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Chilcot Iraq Inquiry report is flawed but painfully necessary

By Peter Jennings

Predictably, Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry – all 2.6 million words of it – has been pressganged into service by those who want to see Tony Blair prosecuted for war crimes. 

Almost no one will have read the full 12 volumes of the report, relying instead on Chilcot’s statement at its release and the 150 page ‘executive summary.’ By next weekend the mainstream media will have moved on to other issues. Thanks, Sir John, for your seven years of effort. 

The Inquiry tells us little that wasn’t already known. Much attention is paid to a note Tony Blair sent to George W Bush in July of 2002 saying ‘I will be with you, whatever.’ How touching, Tony. For those looking for smoking guns this is ‘proof’ of Blair’s intent to take Britain to war regardless of the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. 

The reality is that no-one, not Bush, not Blair, not even John Howard knew in July of 2002 what the ‘whatever’ in Blair’s note actually forecast. 

It may have meant that Saddam ultimately capitulated to full international verification. That would have showed Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program was by then not much more than a bunch of empty sheds. 

A major flaw in Chilcot’s Inquiry is that it focusses only on the British decision to go to war. That’s what he was asked to do, but it leads to a relentlessly myopic focus on a smallish part of a bigger puzzle. 

There is no investigation for example on American decision-making, or indeed the curious mental leap that George W Bush took from prosecuting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to decide that ousting Saddam Hussein should be America’s top objective.

A second omission is the broader story of how, in Chilcot’s words, the West formed an ‘ingrained belief that Saddam Hussein’s regime retained chemical and biological warfare capabilities.’ 

During the 1990s an intense intelligence effort was made to determine the exact state of Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons program. Chilcot devotes just over twenty paragraphs to this work, which was indeed the basis of an ingrained belief, held in Washington, London and Canberra about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. 

I was reading the intelligence reports as closely as anyone at the time and, as much as anyone, suffered from this ‘ingrained belief.’ It wasn’t an idle or silly fixation. The concern about Saddam’s WMD was a necessary preoccupation. 

For western governments the biggest risk would have been to ignore the possibility of Saddam developing WMD. Of course, we know now that he had given the program away, but another deep mystery Chilcot doesn’t address is why Saddam chose to keep bluffing about that fact. 

To use Malcolm Turnbull’s phrase, there are many ‘learnings’ to be gleaned from Chilcot’s Inquiry. Among the most important is that policy makers need to understand the limits of intelligence reporting. 

After a decade of the most intense intelligence scrutiny over Iraq’s WMD the rather pathetic truth of the matter is that we didn’t know the true state of the program. 

Chilcot doesn’t go so far as to say that Tony Blair’s September 2002 public ‘Dossier’ on WMD misrepresented the true intelligence picture. He claims only that public statements were ‘understandably written in more direct and less nuanced language than the Joint Intelligence Committee Assessments on which they drew.’ 

The lesson for governments is they shouldn’t hide their policy intent behind appeals to intelligence assessments or, another favourite, ‘military advice’. Both things are deeply fallible and no substitute for political leadership in times of crisis. 

Chilcot makes a very important recommendation here, which is that intelligence assessments must be kept structurally independent from policy making. Policy priorities can’t be allowed to contaminate the intelligence judgements on which they are based.

In Australia we are making that mistake as a result of the 2015 First Principles Review of Defence, which ‘merged’ Defence’s three Intelligence agencies under the authority of the civilian responsible for advising government on strategic policy.

This is not simply wrong but dangerous. It gives rise to exactly the risk Chilcot considered on Iraq about ‘sexing up’ intelligence on WMD to suit policy aims. 

In the Australian case the First Principles Review maintained that the Defence Intelligence agency Heads would have enough autonomy to keep their work independent, and that merging intelligence and strategy ‘will substantively enrich policy advice and capability contestability.’ 

But this is just management blather. One ‘learning’ from Chilcot we should immediately apply is to separate intelligence analysis from strategic policy advice before some future crisis forces Defence to base tough strategic choices on difficult intelligence judgements.

A fascinating part of Chilcot’s report is its dissection of how Blair tried to shape George W Bush’s thinking about Iraq in the lead up to the war. To their credit, both Blair and John Howard worked hard to get Bush to seek deeper United Nations Security Council endorsement for the conflict.

Ultimately this is a story of the limits to smaller power influence in Washington and of course it will be used by opponents of Britain and Australia’s alliance with America to say that we shouldn’t be so close to the US. 

That would be a disastrous outcome. As we move into a darker and more dangerous strategic age the only thing worse than having limited strategic influence in the White House is having no influence at all. 

Sir John Chilcot delivers a rather airy judgement that ‘A policy of direct opposition to the US would have done serious short‑term damage to the relationship, but it is questionable whether it would have broken the partnership.’

Who in Number 10, or indeed the Lodge in Canberra, could have afforded to play with the idea of delivering ‘serious short‑term damage to the relationship’ with the US? 

There is so much more in the Iraq Inquiry report that deserves close attention. For example Chilcot’s condemnation of the complete absence of planning for the occupation of Iraq is utterly damning and completely correct.

Towards the end of his Inquiry, Chilcot observes: ‘When the potential for military action arises, the Government should not commit to a firm political objective before it is clear that it can be achieved. Regular reassessment is essential, to ensure that the assumptions upon which policy is being made and implemented remain correct.’

In equal measure this judgement is both infuriating and correct. It’s infuriating because it shows Chilcot is naive about how decision making really works when countries go to war. 

At these times the overwhelming experience of senior decision-makers is about the lack of clarity, inaccurate intelligence, the need to make speedy judgements with poor information, inadequate preparation, insufficient resources and no clear idea of how to deliver outcomes or really what the outcomes should be. 

Does anyone imagine the decision-making environment was better in Number 10 in 1914 or 1939? What was the ‘firm political objective’ then, other than survival and hanging on for dear life? 

It might be said that Iraq didn’t present an existential threat, but that claim takes us back to the issue of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and the post 9/11 psychosis that still lingers. 

On the other hand, though, Chilcot is absolutely right. There is no substitute for clear aims and careful regular reassessment. It could hardly be said that US policy in the Middle East has had either of those things at any time between 2003 and now. 

Learning the wrong lessons from the 2003 Iraq invasion is just as dangerous to setting careful policy objectives into the future. 

The disastrous decisions to quit Iraq in 2011 and to ignore Syria’s implosion were the result of President Obama’s determination not to repeat the errors of 2003. But the costs of non-intervention have if anything been worse than the costs of invasion. We’ll never see a Chilcot report on that. 

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Originally published: The Australian. 11 July 2016.

Originally published by: The Australian on 11 Jul 2016