After almost a decade of waiting, the Chilcot report is finally being released today promising to uncover the real reasons for the UK’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq. While British political elites are dealing with the aftermath of this political bombshell, the media and population are once again demanding answers for this costly and unnecessary war.
Perhaps the most salacious expectation is the possibility that top leaders such as Tony Blair could be brought up on charges as a “war criminal”. For many families of the fallen and citizens in general, it is an opportunity to hold politicians to account for the real casualties of their policies. When it comes to tens to hundreds of thousands of death at home and abroad, electoral defeat is simply not punishment enough.
However, there is more than simple justice at stake. It is an opportunity to prevent this type of bloody “mistake” from ever occurring again. According to Chilcot himself:
The main expectation that I have is that it will not be possible in future to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgment being applied to it. There are many lessons in the report but that probably is the central one for the future.
There are also democratic lessons that must be learned from this case. Notably, it highlights the continuing dangers of extremism from the acceptable political center.
A “Rational” Response
In the run up to the Iraqi invasion, there were mass protests in the US, the UK, and around the world. Even at the time there was widespread suspicion as to whether there were in fact Weapons of Mass Destruction or if this was truly an exercise in spreading democracy at the barrel of a gun. The aftermath of the invasion bore out those concerns and the country remains wracked by civil war nearly a decade and a half after being “liberated.”
At 2.6 million words, the Chilcot report comprehensively lays bare the manipulations, false assumptions and failed governance that led to this disaster. As the report declares unequivocally, “The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of a mass destruction (WMD) were presented with a certainty that was not justified. Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated.”
Nevertheless, it is to easy to merely stop analysis at the fact that Blair and his militant cohorts “lied.” It is crucial to understand their larger worldview that formed and legitimized these actions. Specifically, it was founded on a misguided and ultimately quite radical assumption that any and all measures where necessary to prevent the threat of terrorism – regardless of how small the risk or high the potential cost.
Just as significant is how this was an instance of “rationalizing” the irrational – making a completely unreasonable, illegal and inappropriate policy appear sensible, licit and necessary. It is not only to never go to war again without consideration, it is how such a militant proposal was even credibly considered in the first place.
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A Crime of “Moderation”
As the report piles on more and more damning evidence, it is becoming clearer the Blair’s legacy will be forever tarnished. Already he is being charged with colluding with the US to undermine the UN security council, falsely presenting intelligence information with a “certainty that was not justified,” and utterly failing to “exhaust all peace options” before going to war.
Tellingly, substantially less questioned is the historical reputation of “New Labour” and its other Centrist counterparts. In the US, it is easy to pin such hawkishness on the rabid fervor of Republican neo-conservatives. In the UK, this story of right-wing extremism is much harder to sell as the invasion was perpetuated by a then popular center-left government.
If this was indeed criminal – as it increasingly appears to be – it was crime that both the respectable Right and Left are equally guilty. Indeed, it is arguable that so-called “liberal interventionists” have even more blood on their collective hands as their vocal support threatened to give these actions a false veneer of “moderation.”
Fundamentally, it shows a dangerous pattern of Centrists moderating what would otherwise be viewed as extreme positions. From financial deregulation to the war on terror, Centrists have consistently justified radical economic and militaristic policies as part of a reform agenda. The 2008 financial crisis and the Iraqi war reveal in stark detail the destructive consequences of this respectable mainstream politics.
The crime here then is not just of unchecked military aggression but also of unacceptable political moderation.
The Threat of Lesser Evils
The risk of this centrist extremism persists has not gone away. If anything it has only grown stronger in the meantime – evidenced in the presumed nomination of Hillary Clinton for President despite her history of hawkishness that rivals any “neo-conservative.” It is similarly witnessed in the drone bombing backed by Obama and the large swath of Labour Party support for the recent bombing in Syria.
The report shows just how real this danger from moderates is and remains. Chilcot documents how Blair pursued the invasion despite being informed that it would increase instability in the region and terrorism globally. Fast forwarding to the present, Democrats such as Hillary Clinton continue to champion such militarism using the langue of “responsibility” and “rationality.” Indeed, the real danger of the incoherent and demagogic positions of Trump only make this mainstream extremism seem more sane and acceptable.
History will show that supporters of Iraq were at best “mistaken” and at worst criminal. Yet underneath these misdoings is a larger lie that continues to be presented as truth. That Western imperialism and its military industrial complex can be moderated – that it can be channeled into the cause of justice.
As the world deals with the ever new conflicts (many of which born ceaselessly out of the past), it must be critically asked what, if anything, has this disastrous history taught us. Will it finally allow us to confront the threat of supposedly “lesser evils”?