The Chilcot Report into the Tony Blair’s government’s decision to involve Britain in the Bush administration’s war against Iraq is being oversold. An Inquiry report that needs 12 volumes and an executive summary reported to be 200 pages long to answer a question the answer to which is obvious cannot be other than an exercise in obfuscation.
The question of why Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 has been grossly over-analysed. There is no mystery about it or about why Blair took Britain to war. Nor is the fact Britain went to war against Iraq in 2003 important except in Britain. It is not even important in Iraq itself.
Blair is a grossly overrated politician. Far from being the political genius his followers claim, the truth about Blair is that he was a shallow and conceited politician with no great political insight or experience who as Prime Minister was completely out of his depth. Lazy and vain, he took no interest in the details of government, which bored him, and had no vision of the sort of country he wanted Britain to be, and no plan of how to bring that vision into effect. In this he was completely different from the three other great post-war British Prime Ministers – Attlee, Wilson and Thatcher – who had electoral mandates comparable to his, and who by combining vision with hard work changed Britain for better or for worse in fundamental ways that mark it still.
What Blair did have was an obsession with public relations, which he always confused with having a political and electoral strategy. What that amounted to in practice was always doing what the most powerful voices in the British media wanted. In Britain the dominant voices in the media have for a long time been neocon and Atlanticist, and that therefore was where Blair positioned himself.
Beyond that were three characteristics of Blair’s personality which over the time he was Prime Minister became increasingly dominant: his overweening vanity, his complete indifference to fact or detail and his preference at all times for “narrative”, and his very pronounced gambler’s streak.
When the question of invading Iraq was first posed to him – whenever or however it was done – it was axiomatic for such a personality that he would seize on it. The image of himself as the great democratic crusader acting alongside his US ally to overthrow the evil tyrant – in this case Saddam Hussein – would for Blair have been irresistible, and the knowledge that the British media would overwhelmingly support him doing it meant that there was never any chance he would not do it. The fact many people in Britain and in his own party – the Labour party – opposed him doing it, thereby giving him the perfect opportunity to strike a heroic pose in a battle with his party he knew he would win, would have strengthened his determination even more.
Since Blair could not of course justify going to war on such a basis he hit on the readily available subject of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and managed to persuade George W. Bush – who wanted to attack Iraq for quite different reasons – to base the case for war upon it. That WMD was simply a rationalisation to justify a decision to go to war that had already been made for entirely different reasons is no longer really disputed by anyone, and Blair’s own convoluted justifications of his decision essentially admit as much.
As to the questions which ever since have vexed so many people – about what Blair really believed about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (“WMD”) and whether he consciously lied about them, and why he never insisted on a plan to reconstruct Iraq after it had been conquered (or “liberated”) – it is highly unlikely Blair ever gave any of these issues much thought.
On WMD he almost certainly did think Saddam Hussein had such weapons without concerning himself about the evidence simply because in his mind having such weapons and lying about them is what evil tyrants like Saddam Hussein do. Almost certainly he expected that once Iraq was conquered proof of the existence of these weapons would be quickly found, leaving him vindicated and his critics discredited.
As for the absence of a plan to reconstruct Iraq, at no time whilst he was Prime Minister did Blair ever have a plan for anything. Since the possibility the US might fail in Iraq almost certainly never crossed his mind the idea such a plan requiring his personal attention might be needed almost certainly never so much as occurred to him.
As it happens there were plenty of reasons in 2002 and 2003 to question whether a war based on Saddam Hussein’s possession of WMD made sense. Not only was the evidence for the existence of Saddam Hussein’s WMD unconvincing to say the least but in light of the failure of these weapons to protect Saddam Hussein’s regime or deter the US and Western attack during the Gulf War of 1991 there was no remotely credible reason why Saddam Hussein would want to keep them. On the contrary given that Saddam Hussein’s overriding priority after the Gulf War was to get the sanctions imposed on Iraq lifted, his interests were overwhelmingly to get rid of them as soon as possible. As we now know that is precisely what he did.
As for the claim Saddam Hussein pretended for some incomprehensible reason to possess weapons of mass destruction he did not have, that is simply a myth fabricated by the war’s advocates and Blair’s apologists once it became clear after the war that the WMD did not exist. On the contrary Saddam Hussein always categorically denied having them whilst he was in power, and that was always the public position of the Iraqi government.
It is incidentally also a myth that every single intelligence agency operating in Iraq was reporting that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were still in possession of such weapons. The intelligence agency that was far and away the best informed about the situation in Iraq – because it was able to operate in Iraq in the open on the ground – Russia’s SVR – is known to have reported that Saddam Hussein no longer had such weapons, and it is known this information was passed on by the Russians to Western governments.
A properly conducted intelligence assessment and analysis of the situation concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, bringing together not just intelligence officials but scholars, diplomats, military officials, scientists and other analysts, of the sort at which the British once excelled, would have quickly come to these obvious conclusions. Such an intelligence assessment and analysis might also have questioned the prospects for a quick and easy military victory. It would surely have reported the well-nigh insuperable problems of successfully administering a country like Iraq once it had been conquered. It would also surely have reminded Blair that because of Britain’s colonial history in the region it was settled British policy never to send troops to the Middle East without a UN mandate.
