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Chilcot: Australian dimensions

Chilcot: Australian dimensions
Published 13 Jul 2016 

After seven years and at a cost of about $20 million, the report of the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK involvement with the 2003 Iraq War was released last week. At 2.6 million words it is almost five times longer than Tolstoy’s War and Peace but, unlike Tolstoy’s epic, it has  very little to do with peace. Indeed a major finding by Chilcot was that peaceful options were dismissed in the march to war.

The terms of reference for the Chilcot Inquiry are comprehensive. The inquiry covered an eight year period from 2001 to 2009 focusing on how decisions were made and whether UK forces were appropriately equipped and supported. The objective was to identify lessons for the future rather than to determine culpability of individuals.

As with any inquiry of this magnitude and sensitivity there have been criticisms of the way it was conducted and even of the committee members themselves: there was no lawyer on the team with expertise at cross-examining witnesses, and hearings began before much of the documentation had been acquired, thereby limiting the nature of questions.

The conclusions in the report list a series of failings of the British establishment but no doubt there will be some who believe that Chilcot should have been even harder hitting, especially in his criticism of individuals. Although there may be some shortcomings, the report itself is unbiased, the judgments fairly based on the evidence and its conclusions sound. 

Most of its findings relate uniquely to the UK and the way it entered the Iraq War, but there are also implications for other countries, and in particular for Australia that in many ways paralleled the UK in the lead up to the war. [fold]

Considerations for Australia emanating from the report include the role of intelligence, the legal basis for war, and other factors to be considered by a government before committing armed forces to a conflict.

The role of Intelligence

The most controversial and least understood issue relating to the decision to go to war is the role of intelligence. Governments, including the Howard government, have claimed they acted in good faith on intelligence that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction and were not aware at the time that this intelligence was deeply flawed.

To simply blame faulty intelligence is disingenuous: by its very nature, intelligence assessments have degrees of uncertainty attached to them.

The Blair government brushed over these uncertainties accepting as fact the possibilities and probabilities referred to in the intelligence assessments. And contrary to the way the government presented the intelligence, Chilcot judged that the ‘assessed intelligence had not established beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons’.

Governments need to question intelligence agencies to determine the limitations of their assessments before embarking on actions as serious as war.

More importantly, governments must understand the significance of the intelligence. Thus even if Iraq had possessed chemical and biological weapons, it did not necessarily mean that it was a threat to the UK and its allies. In fact, based on the intelligence presented to the Blair government, Chilcot judged that at the time of the Iraq War ‘there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein’.

The Chilcot findings on the way intelligence was used by the Blair government raise questions about the deliberation process used by the Howard government to justify its case for war.

Although we cannot know with certainty what John Howard was briefed prior to the War, from two inquiries into Australian intelligence in 2003 and 2004, it is evident that Australian assessments were even less certain than the UK’s about Iraq’s possession and production of WMD. For example the Defence Intelligence Organisation reported on biological weapons that, ‘There ha[ve] been no known offensive research and developments since 1991, no known BW production since 1991 and no known BW testing or evaluation since 1991'.

And although in 2003 DIO assessed that Iraq ‘probably retain[ed] a limited’ stockpile of old chemical weapons, it also considered that because of time and degradation, the effectiveness of these weapons was uncertain.

The Office of National Assessments in the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Department was more upbeat than DIO claiming that ‘Iraq has almost certainly been working to increase its ability to make chemical and biological weapons'. But it presented no hard evidence for this assertion.

In the light of the Chilcot report one now wonders how rigorously the Howard government probed the intelligence agencies on their assessments, and more significantly, how the government came to the conclusion that Iraq posed a real and immediate threat from WMD.

The legal basis for war

The Chilcot Report devotes 169 pages to the arguments presented to the Blair government on the legal basis for the Iraq War, but does not express a view: Chilcot quite appropriately states that only an international court could decide legality. The Report is however highly critical of the process by which advice was ultimately provided to the government commenting that ‘the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory.’

