Early thoughts on the Iraq Inquiry/ Chilcot Report: will anyone learn any lessons?

One of many aims of a report like Chilcot is to learn lessons to inform future action (the others are to provide assurance, put off an issue, symbolise transparency, and so on). Yet, we don’t seem to learn the most basic lesson, which is that: you won’t generate a consensus on the lessons to learn without a reasoned discussion of what happened, who was to blame, and what we can reasonably expect of people making decisions quickly with often-minimal information and often-maximal emotion.

Hopefully, the immediate reactions, based on not actually reading the report, will give way to more considered analysis and interpretation.

In this post, I give some initial thoughts on the ‘executive summary’ (150 pages), but with the intention to read it again (and maybe again and again) before considering how we can really learn lessons about how to govern under these circumstances.

For me, at its heart, the report argues that well-intentioned action, driven by sincere belief, may have just-as-bad consequences as cynical action if you don’t have good procedures to prompt you to reconsider your actions at key points. I fear that this relatively subtle and important point may be lost in the clamour to describe Blair as a war criminal.

The immediate reaction to the Chilcot Report – based on Chilcot’s speech – seems to be that it is damning of the Blair Government.

Immediate reactions from commentators range from: the UK was just as responsible as the US for the invasion of Iraq, the UK’s involvement was based on a lie about the threat from Iraq, and Tony Blair is a terrorist/ war criminal responsible for the deaths of UK troops and Iraqi citizens; to we need to learn lessons from major mistakes or note the difference between malicious intent and mistakes in judgement.

I say ‘immediate reactions’ deliberately, since it is clear that almost all of the early commentators had made up their mind about the implications of Chilcot before it was published, and are using today make political capital in a cynical way (shocker alert). They could not have digested the report itself in time. Nor could they have even read the ‘executive summary’ which runs to 150 pages.

This is important because the alternative to close reading is cherry picking the most quotable statements.

Example 1: unconditional support or a preamble to challenge?

The phrase that has come back to haunt Blair (and which was subject to many questions in Blair’s press conference) is: “I will be with you, whatever”. On its own, it suggests unconditional support to Bush.

However, the longer paragraph (p15) gives a different impression:

I will be with you, whatever. But this is the moment to assess bluntly the difficulties. The planning on this and the strategy are the toughest yet. This is not Kosovo. This is not Afghanistan. It is not even the Gulf War”.

The fuller statement gives the impression of beginning a sentence with something positive to cushion the blow of something negative (we used to say “with respect …” before it became associated with the opposite sentiment).

So, to take it out of context is to do little more than declare your pre-existing view of Blair and Iraq.

Example 2: military action was not the last resort, but could the UK have stopped it?

On its own, P47 of the executive summary couldn’t seem more critical of Blair’s decision to support military action:

At the time of the Parliamentary vote of 18 March, diplomatic options had not been exhausted. The point had not been reached where military action was the last resort”.

Again, context is everything. Blair’s critics use it to provide a damning assessment of his call to war. Yet, most of the previous 40+ pages suggest that (a) the US was determined to invade Iraq, to achieve regime change, with or without the UK’s help, (b) the US agreed to engage more with the UN, because it meant something to the UK to try to generate some degree of international consensus on the need for disarmament in Iraq (but not regime change), (c) the UK failed to generate that consensus (and realised that key actors in the UN would not agree to invasion over other measures to ensure disarmament), and so (d) its choice was to watch the US invade or play its own part.

In my opinion, at no point does the report say that the UK Government, or Tony Blair, played a pivotal role in the decision to invade. If anything, it suggests that the UK delayed the US’s actions (although Chilcott and Blair disagree strongly about the influence that the UK secures in exchange for support for the US).

So far, the only time in which someone has taken this point seriously is to ask Blair, in his press conference, if he would have supported invading Iraq if the US was not so unequivocal. It is a counterfactual, but one which actually prompted Blair to pause and think.

The other criticisms – that Blair was Bush’s poodle, or just as gung ho – pale in comparison, and seem to signal little more than the childish barbs that people indulge themselves in when they are too lazy to read and think.

Example 3: Blair’s illegal war

The most active critics of Blair describe an illegal war and talk up the prospects of Blair being tried as a war criminal. They will find some succour in Chilcott’s statement (p62):

The circumstances in which it was ultimately decided that there was a legal basis for UK participation were far from satisfactory”.

