Sir John Chilcot’s report had an impressively long gestation. The eventual release of 12 volumes totalling over two and a half million words amounts to a comprehensive indictment of British Prime Minister Blair’s unilateral decision to support the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. More than that, it is an indictment of the intelligence, policy and legal institutions advising the Blair government, and an indictment of the UK Parliament for its craven inability to constrain the wilfulness of a Prime Minister wishing to take his nation to war for the flimsiest of reasons.
The Chilcot Report contains important lessons for Australia, whose prime minister similarly allowed emotion to cloud his strategic judgement and his support for one of the most ineffectual presidents in US history to diminish the robustness of the ANZUS alliance. But more of that later.
The Chilcot Report identifies five key weaknesses in British decision-making regarding the use of armed force. First, there were systemic failures in the provision of reliable intelligence and assessment by both MI6 and the Joint Intelligence Committee (with functions somewhat akin to Australia’s Office of National Assessment). Second, the absence of a structured decision-making group directly supporting the Prime Minister precluded any consideration of the contextual questions that are a necessary part of planning for war – how do we know when we’ve won; what administrative arrangements should follow regime change; what is our exit strategy. Third, the legality of going to war without any UN Security Council mandate was not considered systematically (the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, flip-flopped). Fourth, the UK military was neither prepared nor equipped for an invasion of Iraq. And finally, the Whitehall system failed to provide coordinated and consolidated advice to a prime minister who desperately needed it. In short, the UK decision-making system was a shambles.
War is an act of policy, and as such the principles on which strategic decisions are taken need to be established and agreed well before forces are committed. Of itself, intelligence does not drive policy. Intelligence tests policy parameters and planning assumptions. It helps to answer the contextual questions.
Australia’s leadership of the UN-mandated INTERFET deployment to East Timor in 1999, for instance, was not predicated upon intelligence reports of black operations by Indonesian special forces (KOPASSUS) but on the significantly more robust policy prescription that a return to stability and security in East Timor was in Australia’s strategic interests, as it was in the interests of East Timor and Indonesia for that matter. Intelligence certainly warned Australia in late 1998 that East Timor’s public order was headed for collapse, and on the basis of the intelligence assessments Defence began appropriate planning early in 1999. But the decision to deploy was taken by Prime Minister Howard on the basis of consideration by the National Security Committee (NSC) of Cabinet advice from the CDF and, most importantly, a UNSC resolution authorising the deployment; a resolution that the Indonesian government accepted.
So, what happened between 1999 and 2003 that persuaded Prime Ministers Blair and Howard that it was a good idea to invade Iraq? The weaknesses in Blair’s decision-support system were mirrored in Australia. Both Prime Ministers were driven by an idée fixe — that the alliance with the US was more important than the probity of the decision or the merits of the case. And both Prime Ministers were played for patsies, neither of them able to influence US consideration of what ‘victory’ might look like, how Iraq might be administered or how forces could be extracted. Neither of them understood, as did Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, that it is as much the duty of any ally to advise and warn as it is to support and deploy force.
The fiasco of Paul Bremer’s administration was a forceful demonstration of the irrelevance and impotence of the other members of ‘the coalition of the willing’. Both prime ministers operated on the basis of defective intelligence. And while Prime Minister Howard had the advice of the NSC — a key element in the efficiency of Australian strategic decision-making — it was clear that the NSC was ineffective in moderating the prime minister’s enthusiasm. In his indomitable way, Howard, like Blair, usually got what he wanted. Efficiency without effectiveness is pointless.
So, has the invasion of Iraq made the world more dangerous and less secure? Chilcot’s answer is a resounding yes. He’s right. The noble but naïve aspiration that the future of the Middle East might be more stable, and US influence cemented in place, if a procession of Arab democracies could be put in place, starting with Iraq, has generated exactly the opposite outcome. US intervention, supported by Britain and Australia, has made the Middle East considerably more dangerous for its inhabitants and more precarious for western interests. It has unleashed a congeries of civil wars, which have themselves generated unprecedented refugee flows. These, in turn, have shaken the stability and cohesion of the EU, and fed into the xenophobia that was such a significant contributor to the Brexit plebiscite. In this sense, Blair (and Howard, for that matter) shares some of the responsibility for an outcome that has destroyed Iraq and damaged, perhaps irreparably, British strategic and economic interests. What a legacy!
Moreover, Chilcot’s report has added grist to the mill of those, such as Australians for War Powers Reform, who are arguing that decisions as momentous as going to war — with the attendant risks to blood and treasure — should be debated by Parliament as the best curb on an unrestrained executive. If Parliamentary and Congressional authorisation is appropriate for the UK and the US governments, Australian ‘exceptionalism’ would appear to be seriously out of step.
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