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War guilt, Blair and the Chilcot Inquiry

While the Chilcot Report does not accuse Tony Blair of war guilt for Iraq, his responsibility for the war and its consequences is in question. In this blog post, Dr James Ellison, of QMUL's School of History and the Mile End Institute, reflects on the historical significance of the Iraq Inquiry and whether Blair should be blamed.

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The Iraq Inquiry was not a court of law but with the launch of its long-awaited report it felt like one. Just after 11.00am on Wednesday 6 July 2016, Sir John Chilcot made his introductory statement. Somewhat like a judge at the end of a case, he quietly summed up seven years of evidence and hearings and listed his inquiry’s damning verdicts. Only one of the accused presented himself. With haunted eyes, gaunt cheeks and a cracked voice, Tony Blair made his defence. It had the air of a public hanging about it.

As prime minister, Blair was of course ultimately responsible for British policy in Iraq and while it is true that Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian regime had to be dealt with and that Iraq now has an elected government, the costs and consequences of the Iraq war were severe.

The Chilcot Report has met the gravity of what happened with rulings on the process of government under Blair. Yet the Report explains at great length that the failures were not of one man alone. Blair may have led, but he was not served well by diplomatic, intelligence, military or political advisors. Many individuals should ask for whom the bell tolls.

Chilcot without precedent

Blair’s critics were no doubt pleased to see him face official censure and the aggrieved accusations of guilt from the families of the fallen service personnel for their injuries and deaths. There was, however, something demeaning, not just for Blair, about the sight of a former prime minister responding to such exacting analysis of his government’s policy in public, alone. That in part is because there is no historical precedent for the Chilcot Inquiry.

While there have been many inquiries on matters of public controversy, including two on Iraq, the Chilcot Report is something different. It presents an official first verdict of history written with reference to sizeable witness testimony and early access to much government documentation. The authors are also eminent and their authority is unquestionable. No living prime minister has had to face a public ruling of this stature. You might say that no other prime minister caused a catastrophe on the scale of the Iraq war and its aftermath. You may be right. In the way that Vietnam was called a quagmire for the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, Iraq has become quicksand for the UK and the US since 2003, but with far greater historical consequences.

Iraq also risked being quicksand for the Chilcot Inquiry as its work extended six years longer than Gordon Brown’s initial estimate of one year. Delays brought opprobrium and much rested on the Inquiry’s Report not being a whitewash. Some of us never thought it would be, because the evidence pointed to anything but, and so it proved in the harshness of its findings, becalming its gainsayers.

Chilcot’s significance

While it will take time to provide a full review of the Chilcot Report’s 2.6 million words, it is possible to offer preliminary estimations of its significance. In some respects, the Report is not news. Its headlines are not entirely revelatory as they echo, with greater resonance and reach, those of earlier inquiries. In two areas in particular – the quality, collection and assessment of intelligence on WMD by the intelligence agencies, and the certainty with which material was presented to the public – the Report corroborates and extends the judgements of Lord Butler’s 2004 Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction. That is not a surprise because Sir John Chilcot was a member of Lord Butler’s committee.

In other respects, the Iraq Inquiry Report goes further than any previous investigation. It has also questioned the case for war more forcefully, described Whitehall weakness more completely and implied that policy decisions were taken without ‘the utmost rigour’ more convincingly than anything else in the public domain.

Chilcot and his colleagues have attributed more weight to ‘key choices’ made by Blair’s government in leading Britain to war than other official accounts. They have ‘not expressed a view on whether the military action was legal’ but they have judged that ‘the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory’, and said that the UK undermined the authority of the United Nations Security Council.

On estimates of risk, the Report rejects Blair’s claim to the Inquiry that ‘the difficulties encountered in Iraq after the invasion could not have been known in advance’. On the contrary, Chilcot and his colleagues say, ‘We do not agree that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and Al Qaida activity in Iraq, were each explicitly identified before the invasion.’

Related to this point, the Report’s condemnation of the failures in planning and preparation is of a different order than other accounts, as are the criticisms of the political-military decisions and strategies after Saddam Hussein’s regime had been toppled.

Chilcot Report – definitive?