However, the report then largely describes a key point – the Cabinet should have been informed of the considerable debate and uncertainty about whether or not the Iraqi government had breached resolution 1441 – and the flaws in the UK Government’s unsystematic process. Its focus is more on the flaws in policymaking processes than in the legality of the decision.

Example 4: there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and key actors exaggerated the threat

This section (p72) may be used to reinforce the famous argument that key actors in the UK Government ‘sexed up’ the Iraqi threat:

the tendency to refer in public statements only to Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” without addressing their nature (the type of warhead and whether they were battlefield or strategic weapons systems) or how they might be used (as a last resort against invading military forces or as a weapon of terror to threaten civilian populations in other countries) was likely to have created the impression that Iraq posed a greater threat than the detailed JIC Assessments would have supported”.

However, it is very quickly qualified on p73:

The JIC accepted ownership of the dossier and agreed its content. There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier or that No.10 improperly influenced the text”.

From then on, the criticism revolves around the distinction between (a) what the JIC can say beyond reasonable doubt about the risks of Iraqi military action, and (b) Blair’s interpretation and belief, based on the JIC’s information. There seem to be three criticisms on that basis: the UK Government put a greater emphasis on Blair’s belief than JIC evidence; Blair and colleagues did not subject their beliefs to rigorous interrogation (for example, after key UN inspections); and, the subsequent absence of WMDs exposed the inadequacy of US and UK intelligence on the matter (made worse by Blair’s disproportionate reaction to limited information). In other words, this is a charge of poor judgement (on trusting and interpreting the available evidence) based on strong belief rather than an attempt to mislead the public.

What lessons can we really learn?

I think that the longer term lessons come after the first 50 pages, including:

The danger of ‘groupthink’ or limited analysis of well-intentioned beliefs and actions

Chilcot makes the basic argument that there should be greater use of Cabinet and Cabinet committees to subject key decisions to robust disagreement (PP55-61). The summary also contains various references to the problem of ‘ingrained beliefs’; the ‘ingrained belief that Saddam Hussein’s regime retained chemical and biological warfare capabilities’.

The point may be about the need to deal with policymaker psychology: you may be well intentioned (the report does not argue that Blair’s government sought to mislead or act cynically), but your ingrained beliefs may not be justified, they might cloud your judgement, and you should have standard operating procedures in government to subject them to meaningful challenge (which might have allowed for, for example, more time to consider the evidence and legal advice, and less pressure on key bodies to find evidence or analysis to justify action). This could represent the most important conclusion, but also the problem with the least clear solution. Is it realistic, in a Westminster system, to develop systematically such checks and balances within the heart of government?

Be careful about the unintended consequences of harm reduction strategies

P112 says that, “Mr Blair’s Note, which had not been discussed or agreed with his colleagues, set the UK on a path leading to diplomatic activity in the UN and the possibility of participation in military action in a way that would make it very difficult for the UK subsequently to withdraw its support for the US”.

This is another interesting argument about the psychology and politics of group dynamics: you might think that you are forming a coalition to temper the actions of the US, but it might instead lead to a situation in which you reinforce US action and can’t find a good way out.

There should be better planning for the long term consequences of war

The US did not have a good plan for Iraq beyond regime change, the UK was not central to its planning and, when it performed its role, it proved ill equipped. The report then discusses, in some depth, the continued instability of Iraq, the need for different military decisions (or at least an honest debate about policy progress), and growing differences of US/ UK strategy (e.g. on providing more, or withdrawing, troops) (p78-108). From p109 it discusses the potential for policy failure according to different criteria (from more instability in Iraq, to a tense US/ UK relationship).

This final point is perhaps the most ‘generalisable’ but, to me, it prompts debate rather than providing solutions. At its heart is a debate about the extent to which you can expect a government to anticipate and plan for the effects of its actions. Yet, if we were being honest, we would recognise that no amount of planning and scenario training would give a decent picture of the consequences of a military action to produce regime change in a state.

Perhaps, under those circumstances, Blair should have stood up to say, ‘I believe in what we are doing, but I don’t know what will happen next’. It is a fanciful notion, but perhaps no more fanciful than the idea that we can put in place a strategy to control future outcomes.

This is what I would stress as a key learning point for public debate: accept that policymakers always face uncertainty and can’t tell you what will happen next. All they can express is a combination of value judgement, hope, and expectation. We like to think that governments are in control, but they do not really know the consequences of their actions, and we need to find ways to hold them to account under such circumstances. For me, this is about hubris rather than criminality.




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