The legal arguments for the war are complex although most international lawyers believe that military action taken by the Coalition was illegal. However, even if there was a legal basis this does not in itself, justify war.

In a recent interview, John Howard argued in regard to the war, ‘you can feel that there's a strong moral case for doing something and you can feel there's a strong legal case as well. What's wrong with that…’

Certainly the advice the Australian government had sought from the Attorney General prior to the war was unambiguous: military action would be legal.  However immediately prior to this advice there must have been considerable doubt given that the US and UK were desperately seeking a further UN resolution to specifically authorise military action. If war was unambiguously legal why bother with another resolution?

At the same time as John Howard was receiving his legal advice, he would have been aware that the UK was also grappling with the legal questions. In fact the UK Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith was far less certain than his Australian counterpart. He advised Tony Blair on 7 March 2003 that he could provide a reasonable case for military action but that this ‘did not mean that if the matter ever came to court, he would be confident that the court would agree with this view’.

Chilcot went on to observe that there ‘was little appetite to question Lord Goldsmith about his advice’. John Howard would be well aware of the UK uncertainties and therefore it is also reasonable to ask whether there was any appetite by him or cabinet to question the legal advice or to seek alternative legal opinion.

Other considerations before war

Julie Bishop recently explained the basis for Australia joining in the War: ‘I recall very well the information that was presented to us. It was the best information that was available’.

It not clear whether Julie Bishop was simply referring to the intelligence assessments on Iraq’s WMD, but before committing the Australian military to war there are many other considerations where ‘the best information’ needs to be provided and considered.

Chilcot addresses some of these considerations in the UK context. By far the most important is whether there were alternatives to war. On this Chilcot was damning: ‘We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort’.

Chilcot observed that most members of the Security Council believed the peaceful options had not been exhausted. He also judged that the strategy of containment that had been effective in reducing the threat from Iraq for over a decade ‘could have been adapted and continued for some time’.

John Howard does not accept the Chilcot findings on possible peaceful options. His view was that the weapon inspectors were not making progress implying therefore that there was no alternative but war. It is unclear however whether cabinet even debated the inspection route or explored other possible peaceful alternatives.

The Australian Cabinet should have also considered other consequences of war including the humanitarian costs, post war political stability in Iraq and the region, the adequacy of post war planning and the possible rise in terrorism. Of course not all the consequences of any war can be seen in advance or planned for, but one would expect Cabinet to have been appropriately briefed by experts of the possibilities, followed by a rigorous debate, before any decision was made. Whether this occurred with the thoroughness demanded by the situation is unclear.

Chilcot also devotes considerable space to the importance of the UK alliance with the US. Although Chilcot accepts that the government was right ‘to think very carefully’ about the importance of the alliance, he considers that this overwhelmed other considerations and concludes that ‘the UK’s relationship with the US was a determining factor in the Government’s decisions over Iraq’.

The UK’s relationship with the US over Iraq is best summed up in Tony Blair’s note to President Bush on 28 July 2002. The note on how politically to manage the forthcoming war began with ‘I will be with you, whatever’.

There is a clear parallel here with Australia: did our alliance with the US also override all other considerations including the proper exercise of caution?

The lessons from Chilcot for Australia

Above all else, the Chilcot Report highlights the process by which the Blair government decided to join the Iraq War with the US was deeply flawed almost on every level: there are many lessons here to be learned by the UK establishment. And some of these lessons will be directly applicable to Australia.

Given the passage of time, a Chilcot-type inquiry into Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War is probably not the most productive way to proceed.

Australia would most benefit now from a more general examination of the process by which the Australian government decides to commit forces to an armed conflict. If we have learned anything from Chilcot, it is that more checks and balances are required so that the mistakes that led to the Iraq War are never repeated.

Rod Barton made a confidential submission to the Chilcot Inquiry in November 2009, is a supporter and contributor to a UK watchdog on the Chilcot Inquiry, and is a supporter and former member of Australians for War Powers Reform.

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