The Iraq Inquiry Report has already been called definitive. It is without doubt the work of distinguished civil servants and renowned historians and the quality of its research is akin to the best kinds of diplomatic and political histories written by professional historians about British foreign and defence policies.

To be sure, the Report’s size, scope, intent, and potential importance for governance and policy far exceed anything written by historians. Even so, perhaps a better way to describe it is comprehensive rather than definitive. Rarely, if ever, is one account definitive. Also, the Iraq Inquiry has not raised all questions nor sought historical context or comparison, and it has shied away from making some judgements, such as about legality. It has covered so many issues and used an enormous amount of primary source material but it is not clear that it has had complete access, or been able to use all sources.

On the Inquiry’s website, there is a mass of material that can be searched – and Chilcot has done an enormous and lasting service to academic research and public scrutiny – but it would be interesting to know how much, and what, remains.

There must be more of the prime minister’s communications with President Bush in the archives, including those on broader foreign policy issues other than Iraq, and the same of other leading British ministers and officials with their American opposite numbers. Then there is their correspondence with other foreign governments and international institutions. The Report makes use of some Cabinet minutes but there is a fuller run of minutes and memoranda that we presume will be available for analysis in 2023 or thereafter. The same is true for ad hoc and permanent Cabinet committees. Also, historians of British government will suspect that there is a greater range of documentation from Whitehall departments to see, including material on contributing events and policies before 2001.

Beyond the British sources, there is of course the documentation of other states and organisations. There are many examples that could be mentioned here but perhaps the most important are Bush’s communications with Blair. We see none of them. It would be highly interesting to know what Bush wrote in response to Blair and how that configured the British government’s expectations and policy. Until that material has been analysed, Britain’s story is without its context.

Chilcot, controversy and comparison

Much anger now burns about how things went wrong under Blair, how he and his closest advisors departed from the checks and balances of government, and how Whitehall failed in some areas of its purportedly Rolls Royce activity. Historians of modern British government and foreign policy, or of the same of any similar nation, would say that we should not presume 2001-09 to be without some kind of comparison.

Blair has been criticised for his presidential style, but other prime ministers have been more primus than pares, even if his sofa is widely thought not to have added to the furniture of governance. Cabinet was probably more undermined than in previous governments, but there is a history to that phenomenon. Foreign and defence policy making clearly broke down yet other moments of great international risk for the UK have seen controversy. There has been individual and collective failure in the past. We might consider Edward Grey and the crises of 1914, Neville Chamberlain and appeasement in 1938-9 and Anthony Eden and Suez in 1956. We might also consider far less high profile moments in British foreign policy such as the many dark events in Britain’s imperial past and during the end of Empire.

A critic would say that there is no need to consider such historical comparisons. What matters is that Blair and those serving him should have known better. After all, the forward movement of history is progress. A historian would not be so sure.

Beyond Chilcot

The Iraq Inquiry was appointed to explain UK policy towards Iraq from 2001 to 2009, what happened to it, and what lessons ought to be learned for future governments. It was never its remit to debate the motives for UK policy, nor consider the historical significance of the UK’s part in the Iraq war and its aftermath. Chilcot and his Inquiry have thus been measured in their judgements.

Even so, in concluding his introductory statement on 6 July 2016, Chilcot made a policy point with political overtones. He said that ‘There are many lessons set out in the Report. Some are about the management of relations with allies, especially the US. Mr Blair overestimated his ability to influence US decisions on Iraq. The UK’s relationship with the US has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interests or judgements differ.’

In his response later in the day, Blair explained why he associated the UK so consistently with the US from 2001 onwards. It was his personal belief, post-9/11, that there was a new, pressing threat which had to be dealt with, and that the Americans were going to deal with it no matter what, and for reasons of alliance, influence and return, the British should support them. Blair has also made much of his attempt to multilateralize the unilateral Bush administration.

The difference between Chilcot’s warning about a British government giving unconditional support to the United States and a British prime minister overestimating his influence, and Blair’s defence of both, is among the most important issues raised by the Iraq Inquiry Report for Britain now.

Chilcot and intervention

What Chilcot is asking us to consider is the overriding question left open by the Blair era, Iraq and his Inquiry’s Report: should Britain intervene internationally and, if so, how, with whom and for what? The UK’s involvement in Iraq has already had its limiting effect. Many see the 2013 Parliamentary vote against intervention in Syria as an error.

