Reduced to a Tweet, the just-released Iraq Inquiry might read like this: “#Tony Blair a poodle? Verily.”
That’s the key finding that emerges from the 2.6 million-word official investigation into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, informally known as the Chilcot Report. In the wake of 9/11, the British prime minister and his colleagues fancied that by supporting the George W. Bush administration in its determination to overthrow Saddam Hussein they could exercise a positive influence over US policy more generally. Instead, they allowed their country to be dragged into an unnecessary, poorly planned, ultimately unsuccessful, and arguably illegal war. In the end, the United Kingdom and its people gained nothing and paid dearly.
The report provides copious evidence to support that negative judgment. Along the way, the report demolishes what remains of Blair’s reputation and the entire Anglo-American case for taking down Saddam. By extension, it also offers this cautionary note: Any ally expecting that signing on as a junior partner in some American military adventure will translate into leverage in Washington should think again. Blair sought to steer Bush; in the end, he got used.
The Chilcot Report confirms that Bush “decided at the end of 2001 to pursue a policy of regime change in Iraq.” Senior British intelligence officials had by then already concluded “that Iraq had played no role in the 9/11 attacks on the US.” They had found “no evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda,” correctly noting that Saddam and Osama bin Laden were “ideologically poles apart.” Nor had they uncovered any “credible evidence of covert transfers of WMD related technology and expertise to terrorist groups.” Indeed, they found no credible evidence to support Washington’s claims that Iraq retained a viable program for developing weapons of mass destruction.
None of this dissuaded Blair from throwing his government’s support behind the United States. He nursed the hope that he might persuade Washington to act only after having gained UN Security Council concurrence. He also hoped that Bush might agree to promoting a new peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But these were nonstarters. Bush and his inner circle disdained the UN. And they saw the peace process as a waste of time. Their aims were far more ambitious. Indeed, the underlying US rationale for toppling Saddam, according to the Chilcot Report, was “to clear up other problems in the region.” London’s role was to endow the endeavor with a multilateral gloss.
In fact, British intelligence analysts were telling Blair that invading Iraq was more likely to exacerbate problems than to clear them up. Al Qaeda, not Saddam, represented “by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests,” with that threat likely to be “heightened by military action against Iraq.” With considerable prescience, British intelligence professionals warned that “the broader threat from Islamist terrorists will also increase in the event of war, reflecting intensified anti-US/anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, including among Muslim communities in the West.”
Blair discounted such concerns. Like Bush, he chose to believe what he found it convenient to believe.
The prime minister even went so far as to endorse the president’s insistence that, if war occurred, the responsibility was Saddam’s alone. By submitting to comprehensive weapons inspections, so the argument went, the Iraqi dictator could save his own skin. The choice was entirely his. Yet Blair knew that this was a charade, his intelligence chief telling him in July 2002 that the Bush administration “intended to set the threshold on weapons inspections so high that Iraq would not be able to hold up US policy.” As far as Washington was concerned, war had become an imperative — “the question was only how and when.”
That same month, in a personal note, Blair assured Bush “I will be with you, whatever. But this is the moment to assess bluntly the difficulties. The planning on this and the strategy are the toughest yet. This is not Kosovo. This is not Afghanistan. It is not even the Gulf War.” Here the prime minister was way out in front of his own government, the Chilcot Report scathingly observing that Blair’s commitment reflected his “own views,” which “had not been discussed or agreed with his colleagues.”
Blair was certainly right about the difficulties that awaited. Given the stakes, therefore, one might have expected planning for the ensuing campaign to reflect the highest standards of military professionalism. In fact, as the Chilcot Report shows, British war planners made errors nearly identical to those of their American counterparts. Even with officials in London anticipating the occupation of Iraq, rather than taking down the regime, to be “strategically decisive,” the challenges of occupation caught British commanders by surprise. British soldiers expected to remain in Iraq for only a handful of months. Years would pass before they were able to return home.
One imagines that, for British citizens, the Chilcot Report will make for bitter reading. But they can at least console themselves with this: On their side of the Atlantic, there has finally been an accounting. On our side, there’s been none — nor is there likely to be anytime soon.