Reflections on the war in Iraq and the Chilcot report

The report of Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into Britain’s war in Iraq was published today. You can read the 145-page long executive summary here. For those of you who don’t have the time to read the whole thing (let alone the complete report), my summary of the summary is below, along with my analysis of it.

  1. Why Britain Went to War in 2003

Chilcot suggests that the main reason Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 was that Prime Minister Tony Blair decided that the United Kingdom should stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the United States come what may. Indeed, on 28 July 2002 Blair wrote a note to US President George Bush saying, ‘I will be with you, whatever.’

Blair preferred that the USA and UK not act unilaterally. Instead, he wanted them to gather international support for action against Iraq through the United Nations. Blair hoped that by standing resolutely alongside the Americans he might ‘influence’ them to go down the UN path. It also seems that he may have hoped that he could avoid war by persuading the UN to take a very firm stance against Iraq. The logic was that Saddam Hussein might back down if faced with the united opposition of the entire rest of the world. By threatening invasion, the UK could thereby prevent a war which was otherwise inevitable (given American preferences). The problem with this paradoxical logic was that a) Saddam didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and so couldn’t ‘back down’, and b) Blair couldn’t persuade the rest of the world to support him in the UN. But once it became clear that this support was lacking, Blair had committed himself to supporting the Americans, and so had no option but to follow through with his threats, and to wage war.

Analysis: This story reveals the folly of the often repeated mantra that showing strength and resolution is the best way of preserving peace. Unfortunately, all too often such displays of resolution instead produce war. The story also provides further evidence of the folly of the idea that by standing alongside the Americans, you can somehow gain some useful ‘influence’ over them, and thereby promote your own country’s national interests, whereas if you fail to support America you will damage those interests. As Chilcot points out

Had the UK stood by its differing position on Iraq – which was not an opposed position, but one in which the UK had identified conditions seen as vital by the UK Government – the Inquiry does not consider that this would have led to a fundamental or lasting change in the UK’s relationship with the US.

The alliances which Western nations forged in the aftermath of the Second World War have lasted so long that many people have lost sight of the fact that alliances are meant to serve a purpose not be an end in themselves. This is something worth bearing in mind in the context of current international tensions, including those between Russia and NATO.

  1. How the British Government Justified the War

The British government justified the invasion of Iraq by claiming that Iraqi WMD posed a serious threat to national security. Chilcot criticises the British intelligence services for failing to seriously consider the possibility that Iraq did not after all have any WMD. At the same, he makes it clear that Blair made the intelligence on Iraqi WMD appear far more categorical than it actually was. In his foreword to the infamous ‘dossier’ on WMD published by the British government in September 2002, Blair said firmly, ‘intelligence has established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.’ In fact, Chilcot says, ‘The assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons. … Nor had the assessed intelligence established beyond doubt that efforts to develop nuclear weapons continued.’

Furthermore, in the months after the dossier, Blair received information that contradicted his statements. For instance, in February 2003, the chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix stated that, ‘perhaps there was not much WMD in Iraq after all.’ But Blair did not change his assessments.

Blair also asserted a link between Iraq, WMD, and terrorism, even though his own intelligence agencies denied that such a link existed. In a speech to parliament in March 2003, Mr Blair said: ‘The real problem is that … people dispute Iraq is a threat, dispute the link between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and dispute in other words, the whole basis of our assertion that the two together constitute a fundamental assault on our way of life.’ The obvious implication was that Iraq might give WMD to terrorists and so threaten the UK. Yet Chilcot shows that the Joint Intelligence Committee assessed that there were no connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda and that there was ‘no credible evidence of covert transfers of WMD-related technology and expertise to terrorist groups.’

Analysis: There is plenty of blame to share around on this issue. Once they had made up their minds about Iraqi WMD, the intelligence agencies failed to consider alternative analyses even when evidence began to accumulate that their initial assessment was wrong. Blair then exaggerated what they said in order to make his case to the British public. That said, his exaggerations were clear at the time. As I pointed out in an article in December 2002, anybody who read the WMD dossier carefully could see that it didn’t actually say what Blair said it said. The British media are culpable for failing to point this obvious fact out and for allowing Blair’s deceptions to go unchallenged.

