FROM THE ECONOMIST - JULY 2016
War in Iraq
The dangerous chill of Chilcot
A foreign-policy calamity is laid bare, providing valuable lessons-and one red herring
BRITISH troops spent six years fighting in Iraq; the official inquiry into how they ended up there has taken nearly seven. Sir John Chilcot's 2.6m-word report, published on July 6th, is - as foreseen - devastating. Assessments of Iraq's weapons "were presented with a certainty that was not justified"; planning for after the invasion was "wholly inadequate". The foreign-policy blunder of the century, billed as a war of necessity, in fact was "not a last resort".
The report holds many lessons, including for this newspaper, which supported the invasion of Iraq: about the danger of impious decision-making; of failing to plan; and of making optimistic assumptions. Yet it also carries a risk that the wrong lesson may be learned. As Britain begins the tortuous, regrettable process of disentangling itself from the rest of Europe, it is already in danger of turning inward.
The Chilcot report will be read by many not merely as evidence of a badly conceived mission, thinly planned and poorly executed, but as proof that Britain and its Western allies should hasten their retreat from the wider world. That would be bad for all who share those countries' liberal values.
Loud voice, small stick
The Chilcot report's first lesson - one that David Cameron might have considered before rashly promising a referendum on membership of the European Union in order to pacify his Conservative Party - is that prime ministers should beware commitments that catch up with them later. Tony Blair promised George W. Bush in July 2002 that British forces would join an American-led invasion, believing spies' assessments of Saddam Hussein's chemical-and biological-weapons programmes. By the time he had to keep that promise eight months later, circumstances had changed, UN weapons inspectors wanted more time; the failure to get a second UN Security Council resolution cast doubt on the legality of action. Mr Blair found himself propelled into war by the military deadline set by the Americans.
The second lesson is the need for realism and planning. A lack of both infected every aspect of Britain's Iraq-war decision-making. Plans were based on a best-case scenario in which foreign troops would be welcomed as liberators and a pluralist democracy would replace the Baathist system. Nor was there much realism about what influence Britain's military contribution would buy it with America.
Huge weight was placed on intelligence assessments that went unchallenged, and optimistic estimates of troop requirements led to a breakdown of order from which the occupation never recovered. The report describes how in Basra, under-resourced British forces made a "humiliating" agreement with a militia group in which detainees were released in return for a promise by the militia not to target British forces.
The danger now is that pessimism rather than realism rules. Britain, shrinking away from Europe and bracing for turbulence at home, must not take a back seat in geopolitics. Instead - the next government must be active in NATO and support its armed forces and its diplomats. As Syria has tragically shown, inaction can have dire consequences, too. The lesson of Iraq is not that military intervention in itself is wrong but that, if you are going to do it, you had better get it right. To resolve instead that other countries must now be abandoned to their fate would be the Iraq war's second bloody legacy. ■
I SAID AT THE OUTSET THAT IS WAS A HUGE MISTAKE TO INVADE IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN, THAT YOU CAN NOT WIN AGAINST PEOPLE EXPERT IN HIT AND RUN, AMBUSH WARFARE AND ROAD-SIDE BOMBS - THE RUSSIANS HAD TRIED FOR 10 YEARS TO DEFEAT THEM AND COULD NOT. I SAID AT THE TIME, WHEN WE WOULD FINALLY LEAVE THE TWO COUNTRIES WOULD GO BACK TO FIGHTING THEMSELVES IN SECTARIAN WAR.
WHAT A TERRIBLE SACRIFICE OF LIFE AND INJURY THE USA AND BRITAIN PAID FOR TOO A RASH AND TOO A HASTY WARFARE. JUST AWEFUL, JUST AWEFUL!!