Why the Chilcot report is vital

No justice can undo what military action against the Iraqi people in 2003 has wrought. Tony Blair cannot shrug off his role in this.

July 08, 2016 01:21 am | Updated September 18, 2016 12:39 pm IST

CRUSHING VERDICT: “The Report leaves no ground for doubt about Mr. Blair’s culpability.” Picture shows demonstrators, some wearing Blair and Bush face masks, outside the QEII Centre in London, as they wait to hear the outcome of the Iraq Inquiry. — PHOTO: AFP

CRUSHING VERDICT: “The Report leaves no ground for doubt about Mr. Blair’s culpability.” Picture shows demonstrators, some wearing Blair and Bush face masks, outside the QEII Centre in London, as they wait to hear the outcome of the Iraq Inquiry. — PHOTO: AFP

Among the >many disclosures in the report of the Iraq Inquiry headed by Sir John Chilcot is a private memo from the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to the then President of the United States, George Bush. Written as early as July 2002, the letter starts with the words, “I will be with you, whatever.”

The >words capture the motivations and role of Mr. Blair in driving the whole sordid phase of Britain’s foreign policy during the years between September 2001, when the attack on the twin towers in New York by al-Qaeda took place, right up to 2007, when he stepped down as Prime Minister (although British troops were pulled out only in 2009).

Still unrepentant In his detailed reply to the Chilcot report, which catalogued the damning evidence of the process that led to the U.K.’s decision to “occupy a sovereign state for the first time since the Second World War” at a time when the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein “posed no imminent threat”, Mr. Blair was unrepentant.

In his two-hour press conference, he argued that he had acted in good faith based on intelligence that suggested that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — intelligence he admitted that “turned out to be wrong”.

Indeed, Mr. Blair made the point explicitly: “I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer.” Yes, there were some minor mistakes made in “planning and process”, he said, but he would take the same decision if presented with the evidence he had at the time.

The deaths, both of combatants and civilians, resulting from the Iraq invasion are staggering. Iraq Body Count puts the civilian casualties between 160,412 and 179,327, and combatant deaths at 251,000. According to an academic study published in 2014 by university researchers in the U.S., Canada and Iraq in cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, the toll from the war and war-related causes like insurgency, invasion and social breakdown is nearly half a million people.

“The people of Iraq have suffered greatly,” the report, which stands out for its understated but stinging language, observes.

The 2.6 million word, 12 volume report, with an over 100-page executive summary, took seven years to see the light of day after it was commissioned by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009.

An indicting recap Mr. Blair’s thinking in respect of how to deal with Saddam undergoes a radical shift between the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when he calls for a policy of containment, and July 2002, when his private memo to Mr. Bush declares that he will be “with you, whatever”. He goes on to lay out his thinking: “In removing him, do you want/need a coalition? The U.S. could do it alone, with U.K. support. The danger is, as ever with these things, unintended consequences.”

The memo, which was seen only by No. 10 officials was not even shown to the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, or Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon.

At his press conference, >Mr. Blair denied that this memo showed that he had taken a decision on invasion eight months before it was presented to Parliament. He argued that in the memo he “set out the conditions necessary that we should go down the UN path and avoid precipitate action”. The memo is one of a cache of such memos sent by Mr. Blair to Mr. Bush. They reveal a Prime Minister sharing strategy and policy with Mr. Bush, while keeping his Ministers and military commanders in the dark.

In his response to the report, Mr. Blair has taken the moral high ground, insisting that that he acted in “good faith” — that while he can be criticised for errors of judgment, he cannot be accused of lies and deceit. The report, however, leaves his defence in shreds. It leaves no gaps that he can slip through.

The Report leaves no ground for doubt about Mr. Blair’s culpability. It is clear that the U.K. chose to join the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 before all peaceful options for disarming Saddam had been exhausted, thus establishing that war at that time was not, as Mr. Blair claims, a last resort.

There was no imminent threat from the Iraqi leader and with a majority of the United Nations Security Council supporting UN inspections and monitoring, Mr. Blair’s judgment about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq “were presented with a certainty that was not justified”, and intelligence that had “not established beyond doubt” that Saddam was proceeding with the manufacture of chemical and biological weapons. In his presentation to the British Parliament just prior to the invasion, these were details that Mr. Blair hid.

The legal basis for military action was “far from satisfactory”, the report notes. In taking this action the U.K. “undermined the authority of the United Nations Security Council.”

The report is equally critical on military planning, establishing that three military brigades were not properly prepared, and the risks not “properly identified nor fully exposed” to Ministers.

A toll that continues to rise Finally, planning and preparations for the post-Saddam period were “wholly inadequate,” the report states. It drives the final nail in the coffin with its conclusion. The U.K. government “failed to achieve the stated objectives it had set itself in Iraq.” As a consequence of this, more than 200 British citizens died, and by July 2009, 150,000 Iraqis had died and more than one million were displaced, figures that continue to rise till date. These are facts that cannot be contested by Mr. Blair.

The Iraq Inquiry is not a court and was not set up to make a legal case against Mr. Blair and individuals in his government who took wrong decisions that led to such disastrous consequences. Mr. Blair has tried to brazen it out, and indeed feels so sure of his actions that he even claims he can look the nation and the families of the British soldiers who died “in the eye”. But the painful reality of life after an unjust war is an experience that Iraq’s people suffer every day. There is no justice that can undo what military action conducted on false premises against their country in 2003 has wrought.


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