  1. The Legality of the War

Chilcot concludes that, ‘The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory.’ On 14 January 2003, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, gave Blair draft legal advice saying that UN Resolution 1441 would not by itself authorise the use of military force. According to Chilcot, when Goldsmith finally produced formal legal advice on 7 March 2003:

While Lord Goldsmith remained ‘of the opinion that the safest legal course would be to secure a second resolution’, he concluded (paragraph 28) that ‘a reasonable case can be made that resolution 1441 was capable of reviving the authorisation in resolution 678 without a further resolution’. Lord Goldsmith wrote that a reasonable case did not mean that, if the matter ever came to court, he would be confident that the court would agree with this view. He judged a court might well conclude that OPs 4 and 12 required a further Security Council decision in order to revive the authorisation in resolution 678. Lord Goldsmith warned Mr Blair (paragraph 29): ‘… the argument that resolution 1441 alone has revived the authorisation to use force in resolution 678 will only be sustainable if there are strong factual grounds for concluding that Iraq failed to take the final opportunity. In other words, we would need to be able to demonstrate hard evidence of non‑compliance and non‑co-operation … the views of UNMOVIC and the IAEA will be highly significant in this respect.’

Despite this, Blair decided entirely by himself, without any references to the views of UNMOVIC and the IAEA, that Iraq was in breach of resolution 1441 and that the war would, therefore, be legal. According to Chilcot, ‘Mr Blair neither requested nor received considered advice addressing the evidence on which he expressed his “unequivocal view” that Iraq was “in further material breach of its obligations”.’

In any case, Goldsmith’s advice did not convince the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Boyce, or the Treasury Solicitor, Ms Juliet Wheldon, who demanded a more clear-cut answer about the legality of the proposed war. In response to their demand, Goldsmith changed his advice, and on 13 March he declared that ‘on balance, the “better view” was that the conditions for the operation of the revival argument were met in this case, meaning that there was a lawful basis for the use of force without a further resolution beyond resolution 1441.’


Chilcot doesn’t make a judgement about the legality or illegality of the war, but the picture he paints doesn’t make either Blair or Goldsmith look very good. The former appears to have prejudged the issue, while an argument could be made that the latter seems to have altered his advice to fit political convenience. Cabinet ministers also failed to discharge their duties properly. As Chilcot points out, none of them bothered to ask Goldsmith why he had changed his opinion so suddenly. If Britain had had more public servants willing to ask questions, as Boyce and Wheldon did, the war might have been avoided. Blaming Blair for everything isn’t a satisfactory explanation for how Britain got into this mess. This was a collective failure.

  1. Post-War Planning

Chilcot makes it plain that before the invasion the British government was well aware that the Americans did not have a proper plan for the post-war occupation of Iraq. According to the report:

Between early 2002 and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Mr Blair received warnings about: • the significance of the post‑conflict phase as the ‘strategically decisive’ phase of the engagement in Iraq … and the risk that a badly handled aftermath would make intervention a ‘net failure’ … • the likelihood of internal conflict in Iraq … • the potential scale of the political, social, economic and security challenge … • the absence of credible US plans for the immediate post‑conflict period and the subsequent reconstruction of Iraq

But, Chilcot says, ‘Despite being aware of the shortcomings of the US plan … at no stage did the UK Government formally consider other policy options, including the possibility of making participation in military action conditional on a satisfactory plan for the post‑conflict period, or how to mitigate the known risk that the UK could find itself drawn into a “huge commitment of UK resources” for which no contingency preparations had been made.’


This pretty much speaks for itself. What I think it shows is one of the dangers of doing things primarily order to please allies. The objective (pleasing allies) is fulfilled just by participating in the action (in this case war), regardless of whether the action succeeds. This removes any incentive for thinking about consequences, because the consequences aren’t relevant to the objective.

  1. The Impact on Terrorism

The invasion of Iraq was a product of the events of 11 September 2001, when Al Qaeda terrorists struck New York City and Washington, DC. It was the fear produced by those events, and the possibility that they might be repeated (possibly with the use of WMD), which allowed the American and British governments to justify the invasion. Yet when Chilcot asked the former head of MI5 Baroness Manningham-Buller whether the war in Iraq had increased the threat from Islamic terrorism, she replied, ‘I think we can produce evidence because of the numerical evidence of the number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and the correlation of that to Iraq and statements of people as to why they were involved … So I think the answer to your … question: yes.’


