Sir John Chilcot’s speech introducing the Iraq’s Inquiry’s report was devastating.
Judgments about Iraq’s WMD were said to be ‘presented with a certainty that was not justified.’ Far from upholding the will of the international community and UN Security Council resolutions, Chilcot argued that ‘the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council’s authority’ by invading. Diplomatic initiatives were not given the chance to succeed as ‘Military action at that time was not a last resort’. The planning for the post-war phase was said to be ‘wholly inadequate’. Both the decision to go to war, and the conduct of operations afterward were roundly condemned. Blair was personally held responsible for mistakes of judgment, for his style of government and decision making, and for the negative outcomes that led to the deaths of 179 British service personnel and at least 150,000 Iraqis.
This is the most damaging critique of a prime minister and their government by an official inquiry for decades.
Whilst the buck should stop with the government of the day, it is important not to forget the other actors that contributed to these mistakes. The civil service failed to ensure decisions were made in the right fashion with proper mechanisms in place to implement them, and that judgments were challenged and subjected to rigorous scrutiny.
It is clear from the testimony of officials that most of Whitehall agreed with Blair’s assumptions that Iraq possessed WMD, intended to acquire more once sanctions were lifted, and was not in compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions demanding cooperation with inspectors. Although Blair’s presentation of intelligence was at times stronger than the original assessments, published material was overseen by the Joint Intelligence Committee Chair, Sir John Scarlett, and he should have raised concerns if that was the case.
Far from dampening ministerial rhetoric, intelligence chiefs were actively contributing to the sense that Iraq was a threat, as in Sir Richard Dearlove (Head of the Secret Intelligence Service)’s personal intervention arguing for the publication of intelligence later found to be faulty on Iraq’s chemical weapons production.
Whilst the initial invasion of Iraq was a brilliant success, there was poor direction from senior military figures on how to handle the post-war occupation. One commander on the ground noted that without higher instructions ‘the best way to stop looting was just to get to a point where there was nothing left to loot’. When no WMD were found in Iraq, the upper echelons of the military seemingly lost interest in Iraq and turned their attention to Afghanistan, siphoning off equipment and reducing troop numbers in Basra even whilst the security situation was deteriorating. Lieutenant General Shirreff notes that when he visited Basra city, he found a single battalion commander with less than 200 troops to call upon to provide security for a city of 1.3 million.
Blair has rightly been singled out for failing to provide proper leadership and direction from the centre, for not questioning the intelligence and his own assumptions in the light of evidence, and for not paying enough attention to how instructions were carried out. But a deeper malaise about how the Cabinet and the civil service functions, how departments cooperate, and who is held accountable for mistakes, has been revealed by the Iraq Inquiry. Lessons need to be learned in these areas too. It wasn’t just Tony Blair that dropped the ball on Iraq.
You can also read Professor David Dunn's perspective From Iraq to Brexit: Failing to learn the lessons