On 6 July 2016, the fourth and most exhaustive British inquiry on the Iraq war — after the Intelligence and Security Committee Report (2003), the Lord Butler Review (2004), and the Lord Hutton Inquiry (2004) — this one chaired by Sir John Chilcot, tabled its massive report after a seven-year study. Most media comment has focused on its excoriation of former Prime Minister Tony Blair for pulling the UK into an unnecessary conflict. As an article in The Independent stated, “If there was any doubt before the inquiry about [Blair’s] legacy as prime minister, the Chilcot Report has cemented it.”
But that conclusion is too simple. The full report, much richer than its bland and even misleading executive summary, is daunting (the equivalent of 25 books). But it repays patient examination. It contains a wealth of detail about British foreign policy and hints at what the international community might have achieved, had the UK’s ally of choice been a far-sighted and reasonable US Administration dedicated to partnerships in reshaping the post-9/11 international system. For Canadian readers, the report has important implications for how Canada should be preparing for its return to the UN Security Council (SC).
The report identified three major errors in the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003. The first was the UK belief, sustained by erroneous intelligence judgments by the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), that Iraq had been re-stocking its weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) since the end of UN inspections in 1998. This was not the case, as Vladimir Putin told Blair, and as post-conflict inspections confirmed. The second error was an unwavering belief in US/UK solidarity, which led Blair into a disastrous decision to preserve the “special relationship,” on a critical issue that featured odd policy formulation, poor lines of decision-making and weak performances by ministers and senior officials. The third error was Blair’s decision to go to war based on a waffling legal opinion and against the well-founded judgment of several UK political leaders and senior officials.
The most fascinating portion of the report, which was inadequately summarized, concerns Blair’s attempts to engage the Bush Administration in developing a global strategy for the post-9/11 world. UK senior officials were worried that Washington was thinking of “moving the goalposts” in the war on terror from Afghanistan to Iraq, thereby undermining the unity of purpose shared by many countries. Blair’s principal foreign policy adviser asked an SIS Arabist (now alleged to be Sir Mark Allen) to offer ideas “which could divert” the US to “an alternative course.” His hastily drafted but cogent thoughts then became a top-secret paper that was the basis for discussions with senior US officials and for Blair’s talks with George Bush. One of his papers offered the critically important strategic view, widely shared in UK circles, that “maintaining international cohesion against terrorism” was an issue of greater priority than Iraqi WMDs.
Although unusual in their authorship and the way in which they reached the prime minister — absent Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence review — the background papers and memorandum contained sensible strategic judgments. They called for greater engagement with the Arab and Muslim world in the struggle against terrorism, bringing Russia more fully into discussions, focusing on finishing the job in Afghanistan, continuing containment in Iraq, initiating diplomatic efforts with Syria and Iran, and making a priority of the Middle East peace process.
Notwithstanding warnings from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Blair pursued his discussions on these themes with Bush. He got nowhere. By April 2002, the UK position was thoroughly muddled. Blair accepted much too easily US insistence on regime change in Iraq but did so with reservations. The US heard the “yes” but ignored his strategy and reservations. Months later, Blair was facing an American ally bent on what one of his advisers called a “hair-brained scheme.” He then compounded his initial failures in July 2002 by carelessly pledging support for US plans, saying “I will be with you, whatever.” His advisers unsuccessfully recommended deletion of the now-famous phrase, but Blair believed that he could talk Bush into a more prudent strategy. He eventually walked himself into a corner, accepting what one UK official called “a nightmare scenario” in which the UK’s alliance with a “rampant US” would be “a touchstone for Arab and Muslim attitudes for a generation.”
Another significant but understated conclusion is the report’s vindication of the SC process of 2002 and 2003. The full report makes it clear that France and Germany, pilloried in the US media for timidity and cowardice, were asking sensible questions, namely why Iraq and why now? Neither the US nor UK had answers. Iraq had allowed the resumption of inspections and, once started, they had to be given time. A Canadian compromise tried to bridge the gaps in a deadlocked SC. But UK officials considered it “unhelpful” because it extended inspections past the military deadline imposed unilaterally by the US. When the deadline came, the US opted for war and the UK went along, irrespective of Iraqi co-operation and the ongoing inspection mandate.
The Chilcot Report merits close study by Canadian officials planning Canada’s return to the SC. It’s a textbook on the good, the bad, and the ugly of foreign policy formulation at the highest levels and under the greatest pressures, and it reinforces the case for a strong team in New York to underpin SC service with strategic thinking informed by a keen analytical grasp of global events, as well as a robust global diplomatic network from Washington and other “Permanent Five” capitals. Active engagement, as Canada had in 2003, can produce important initiatives, like the compromise that almost averted a catastrophic conflict. It also demonstrates the downsides of SC membership, with member states buffeted by conflicting interests, alliances, and friendships on key issues of war and peace.
Not so much for what it concludes as for what it contains, the Chilcot Report should be essential reading in diplomatic circles for years to come.