David Cameron has said that many of the lessons set out in the Chilcot Report have already been learned. By all accounts, the intelligence agencies implemented some after the Butler Review. Yet those seem mostly about process. The question of principle remains.

Blair’s answer to the question of intervention was always clear. He stated it in his 1999 Chicago speech calling for a new Doctrine of International Community. He also implemented it in the prominent role he took over Kosovo. Pre-9/11, in foreign policy as in domestic policy, self-belief in his statesmanship and his ability to be the reconciler of opposites were fundamental, and were case-hardened by early successes. Others have spoken of his Manichean view of the world. After 9/11, he found a cause far greater than any other. What the evidence of the Iraq Inquiry and its Report suggest, matched by the majority of existing scholarship, is that Blair believed that he personally could influence individuals, not least the US president, and events to the good, as he saw it, in a difficult and dangerous international environment.

Despite the tragedies of the Iraq war, Blair was right to have raised the question of how the West should approach international affairs and threats to stability after the end of the Cold War. Few other leaders had done so or offered a version of the new world order which George H. W. Bush had called for in 1991 but which had yet to be put in place. Blair was also right to consider in his 1999 Chicago speech what the UN is for, what it should do and how the international community should act and intervene.

British governments, parliaments and people need to think about the same questions now, especially after the European Union referendum which implies historic change in the UK’s economic strength and place in the world. That vote coincides with the greatest period of international flux and instability since 1991 and perhaps before. The UK cannot expect to be unaffected by world events.

The Iraq Inquiry Report offers machinery of government and policy recommendations for future British governments who are presented with diplomatic, political and military problems. What do historical comparisons suggest? In terms of the history of Western intervention, especially in the Middle East, that is an enormous question but in light of the Chilcot Report’s findings, four points are worth brief consideration. They are raised in the knowledge that international affairs are fraught with risk and compromise and that there is no perfection to be had in foreign policy, intervention and military action.

Intervention and the limits of power

First, we have not had to wait for Chilcot to know that the Iraq War exposed not only the strengths of Western military power but also its limits and the necessity of understanding the dangers of intervention. The Iraq Inquiry’s criticisms about planning for the day after Saddam Hussein’s regime had been removed refer to that point, as do Blair’s acceptance of them and his admission that he knows more now about Middle Eastern problems than he did as prime minister.

The greater responsibility for what transpired in Iraq must rest with the US government whose policies are well understood. That the US did not apply the lessons of previous conflicts is remarkable. In 1995, the Defense Secretary of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Robert S McNamara, published a book entitled In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Two decades after a war which left deep scars on him and his country, he wrote of American misjudgement of its adversaries, exaggeration of dangers, the ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the people in the region, the failures of military power, and many other warnings from the past. McNamara’s messages were only enhanced by Iraq but they do not seem to have been remembered.

UK-US relations

Secondly, for all the collateral damage to Blair, his government and the UK as a result of close association with the Bush administration over Iraq, it remains in the interest of the UK and other nations for British leaders to attempt to support American leaders where their policies coincide and persuade them of other courses where they do not.

Yet that relationship has to be calibrated with historical context in mind. What the history of UK-US relations since 1940 reveals is that it has never been straightforward for governments to maintain British independence and the achievement of influence over American governments. Over time, as the ‘special relationship’ was proved by successive events to be more rhetoric than reality, it became vital for British governments to recognise the limits of their influence and to sustain their relations with other allies, especially in Europe. That was the answer to the former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s famous verdict on Britain’s post-imperial stasis in 1962, ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role’. In his Lord Mayor’s Banquet speech of 23 November 1999, Blair said that the search for a role could now end as Britain had gotten over its ‘imperial past – and the withdrawal symptoms’. ‘We have a new role,’ he said, ‘as a pivotal power, as a power that is at the crux of the alliances and international politics which shape the world and its future’.

The shock and dangers caused by the attacks of 9/11 and the new era of global terrorism and WMD should never be underestimated as driving forces after 2001. To meet them, Blair and his government departed from the long-run tenets of British foreign policy by associating so closely with the Bush administration that ‘the pivotal role’ for the UK ‘at the crux of the alliances’ was lost. Future governments, especially post-Brexit, must reflect on this lesson.