Blair never sought such expert advice because it was not in his nature to. Three years before he had gambled on a war against Yugoslavia. Though that had almost ended in disaster in the end – because of the weakness of the Yugoslav political leadership – the gamble had come off. As is always the case with a gambler, Blair’s narrow escape in Yugoslavia seems to have emboldened him more. On WMD and the conduct of the war in Iraq he trusted to his luck, which up to that point had never let him down.
The real questions about Britain’s role in the invasion of Iraq are not about Blair. They are about how an individual like Blair was able to land Britain in a such war whilst coming up against no institutional opposition to speak of. In recent British history that is unprecedented. The whole British constitutional structure – with its cabinet, politically independent civil service and parliament – is supposed to be designed to prevent a Prime Minister running amok in that way. Instead not only did Blair have the full support of almost his entire cabinet and of most of the members of the British parliament, but Britain’s “deep-state” – its diplomatic corps, its intelligence services, its civil service and its military – who might once have acted to restrain him, instead either actively cooperated with him or were swept along by him (the only officials in the British bureaucracy to speak out against the war were the Foreign Ministry’s lawyers who called it an act of aggression).
How did it happen? Most explanations in Britain rely on treating Blair as some sort of political wizard able through charm and guile to seduce the entire British political class and the British people to do his bidding against their own better judgement.
The truth is that Blair’s reputation was already in decline by the eve of the war in 2002 and early 2003. It is true that it stood higher with the British political class than it did with the British people. However the extent of his influence and support at this time is overstated.
Blair had briefly been popular after his landslide victory in 1997. However by 2002 the British electorate in its usual tough-minded and cynical way had long since seen through him. His popularity by 2002 was a thing of the past. Between the general elections of 1997 and 2001 the Labour vote fell from 13.5 million votes to 10.7 million votes. In 2005 – the last election in which Blair led Labour – the Labour vote fell further to 9.5 million votes, only slightly more than the 9.3 million votes Labour won in the supposedly disastrous general election of 2015.
In 2003 Blair was still winning elections not because he was popular but because the Conservatives at that time were even more unpopular than he was. Far from being the commanding figure he is sometimes made out to be, the prevailing view of him in 2003 was one of cynicism. Apart from a loyal claque of supporters inside the cabinet and the parliamentary Labour party it is doubtful that by 2003 Blair was persuading anybody.
The dismal truth – and one which the Chilcot report is not going to say – is that the reason the British political class and the British state rallied in 2003 to Blair’s call to go to war – in violation of all their traditional time-honoured procedures and principles – is because of the extent to which Atlanticist neocon thinking had by 2003 already become part of their essential DNA. The idea of disobeying a US President’s call to arms had by then become unthinkable for huge numbers of British officials, politicians, journalists, intelligence officers and soldiers – just as it was of course for Blair himself. Far from having to struggle to get these people to come onside and support the war, Blair on the contrary was simply going with the flow.
Since 2003, despite the debacle in Iraq, all the indications are that if anything the situation has got worse. Whereas in 2003 a British Prime Minister who had opposed the war would have found some support within the British bureaucracy and political class, today – as the plight of Labour’s current leader Jeremy Corbyn shows – political leaders who set themselves against neocon thinking quickly become isolated and exposed to attack. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s successful though opportunist opposition to the attack on Syria in 2013 undoubtedly consolidated hostility to him within the political class and was one of the reasons for the relentless media attacks on him which destroyed his reputation in the run up to the election of 2015.
Since Chilcot is not going to say anything about any of this – whether about Blair or about the rampant neocon Atlanticism within the British elite which is the true cause of Britain going to war – it is useless looking to his report for a genuine explanation of why Britain went to war. At best gaps in some parts of the story might be filled though the extent to which even that will happen is doubtful.
Chilcot is anyway a distraction. Blair’s and Britain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq – which is the only subject Chilcot is going to report about – is a sideshow. Even if Britain had held aloof from the war – something which would have required a different sort of Prime Minister than Blair – Iraq would still have been invaded and Saddam Hussein would still have been overthrown. The Bush administration would not have been swayed from the war simply because the British were not involved. The Iraqi state would still have collapsed, there would still have been an anti American insurgency, the torture and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib would still have happened, a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia would still have taken place in Baghdad and elsewhere, and Daesh/the Islamic State would still have emerged in Iraq’s western regions.
The decision to go to war was ultimately made not in London but in Washington, and it was the US military not the British military which defeated Saddam Hussein’s army and conquered Baghdad, causing all the consequences which have followed.
Chilcot is not going to say anything about any of this because his Inquiry’s remit is to look purely at Britain. He has no power or remit to hold US politicians and officials to account. However it is to Washington not London – to people like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their aides, not Blair – that one must look for the true answers to why the war happened. When those answers are eventually provided – which one day they will be – what is already apparent will become obvious: what Chilcot tells is of little value and his whole Inquiry is ultimately an irrelevance.