Manningham-Buller’s reply should hardly come as a surprise. Before the war, many commentators pointed out that it would probably make Britain less safe. Indeed, Chilcot points out that the British intelligence community warned Prime Minister Blair about this. For instance, a Joint Intelligence Committee report of February 2003 stated that, ‘Al Qaida 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, reflecting intensified anti‑US/anti‑Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West.’ Once again, however, Blair chose to ignore the warnings. Having made up his mind, it appears that nothing would persuade him to change it.

In a statement to the Inquiry, Blair said, ‘I was aware of the JIC Assessment of 10 February that the Al Qaida threat to the UK would increase. But I took the view then and take the same view now that to have backed down because of the threat of terrorism would be completely wrong.’

This sort of argument – ‘We can’t let terrorists dictate our actions’ – is very common, but not very good. The stated purpose of the war in Iraq was to make Britain safer. If instead it was likely to make the country less safe because it would increase the threat of terrorism, then invading Iraq was contrary to the intended purpose. Strategy is about matching means to ends. Unfortunately, due to an obsession with ‘not giving into terrorism’ and the like, politicians all too often lose sight of their ends and so act in a counterproductive way. The invasion of Iraq is a prime example.


5 thoughts on “Reflections on the war in Iraq and the Chilcot report”

  1. On the question of why the west rushed to judgment, I am of the opinion that the United States and Britain had already decided between them to pound Iraq into submission, and would not be dissuaded by reason. Was there reason? There certainly was, and it came from France.

    ” No one today can claim that the path of war will be shorter than the path of inspections. No one can claim that it would lead to a safer, more just, more stable world, for war is always the sanction of failure. Would this be our sole recourse in the face of the many challenges at this time?

    So let us give the United Nations inspectors the time they need for their mission to succeed, but also let us all be vigilant and ask Mr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei to report regularly to the council.

    France, for its part, would propose another meeting on 14 March at the ministerial level to assess the situation. We would then be able to judge the progress made and what remains to be done.

    Given this context, the use of force is not justified at this time. There is an alternative to war: Disarming Iraq via inspections. Moreover, premature recourse to the military option would be fraught with risks. The authority of our action is based today on the unity of the international community. Premature military intervention will bring this unity into question, and that would detract from its legitimacy and in the long run, its effectiveness. Such intervention could have incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region. It would compound the sense of injustice, increase tension and risk paving the way to other conflicts. ”

    Dominique de Villepin rocked the house, but as Valdy says in “Play Me a Rock & Roll Song”, “I could tell by the vibe, they wouldn’t be bribed – they weren’t in the mood to listen”. Nobody was in the mood to listen to sense, and the cards fell one by one in pretty much exactly the way France forecast they would.


  2. Sorry for the late comment, but I think it was very much simpler than what is proposed, namely that after the Twin Towers in NY were taken down by terrorists the US and it’s Robin (UK) immediately started thinking of how to leverage the massive outrage over these attacks to the US & allies strategic advantage.

    Bombing Afghanistan was a no-brainer coz the Taliban were harboring Al-Queda/Bin Laden. That was easy so a ground invasion became logical. That looked easy too so what of the other ‘problems’ that remained, i.e. Saddam, which Bush the Elder specifically stopped an advance on Baghdad in 1990 because despite the easy early pickings, he knew from dreadful experience that all bets are off once it comes to urban combat, so a limited but very successful operation was clearly the way to go.

    Bush and Blair thought they could clear up easily and did their best to leverage world sympathy to finish the job. After all, they managed it in 1999 in Kosovo but convenient forgot how ‘a few days of bombing’ turned in to 78 days of bombing, devastating Serbia and bringing NATO to the precipice of breakup as no-one wanted to commit ground troops to enforce their ‘peace’. NATO, Blair and others were saved at the last moment by that drunken fool Yelstin who pulled the plug after, one could reasonably conclude, unspecified threats.

    But there you have it, a win still counts however you achieve it. Why look back at the warning signs when you are on a roll? Itty bitty Serbia should have been a cakewalk, but NATO still did not want to commit ground forces despite an invasion being eminently possible through Hungary and over the flat plains of northern Serbia and all the way to Belgrade. Going from the south would have been folly, but this is actually what they threatened, the far more difficult route! Anyway, the point is that the omens had already occurred and they were promptly forgotten the day after Serbia capitulated.


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