Iraq War Report Justifies Britons' Lack of Faith in the Establishment

A line can be drawn between the numerous failures of the 2003 war and Cameron's failure to keep Britain in the EU - people no longer believe their leaders.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Demonstrators in the streets of London on Wednesday after the release of the Chilcot inquiry report.
Demonstrators in the streets of London on Wednesday after the release of the Chilcot inquiry report.Credit: Matt Dunham/AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON – It took seven years for the commission of inquiry headed by Sir John Chilcot to present its report into Britain's decision-making and preparedness prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It will take the British media many weeks to work its way through the 2.6 million words of the full report, but, from what Chilcot said on Wednesday morning during his presentation of the report in London, it seems that the key sentence was contained in a letter that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair sent to United States President George W. Bush in July 2002.

“I will be with you whatever,” Blair wrote, eight months before the U.S. and Britain together invaded Iraq. With that personal commitment, Blair entwined Britain’s fate with the Bush administration’s plans to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The conclusions of the Chilcot commission's report – the most detailed forensic investigation ever into the process of a country going to war – are damning.

Blair joined Bush in war before exhausting other options of disarming Iraq; he did so, on the basis of exaggerated and mistaken intelligence assessments of Sadddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, and without properly preparing the British military. He went to war in the total absence of any plans for the day after Saddam.

If Blair hadn’t left office nine years ago, after a decade in power, he would undoubtedly have had to resign following such a report. Since it deals with events from over fourteen years ago and with none of the main characters still in office, its importance lies mainly in the lesson on how a democracy chose to go to war and the diminishing power of Britain to influence global events.

There is virtually no doubt that had Blair decided to keep Britain out of the war, as did other major western countries, such as France and Germany, the Bush administration would have still invaded. Britain contributed more than any other ally to the “coalition,” but the Americans could have handled it without them.

Blair may have believed the intelligence assessments that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction capable of striking Britain “in 45 minutes,” but his overriding concern was to safeguard the “special relationship” status of America’s number one ally – a status built by one of his predecessors Winston Churchill during World War II. The irony is that his lack of influence over President Bush underlined just how hollow that status is.

Blair and his cabinet colleagues have long gone from the front-benches in Parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron will be leaving office as soon as his Conservative Party elects a new leader. The Labour Party's Jeremy Corbyn, who sits opposite Cameron in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition, is living on borrowed time.

The Chilcot Report has emphasized what British citizens have felt for years now – that their country was dragged into the Iraq war on false pretenses and that the “establishment” simply cannot be trusted. These feelings led to the surprise victory of the radical leftist Corbyn in the Labour leadership elections last year and were a central reason motivating 52 percent of British voters to choose to leave the European Union in last month’s referendum, forcing the pro-remain Cameron to resign.

That lack of trust in the establishment which took Britain to war led ultimately to a loss of confidence in the establishment which wanted Britain to remain part of Europe. Blair and Cameron, who as a member of the opposition voted in favor of the war in 2003, are both representatives of an establishment that has tried frantically to maintain the notion of Britain as a world-power – and has now so publicly failed.

The shock waves from this gathering underground tremor are being felt not only in Britain. They are being felt in the U.S., with the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, as well as in Europe, where extreme parties are gaining ground on both the right and the left.

The distrust in the establishment has manifested itself not only in the weakness of the European Union, but also in the impotence of the West to intervene in the ongoing war in Syria and to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin in both Syria and Ukraine. That has implications for other countries which see themselves as part of the Western front, including Israel.

Israel plays a very minor role in the 12 volumes of the Chilcot report, being mentioned largely in passing references to regional circumstances. It is interesting to note that in declassified British intelligence documents published by the inquiry, the clear assessment is that, in case of an invasion of Iraq and faced with likely defeat, “Saddam is prepared to order missile strikes against Israel, with chemical or biological warheads, in order to widen the war once hostilities begin.”

This erroneous assessment was similar to that of Israel’s intelligence agencies. The report of a special committee set up in 2004 by then-Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yuval Steinitz reached the conclusion that one of the reasons such an assessment was so widely held was a joint failure of Western intelligence services in collecting reliable, up-to-date information on Iraq’s “residual” capabilities and the resulting echo-chamber in which allies reinforced each other’s mistaken assessments.

Israelis are used to commissions of inquiry following military failures. Most of their conclusions and recommendations are either too late or not specific enough to make any significant change in the way governments formulate and execute their policies.

But they express, even if belatedly, a deeper public current and the fundamental failings of political and military establishments. Britain and the United States went to war on the basis of a mistaken conception of the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the world. But the deeper and more disastrous conception was that of politicians who believed they could put the world to rights according to their worldview.

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