Iraq: The Strategic Lessons of Chilcot

“The danger is, as ever with these things, unintended consequences”

Prime Minister Tony Blair, 2002


It is 12 volumes and 2.6 million words in length and took 7 years to prepare. Yesterday afternoon I spent reading the 150 pages of the Executive Summary of Sir John Chilcot’s magnus opus The Iraq Enquiry. The strategic implications of what is a damning report into Tony Blair’s leadership of Britain at the time of the 2003 Iraq War are profound. Indeed, given the report’s condemnation (not too strong a word) of the failings of Britain’s political, intelligence, and military elites Chilcot brings into question the very utility in any circumstances of Western intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed, Chilcot begs a question that the good knight himself does not answer; how do western states deal with the very real threats that do emanate from such places?  The West intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq and stayed; the result was disaster. The West intervened in Libya but did not stay; the result was disaster. The West did not really intervene in Syria; the result was disaster.

In recent (and not so recent history) few such Western efforts to shape the Middle East have achieved their stated objectives.  Indeed, in what is now a history of ill-considered consequences there is a certain tragic symmetry in the fact that the July 2016 Chilcot Report was published a century after the May 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord, which led to the creation of Iraq and so many other troubled Middle Eastern states.

Chilcot underpins the need for sound strategic judgement that was lacking at times in the post 911 political environment. Chilcot reinforces the need for political leaders to understand what is possible on the ground. For example, there is a marked contrast between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Gulf War. Whereas the 1991 war was undertaken to uphold the Middle East state structure, the 2003 war set out to change the very nature of the Middle Eastern state. Powerful unintended consequences ensued because powerful unwanted forces were unleashed because powerful people, especially in Washington, refused to confront powerful realities.  Indeed, Iraq was too often more about politics inside the Beltway, rather than security outside of it.

Chilcot firmly asserts that if such an intervention is to be launched it must be properly planned, resourced and forced. None of the West’s post-911 interventions have been properly planned and all have failed, including Afghanistan.  In fact, sound planning was indeed undertaken for post-‘conflict’ Iraq by the State Department’s ‘Iraq Shack’. However, President George W. Bush took responsibility for such planning away from State because he did not trust it and handed it to the Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, which had no experience of such work. The subsequent Coalition Provisional Authority was a disaster.

Chilcot also warns of the dangers of politicising intelligence. Tony Blair had a whole raft of reasons for wanting to stay close to Bush, not least maintaining US support for the peace process in Northern Ireland. However, his lack of influence in the Bush White House was in stark contrast to his desperate need to remain close to Bush. This helped lead Blair to interpret the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) purely through the lens of the transatlantic security relationship rather than wider British interests. It is certainly to the chagrin if not the shame of the elite British civil service that so many did not challenge the Downing Street clique, most notably the British Intelligence services. Iraq revealed the politicisation of the once masterful British civil service which continues to this day, and which even today too often prevents truth being spoken to irresponsible power.

Chilcot is also clear about British military failure. The British Army was humiliated in Iraq, a humiliation that perhaps marked the beginning of the end of the special ‘Special’ US-UK Relationship. The gap between the military power Britain’s leaders said Britain could exert in support of the US soon proved to be false, even though the Americans must also take a lot of the blame for going into Iraq before all the forces and resources necessary to succeed were in place. Britain’s influence in Washington was sorely damaged as a result, and has never really recovered.

One has only to look at the Defence Planning Assumptions in the UK’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review to understand that putting a front-line force in excess of 40,000 troops into Iraq would break the troop bank, to then ‘plan’ in 2006 to go to Afghanistan as well before the mission in Basra was complete was dangerous military nonsense. The Defence Logistics Organisation effectively collapsed in 2003. That is why the occupation force was far smaller than the invasion force and why good military commanders and their civilian counterparts struggled to create a secure space in which stabilisation and reconstruction could take place. However, Britain’s top military commanders at the time must also shoulder some of the blame because they went into Iraq not to succeed but to get out as quickly as possible.

The failure in Iraq may have also marked the beginning of the end of Britain’s membership of the EU. After championing Britain’s future in the EU, and being seen as a de facto leader by many of the new Central and European members of an enlarged EU, Blair’s failure effectively ended Britain’s influence in the EU and ceded leadership to Germany. The opposition of France and Germany to the war proved to be correct, although the motivations of President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder were complex.  The subsequent split between Britain on one side, and France and Germany on another, has never really healed and the slide towards Brexit accelerated.

Chilcot addresses another issue – method. In 2008 I wrote two reports following a fact-finding visit to Afghanistan. Both reports highlighted the same problems of commission and omission. Put simply, if a Western state or group of states is going to intervene in places like Afghanistan or Iraq it is vital the ‘human terrain’ is properly understood and all national and international means – civil and military – are applied carefully and rigorously to generate outcomes that give the inhabitants hope of positive change. This all-important unity of effort and purpose backed up by sufficient forces and resources was never achieved in either country leaving military commanders to try and close an impossible gap between intent, capability and capacity.

There is also a dangerous flip-side to Chilcot. In the wake of Iraq Britain steadily lost strategic self-confidence, the elite belief in Britain as a power collapsed, and with it there was a loss of British popular faith in both US leadership and in Britain’s own Establishment. It also demonstrated the extent to which keeping on the right side of a poorly-led Washington led Blair and his close clique to lose the strategic plot as the relationship between ends, ways and means descended into political fantasy.

At the start of this piece I raised a question implicit in Chilcot about the very principle of armed intervention; how do western states deal with the very real threats that do emanate from such places?  A hard truth is that there will be occasions in future when such interventions will sadly be necessary. The world is a dangerous place. If Chilcot leads to improved strategic judgement, better understanding of the challenge, the proper political use of intelligence, the re-establishment of appropriate distance between politicians and civil servants, and the closing of the gap between the roles and missions political leaders expect of armed forces, and the forces and resources needed to do the job asked of them, then all well and good. If, on the other hand, Chilcot leads British and other Western political leaders to conclude that they never want to find themselves alongside Blair facing a political, media and public opinion ‘lynching’ and abandon the very idea of military interventions in extremis then the post-Chilcot world is suddenly more not less dangerous. Reading Chilcot I was struck at times just how political the report is.

Ultimately, Tony Blair achieved the exact opposite of what he said he set out to achieve in Iraq and went to war on a false premise.  Over 150,000 Iraqis died, together with some 179 British military personnel, whilst over one million people were displaced. Blair and the Britain he led must bear full responsibility such for failure. However, the real blame ultimately lies with President George W. Bush and Messrs Cheney and Rumsfeld who at the time confused the need for revenge and ideological fervour for sound statecraft.  The threshold for Western military intervention in the Middle East or anywhere must be necessarily high. Chilcot may now have set that threshold impossibly high.

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