Getting the Narrative of the Iraq War Right
MIN READJul 27, 2016 | 08:00 GMT
(JEFF J MITCHELL/AFP/Getty Images)
After nearly seven years of careful and meticulous study, the report of the panel chaired by Sir John Chilcot has finally appeared. Like its predecessors, the findings of a judicial inquiry led by Lord Hutton into the death of a prominent biological weapons expert and former U.N. inspector, and a review by Lord Butler of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Chilcot report is an after-action study of the political and bureaucratic acts preceding the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is, however, far more comprehensive and vastly more informed. The panel reviewed more than 150,000 documents, and its final 12-volume report runs to 2.6 million words. Like the work of the United States' 9/11 and Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction commissions, Chilcot is a historical assessment aimed at educating future decision-makers to avoid what are generally conceded to be tragic mistakes.
There are few tasks more important than that which Chilcot undertook, because if we do not get the Iraq narrative right, political life in Britain will be haunted by its aftermath, as the United States has been by Vietnam. That narrative will shape the assessment not only of the efficacy of the Iraq intervention but also, and more importantly, its legitimacy.
That legitimacy will be undermined if any of these claims by opponents of the intervention are found to be true: (1) that the means by which Parliament was persuaded to endorse the United Kingdom's participation in the coalition that invaded Iraq was based on deception — the familiar charges that "Tony Blair lied" and that the dossier setting forth the intelligence basis for intervention was "sexed up"; (2) that there was a secret deal between the British prime minister and the U.S. president committing the United Kingdom to join the coalition long before the specific findings of Iraqi transgressions and intentions had been finally made; and (3) that the intervention was unlawful under the applicable international law.
There are few tasks more important than that which Chilcot undertook, because if we do not get the Iraq narrative right, political life in Britain will be haunted by its aftermath, as the United States has been by Vietnam.
The panel pretty definitively rebutted the first two of these claims and neatly avoided the third, casting it as beyond the remit the government gave to Chilcot. Blair's opponents, most vehemently within his own party, have made the slogan that "Blair lied" so ubiquitous, so faithfully and passionately asserted, that it might come as a surprise to the British public that this claim is absurdly false. When the prime minister repeated the conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee that Saddam retained stocks of chemical and biological weapons he was known to have possessed at one time, Blair was saying only what all the leaders of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council genuinely and generally believed. If this were a matter of invading or twisting the evidence to make the case for intervention, how would one explain the fact that both Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin, who strongly opposed intervention, also took it as a given that Saddam retained these weapons? The Chilcot panel carefully reproduces a letter from Blair to George W. Bush that has been portrayed as memorializing a secret commitment to intervene. And so it might seem, if only the first sentence is read, but by quoting the entire letter the panel makes clear that this was not the case.
If you were confined to the press reports on the Chilcot panel, however, you would hardly draw these conclusions. A headline in The Telegraph read, "Chilcot report finds war was not justified," and The Times trumpeted, "Blair's Private War—Former PM crushed by Chilcot Secret Pledge to Back Bush in Iraq"; The Sun's top headline was "Weapon of Mass Deception, Chilcot; Damning Dossier," and the Daily Mail called Blair, "A Monster of Delusion." In fact, as Dan Jones put it in the Evening Standard,
"…the reaction to Chilcot has been an ironic reflection of the case [the panel] considered. It has for years been assumed that Blair decided upon war, half-read masses of complex, inconclusive partial intelligence, then went to war anyway. [Now] millions of people who have long believed Blair was a liar and a warmonger skimmed [the panel's] voluminous findings in half an hour and settled for the opinion they already held."
In a way, both Blair and Chilcot can be partly faulted for this erroneous if malicious reconstruction of the report's findings. When the report found that the invasion was undertaken "before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted," the panel assumed that disarmament was the objective. Disarmament was one of the conditions of the cease-fire agreement that halted the 1991 invasion of Iraq. Far more important, however, was the goal of preventing Saddam from acquiring a more massive arsenal once U.N. sanctions were lifted. To achieve this objective, there were no "peaceful options." The pungent finding that the invasion was pursued when it was "not a last resort" obscures this distinction, because waiting until Saddam had rearmed — as we know from North Korea — makes a mockery of using force only as a last resort. It is doubtless true that Blair should have emphasized this objective more forcefully and that he certainly should've done so when the press instead emphasized the imminence of the Iraqi threat. Indeed, the panel's conclusion that Saddam posed "no imminent threat" was seized upon as a decisive and damning criticism when in fact it was almost irrelevant. After his defeat in 1991, Saddam knew well not to take action that presented his neighbors with "imminent" threats until the sanctions had been lifted and he had rearmed.
Chilcot doesn't address the efficacy of the intervention: how an imaginative and highly successful invasion — an act polling has shown to be approved by most Iraqis — could become an ignominious and destructive occupation.
To an American, this is reminiscent of the account, so faithfully and unquestioningly repeated as to have become its own truth, that former President Lyndon B. Johnson lied when he sought the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress. In this respect, the Chilcot report may well be the Pentagon Papers of the current era. That would be costly, since indeed the historical narrative about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution has been so very destructive in the United States because the popular belief that the government relied on deception has been an influential element in undermining the legitimacy of democratic government in both countries. But it is not altogether fair to the very distinguished panel that produced the report to blame it for the distortions in the way the media has described its work.
Chilcot may well be remembered as having lanced the boil of angry public opinion. Parents of men who died in the conflict and who violently criticized Blair (one mother called him the world's worst terrorist) seem to have been mollified by the report, precisely because they haven't read it and have relied on press reports.
Chilcot of course doesn't address the efficacy of the intervention: how an imaginative and highly successful invasion — an act polling has shown to be approved by most Iraqis — could become an ignominious and destructive occupation. It may be that if the war had been won, we would not now be addressing the issues raised by Chilcot. And it may also be that the unasked question, "How is it that we still don't know how to win these wars at an acceptable cost?" is the most important one.