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Chilcot Inquiry: What Blair knew in the rush to war

Chilcot Inquiry: What Blair knew in the rush to war
Published 6 Jul 2016 

The Chilcot report into the invasion of Iraq will be released later this evening (AEST), and it should be a devastating indictment of how Britain was misled into an illegal, unnecessary, unpopular, foolish and ultimately disastrous war in 2003.

Why do I say this? Because almost all the relevant public testimony to the Chilcot inquiry since 2009 has, until recently, been available online.  Any interested observer could study the evidence presented to Sir John Chilcot, follow leads of his or her own, and then reach the appropriate conclusions.

One enterprising journalist who has done just that is Peter Oborne. In NOT the Chilcot Report,  the leading British conservative has accomplished what the retired civil servant Sir Chilcot should have done five years ago. Oborne’s 35,000-word book — based in part on his rigorous BBC radio documentary  last October — assists lay readers who want to make sense of the 2.6 million-word Chilcot Report.

Oborne’s conclusion is not just that Tony Blair failed to act with integrity and in the national interest. It’s that the war was indeed fought on a lie. Here was a man who had all too often made absolute and unequivocal assurances that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and argued that it was this possession — which was beyond any shadow of a doubt — that justified the US-led invasion. [fold]

The former British prime minister and his defenders have long maintained he simply reiterated what he was told by the intelligence services. For Oborne, however, the relevant testimony shows that Blair exaggerated and misrepresented the intelligence in order to substantiate his controversial decision to launch a preventive strike against a regime that had been effectively contained and deterred since the Gulf War of 1991. This was a prime minister, remember, who pushed the intelligence to the outer limits in a dossier that was sexed up by the claim that Saddam Hussein could unleash WMD with 45 minutes. 

Indeed, there is a discernible pattern to the way Blair and his inner-circle dealt with the British people ahead of the war. They highlighted information that placed the threat posed by the Iraqi dictator in the worst possible light. They kept quiet about the relevant facts that damaged their cause. They misrepresented the actions and motives of those opposed to war. There was never any attempt to correct false statements after they had been uttered. Moreover, there were no governmental checks and balances that might have prevented the worst mistakes.

Today, we are still living with the consequences of that Wilsonian misadventure: in blood (at least 150,000 Iraqis and nearly 5000 coalition troops), treasure (about US$2 trillion), America’s tarnished reputation (rendition, torture, detention without trial of terror suspects), religious persecution (most of the Christians have been driven to exile) and Iraqi society (a sectarian war between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority). A nation once hostile to Islamists is now a magnet for the world’s most lethal jihadists.

Of course, there has long been a desire to hold someone responsible for this humanitarian catastrophe and strategic blunder. In 2004, Britain had the Hutton and Butler inquiries. The US had David Kay’s Iraq Survey Group and Australia had the Flood report. Their conclusion: no one was to blame but intelligence procedures needed reform.

The publication of the more wide-ranging Chilcot judicial report is a moment of genuinely profound political importance, and there should be no escape clauses for the former British prime minister this time.

This report comes at a time when faith in British institutions is at a historic low. This collapse in trust, according to Oborne and other commentators, can be dated to Blair’s decision to support George W Bush, right or wrong.

So will the British Establishment learn the lessons of its failures and hold to account Blair and others responsible for the debacle? As Oborne warns here today,  if the Chilcot report does not achieve this, then the British system of government is in serious trouble.

All this raises the question: where is the accountability in Australia? After all, we were one of the leading players in Operation Iraqi Freedom in March-April 2003. 

Intriguingly, as early as 1  August, 2002, John Howard — a prime minister I otherwise highly admire — said that a US invasion of Iraq was 'probable' and that Washington was 'likely' to seek some military involvement from Canberra. Had the decision to go to war announced in March 2003 been taken eight months earlier? Were the facts and intelligence to justify doing so then sexed up, as a bipartisan parliamentary committee alleged in 2004? ('PM’s spin sexed-up Iraq threat', read The Australian’s front-page headline for Patrick Walters’ story on 2 March, 2004) Was the government preparing public opinion at home of Australian involvement? What was the nature of classified relations among Canberra and London and Washington in mid-to-late-2002?

A Chilcot-style inquiry here might help answer these questions and more if only to learn how to ensure a rush to war in dubious circumstance is not repeated.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Tom Switzer is a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre. He will interview Peter Oborne and Blair biographer John Rentoul on ABC Radio National's Between The Lines program on Thursday night 730pm (replayed Sunday 10am). 

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