At last Chilcot has spoken. The language is mild but the critique devastating. I do not agree that he has absolved Tony Blair of deceit. At my school we learned that “a lie is the intent to deceive”. The report’s findings include the fact that Blair gave his word to George Bush eight months before the war that he would be with him, whatever. War was not a last resort – diplomatic options were not exhausted. The legal advice wasn’t properly made or shared. And although Chilcot doesn’t say it, the implication is clear that on all these things Blair did not communicate honestly to cabinet, parliament or country.
On the aftermath, Chilcot finds that planning was inadequate. The report makes clear that Britain assumed the US would Chilcot’s findings make plain that the informality of the British constitution means that power can be concentrated in very few hands without due oversight, leading us to war on a dishonest prospectus, without adequate preparation. be responsible for preparing the plan; that post-conflict activity would be authorised by the UN security council; and that there would be a significant post-conflict role for the UN that would bring in international partners. On that basis the UK planned to reduce its military contribution within four months, and it expected not to have to make a substantial commitment to post-conflict administration.
Reading the report took me back to all the worry, confusion and uncertainty of that time. In the Department for International Development we worked with the international system – Red Cross, UN and NGOs – to prevent a humanitarian disaster. And we succeeded in this: people were provided with food; and water and electricity systems were patched up despite the mounting chaos.
On long-term reconstruction, there was confusion. Chilcot spells out that no department was given lead responsibility; there was no budget so DfID had no money beyond our contingency reserve, which was £60m for possible emergencies anywhere in the world; and in addition there had to be a UN security council resolution, otherwise our staff would be asked to commit war crimes. No permission is needed for humanitarian relief, but occupying powers cannot reorganise the institutions of a country without security council authorisation. All departments pressed Blair to push President Bush to agree that the UN should lead on reconstruction. When this didn’t happen, there was worry about whether a security council resolution could be obtained after the failure to agree a resolution to authorise war. Ultimately, the resolution was passed on 22 May.
The reality of course was that the US was in the lead, and Chilcot recognises the UK had little influence on the decision to make the Iraqi military and all members of the Ba’ath party redundant, including all professionals in the government system. This meant that Iraqi state institutions were stripped bare, security was lost, and the disorder that followed meant the improvement Iraqi people had hoped for became impossible. These conditions have led to continuing suffering, the birth of Isis, and the destabilisation of the wider Middle East. The report makes clear that MI5 said in advance that an invasion would inevitably lead to an increase in terrorism.
Some claim all went well except the preparation for afterwards. Chilcot does not uphold this view. The report quotes Blair as saying: “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 and a prime focus throughout was the military campaign itself.” The report finds that “the conclusion reached by Mr Blair after the invasion did not require the benefit of hindsight”.
The consequence of the whole dishonourable mess is the continuing suffering of the people of Iraq for which we have to bow our head in shame. In Cameron’s statement to the House of Commons yesterday, he quoted extensively from Chilcot’s conclusions, but then went on to suggest that all had been put right since he took over the government. This is a dangerous claim. What Chilcot’s findings make plain is that the informality of Britain’s constitution means that power can be concentrated in very few hands, with decisions not properly made or challenged, misleading accounts pumped out to parliament and country, and Britain can go to war – as it did in Suez in 1956 and again in Iraq in 2003 – on a dishonest prospectus and without adequate preparation.