD threat. Nonetheless, in relation to my academic career I have had to defend myself for more than a decade by explaining that I was not responsible for Part One, which specifically dealt with the WMD aspects, and that what was plagiarized was my schematic overview of the divisions and responsibilities of Iraq’s security services. This nuance has been lost over time, especially in Turkey where I held my first academic post. I was known in the Turkish media as “the man who finished off Saddam” or “the man who started a war.”
Even though I was at the center of this affair, and took part in a British parliamentary inquiry that attempted to resolve the issue in the summer of 2003, it took until 2016 for the Chilcot report to provide a detailed chronology of how these events unfolded. The inquiry may contribute to the public’s knowledge of the opaque decision making among political elites that led to Britain’s participation in the war. Personally, I have gained a bit more insight into how the plagiarism occurred. This knowledge has not provided me any closure, however, nor will it likely provide closure for British families who lost their sons and daughters in Iraq, or the Iraqis themselves, still suffering more than a decade later from the case Bush and Blair made to go to war.
Perhaps, as commentators have said, the Chilcot report offers no new information on the debacle that was the Iraq war. I doubt that many have had time to read the 2.6 million-word document.
Yet the report is significant for two reasons. It is an official inquiry initiated by a government-appointed body, an inquiry that is critical but inconceivable in the current climate in the US. And despite the relatively innocuous statements about lessons to be learned that Chilcot has made, the report opens the door for a serious discussion about accountability, culpability and legal recourse, at least for the families of British soldiers and civilians whose lives were lost in the war. The report is an indictment of the government of Tony Blair, but offers comfort to the British public that despite its failures, the British democratic system can produce a report on such failures. That, of course, is of no importance to the Iraqis or other people of the Middle East who have suffered the consequences of US and British hubris and “mistakes.”
The verdict of the Chilcot report is that the war itself was a mistake and the result of hasty and often shortsighted and ill-advised decisions on the part of the Blair government that skirted international legal sanction and undermined the independence of British foreign policy. While the thoroughness and detail provided by the long report might shed new light on British role in the war, its conclusions are not surprising. More troubling is the framing of the war as a mistake and its refusal to make a statement on the legality of the war. In so doing, the report fails to account for the deliberate and systematic manner in which the British and US governments had been building for a full military engagement with Iraq, including regime change, since the 1990-1991 Gulf war. Punishing sanctions, intermittent military operations, the imposition of no-fly zones and the open support of opposition groups within Iraq were all carried out under the guise of a weapons inspections regime and in the name of the restoration and maintenance of international security. The UN Security Council sanctioned all of these acts by invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, something it had done only once during the Cold War, to justify the view that Iraq represented a security threat to the international order. Britain and the US were unequal partners in this war by other means, working at steering Security Council resolutions to systematically overplay the threat of Iraq, well before the September 11 attacks and the attempts of Blair and Bush to hitch the wagon of terrorism to the star of non-proliferation. The question of the legality of the war is important to address, but how does one account for the international sanction provided by the Security Council and for the wide berth it allowed the US and Britain to argue that Iraq constituted a threat to international security well before 2001?
And where does this report leave the Iraqis? Certainly with no international tribunals that hold the leaders of the Iraq war accountable. I am struck by the statement made to the inquiry by Brig. Gen. Graham Burns, commander of the Seventh Armored Division responsible for Basra. Commenting on the lack of direction he received on how to deal with the post-invasion looting, he said that he decided that the “best way to stop looting was just to get to a point where there is nothing left to loot.” Indeed.
It is difficult to assess a 6,000-page report in a day. Even the executive summary is challenging to read. My initial reaction is “too little, too late.”
I would like to share the words of the London chapter of the Iraqi Transnational Collective, which sum up my main responses to the report:
The inquiry, officially launched on 30 July 2009, intended to examine the decision making process that led to the war and to identify whether relevant lessons had been learned. Although the Iraqi Transnational Collective-London Chapter opposes war, as did the one million British people that took to the streets in protest, we welcome the Report’s findings in relation to the reprehensible actions of then Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government. However, the Report only lends credence in the world of officialdom to what, in the inquiry of public opinion, has long since been established—that the decision to go to war was based on misleading evidence and wholly disingenuous arguments.
The ITC-London finds the seven-year wait unforgivable and unjustifiable. Twelve volumes and over 10 million pounds of public funds later, the findings reveal little that was not known before the war began. As expected, Blair has quickly tried to absolve himself by claiming that the post-conflict violence in Iraq was not a result of the war. Whilst the ITC-London does not deny the role other actors have and continue to play, it is our position, supported by the findings of the Report that the worst excesses of violence which followed the fall of Saddam’s regime in Iraq could have been mitigated. On release of the Report, Chilcot stated that the “the scale of the war effort in post-conflict Iraq never matched the challenge.” The Bush administration and their counterparts in the British government failed to formulate and implement an effective aftermath strategy which looked to secure more than country’s oil fields.
No doubt my response is very much influenced by the July 3 ISIS bombing in the Karrada district of Baghdad, which killed 292 people (and maybe more—the death toll continues to rise). These people were shopping on the eve of ‘Id al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I was concerned about my relatives and friends in Baghdad but they seem to be OK. Lots of other people are not. Now I worry about my cousin who is planning to fly to Baghdad this week, taking her young daughter with her. I worry about revenge attacks. I worry about more ISIS bombings. I worry about sectarianism and the complicity of the government, the widespread corruption and incompetence.
The release of the Chilcot report is not helping Iraqis to deal with the horrendous aftermath of the war. It was never intended to. I resent how the British media, politicians and much of the public focus on the 179 British soldiers who were sadly killed, but seem to forget or only mention as an afterthought the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives. There is hardly any mention of the large number of Iraqi civilians who were badly injured, who were internally displaced or fled the country.
Given my own expertise and long-term research into the gendered implications of the Baathist regime and sanctions, invasion and occupation, as well as sectarian conflict, I looked for gender-specific references. The liberation of women and increased equality had, after all, been part and parcel of the British government’s rhetoric pre- and post-invasion. At first glance, the report seems to be absolutely gender-blind. But maybe I need to dig deeper into the 6,000 pages.