International law

Thirdly, and associated with the closeness and even exclusivity of UK-US relations in the Blair-Bush era of 2001-03, is the matter of international law. Chilcot and his Inquiry’s Report have chosen not to express ‘a view on whether military action was illegal’ and instead stated that only ‘a properly constituted and internationally recognised Court’ could make such a judgement. Nevertheless, the implication of the phrase in Chilcot’s statement, and the Report, that ‘the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory’ is clear. So too is the judgement that the UK government undermined the UN Security Council’s authority.

This is not just a technical, legal point, it is one set in important historical foundations. It cannot be denied that the United Nations Security Council has since its inception been a troubled international organisation where Cold War and then post-Cold War politics set the framework for international affairs more than international law. Yet the principle of international law as a guiding force in state relations and the legal proscription of the use of force without authority are the product of two world wars.

Britain’s association with that story of progress, regardless of the UN’s flaws, has been central to its international reputation, as has its role in the defence of international law as a nation enshrined in a common law tradition where experience and good sense produce reason. That reputation was harmed once before when a UK government departed from international law in the pursuit of independent military force. Anthony Eden’s government had been warned that any attempt to retake the Suez canal with force from Egyptian control in 1956 was unlawful and it suffered the consequences, as did Britain’s position in international affairs and organisations.

While it may be strictly true, if highly debatable, that UN Security Council Resolution 1441 made the use of force against Iraq in 2003 legal, it was the case that only the UK and US governments believed it to be so. As such, the action was deemed to lack legality by allies and enemies. The consequences of that fact are still being weighed, but one must be that as the two most prominent nations who had signed the UN Charter in 1945, they must adhere to its principles in future.

The powers of leaders

Fourthly, while the Chilcot Report has made judgements about a government’s failure, in its constituent parts, it does rest much weight on the prime minister’s central role. Thus we have to address its particular historical context. The publication of the Report has revived the fervour of those who see the worst in Blair and blame the catastrophes in Iraq and beyond upon him. No balanced historical perspective could uphold that judgement.

Blair was nevertheless unusually central to the events from 2001 onwards for reasons too complex to detail here. In short, he was a conviction politician whose values drove his politics and policies and whose self-belief was extraordinary. He has also been open about the decisive role he believed that he played. In his memoirs, he wrote that as he flew to the US on 20 September 2001, ‘my position as the world leader strongly articulating the need for comprehensive and strategic action was pretty well established’. Days later at the Labour Party conference, the British journalist Andrew Marr thought that in his handling of the post-9/11 crisis, it was as if Blair ‘had levitated above the party’.

At times of crisis, voting publics hanker after strong leadership. In the pursuit of their nation’s security, and its values overseas, they want the same. In Britain’s twentieth century history, two such individuals met such calls: Winston Churchill in 1940 and to a much lesser extent Margaret Thatcher in 1982. In both cases, national interests and values were at stake, the first of course much greater than the last. In light of Britain’s victory in the Falklands, Thatcher told a Conservative Party Rally in July 1982 that ‘We have ceased to be a nation in retreat.’ That was arguably true, but so was the fact that Britain was not the world power it had been in 1940. Even back then, for all its bravery, it had been a creaking power carrying the world on its weakened shoulders.

Blair probably felt that he faced in 2001-03 as historic a moment as previous British leaders had faced in war. His depiction of the threat to world peace was and has been similar, even if the war was unofficial, the attack not made by a state but a stateless organisation on an ally rather than Britain itself, and the peril of devastating WMD in the hands of terrorists or rogue states more potential than actual. Yet we should not dispute the fact that Blair and those advising him believed in that threat. If their decisions and actions are to be criticised, it is not for illegal or immoral intentions. Instead, it is because their assumptions and knowledge about the danger they faced, and what it would take to deal with it, were flawed, as was the belief in their ability to shape US-led actions and international affairs. That is why when future British leaders consider foreign policy and military intervention, they should never fall foul of the hubris of power and always reflect on the past.

  • Dr James Ellison teaches at QMUL's School of History. His specialty is the history of international affairs, focusing on alliance politics, conflict and diplomacy after 1945.
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