There was a strong case for the removal of Saddam Hussein – but the case against was stronger
Sir John Chilcot’s exhaustive, overdue, expensive and polite verdict on Britain’s unjustified invasion of Iraq was emphatically clear on several points: there was no imminent threat; the judgements made about intelligence were appallingly amateur; the post-war planning was terrible; and the US-led invasion was not a last resort, because a strategy of containment had some way still to run.
But we knew all that.
Indeed, The Independent has been saying it for more than a decade. For official endorsement of the completely obvious, the Chilcot report is on balance a valuable exercise, though whether it’s value for money at £10m is doubtful. On two questions, however, the report was inconclusive: the questions of deceit and legality. Were we led to war on a lie? Was the invasion illegal? Alas, Sir John would not say.
The impression that he gave on both fronts was, however, distinct. Tony Blair’s messianic personality clouded his judgement, Sir John claimed, and caused him to arrive at conclusions that were not justified by the evidence. In a brutal section, he wrote: “When the potential for military action arises, the government should not commit to a firm political objective before it is clear it can be achieved. Regular reassessment is essential.” The two implications – that Mr Blair started from the premise of wanting to make the facts fit, and then failed to update his position in accordance with the evidence, is not made explicit in the report. More’s the pity, Sir John.
Similarly, the report does not say the war was illegal, but does conclude that the handling of the legal basis for the invasion was very far from satisfactory. The implication is that it was very poorly handled or, perhaps, shoddy. But that too is not made explicit. More’s the pity, Sir John.
On the wider questions of the intellectual and moral basis for the invasion, the execution of the military campaign, and the strategic approach of the post-war period, Sir John couldn’t be more clear. Every single aspect of it was a failure. This is a view that was expounded by The Independent then, and has been repeated by us since. While most of Britain’s media cravenly supported the government position, indulging in the sort of propaganda of which self-respecting journalists should be ashamed, our position, informed as it was by the deep local knowledge of our correspondents, was one of humane scepticism.
It was always clear that the removal of Saddam Hussein would precipitate a political and military vacuum that was bound to be filled with terrorists. Indeed, in his pained press conference yesterday, Mr Blair once again committed the intellectual error of arguing that the case for war was in effect the case against Saddam. This view was naïve and wrong in 2002-03, and hasn’t aged well either. By taking out a brutal dictator, it was inevitable that Iraq would become an ungovernable morass, that sectarian hatreds would be unleashed, that a nuclear-armed neighbour called Iran would pounce, and that a whole generation of militarily trained but under-employed young men would lose their purpose in life and have to find it elsewhere. Which they did, in a movement called Isis.
This is what must sit on the conscience of all those who backed the war. Not only the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children – a sickening outcome. Not only the rapid disintegration of a society and country that had been brutally oppressed but soon plunged into anarchy. But also the sudden and emphatic empowering of the terrorists who are now the greatest threat to our security in the West. As we wrote in an editorial late in 2002, terrorists, not rogue states, are our most dangerous enemy. The catastrophic invasion of Iraq has made us less, not more, safe. As many of us said it would.
In its vast scope, the implications of the Chilcot report reach far beyond his predecessors as investigators into the Iraq horrors. Lord Butler’s review made clear that the intelligence that was the basis of the government’s case was “seriously flawed”. The Hutton Inquiry, in focusing on the sad death of Dr David Kelly, ended up in a whitewash of government action. The conclusions distilled in the Chilcot report’s 2.6 million words amount, however, to something far more profound: namely, the most blatant and unanswerable demolition of the judgement of a UK Prime Minister ever written.
As we have argued consistently for many years now, there was a strong case for the removal of Saddam. It’s just the case against the removal of Saddam was stronger. Ultimately, the monumental errors or judgement and morality that led Britain to become embroiled in the most foolish war of modern times should be seen not through the prism of their impact on British politics, or the reputation of Tony Blair, but the poor benighted Iraqi people. Their families and cities were reduced to dust and blood-strewn streets in the name of a millennial vision for remaking the Middle East, launched on erroneous evidence with woeful planning by people profoundly ignorant of history. Sir John Chilcot said as much yesterday, but cloaked his conclusion in a degree of euphemism that need not burden us.
In short, the slaughter of Iraqi innocents in which Britain colluded was the biggest and most consequential blunder in recent global history, and can never be forgiven. Nothing Sir John Chilcot said changes that.