Two million words long, seven years in the making: The Chilcot Inquiry called 129 witnesses, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair can expect a critical review, but probably not a future court date.
NASA’s Juno probe took two years fewer to reach Jupiter than the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry needed for completion. British troops spent less time on Iraqi soil than Lord John Chilcot and his team spent investigating the government’s behavior before, during and after the 2003 decision to go to war. World War II was over more quickly, too. Vietnam did at least drag on longer.
Expected to clear 2 million words, the report won’t be a swift read either – weighing in at double the length of the Harry Potter series, or three times the complete works of Shakespeare.
Years of evidence gathering and witness testimony should culminate on Wednesday in the release of the mammoth report, which is expected to be highly critical of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s actions in the lead-up to the Iraq war. The burning question is set to revolve around intent – did Blair knowingly mislead the electorate, or did he merely propagate false and flawed information he genuinely believed to be true?
A ‘decision,’ not a deception
In his own 2010 testimony, Blair said that he would have acted very differently back in 2002 and 2003 – if armed with the information that had since emerged.
“It isn’t about a lie or a deceit or a deception, it’s a decision,” Blair said of joining the meager US coalition in Iraq, despite the absence of UN or even NATO approval. “I believe we did the right thing. I stand 100 percent by it. And I think that our intelligence services gave us the correct intelligence and information at the time.”
Some argue, however, that Blair did effectively deceive the country, parliament, and even his own cabinet – via the misinterpretation or exaggeration of limited intelligence, and his desire to run a so-called “sofa cabinet,” with key decisions taken in informal surroundings rather than at cabinet meetings with proper oversight. Those cabinet members with doubts about this style would then tend to find themselves off the sofa, frozen out.
Conservative MP David Davis argued this week that it was “clear” that Blair not only lied, but even conducted a “concerted campaign” to mislead politicians and the public alike.
“The intelligence evidence Blair relied on was described by the Joint Intelligence Committee as ‘sporadic and patchy.’ Yet Blair told the House of Commons that the picture painted by our intelligence services was ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative,'” Davis wrote in an opinion article published by The Daily Mail.
The British parliamentary motion for war unfairly painted France as responsible for deadlock in UN negotiations, Davis said. This was an issue raised in parliament by the late Robin Cook – formerly Blair’s foreign minister – in 2003, as he quit his cabinet post in protest at the war:
“We delude ourselves if we think the degree of international hostility is all the result of President [Jacques] Chirac,” Cook told the House of Commons. “The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner, not NATO, not the European Union, and now not the Security Council.”
Davis, long a campaigner for the inquest’s completion, says the conflict left Iraq a “smouldering ruin,” helped spread violence across the region, and “shattered” the credibility of Western foreign policy. He has acknowledged an irony to all this in parliament; he voted in favor of the invasion at the time.
WMDs and the ‘dodgy dossier’
While the George W. Bush government focused on Saddam Hussein’s alleged involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks when making its case for war, Britain was more concentrated on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. UN weapons inspector of the time, Hans Blix, summed up the issue rather well during his appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry: It was, he said, “very hard” for Iraq to declare its WMDs to the UN team if it did not actually possess any.
A September 2002 document, formally called “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction,” has since become known as the “dodgy dossier.” Its foreword, signed by Blair, implied that British troops in Cyprus could be hit by an Iraqi WMD with only 45 minutes’ notice – a claim that was broadly reported and never corrected by Westminster.
Public opinion on the invasion at the time was mixed in Britain – albeit with a vocal minority vehemently against the war. A march of an estimated 1 million people in London provided the most obvious demonstration of this. With time, however, as the failures of the Iraq conflict became apparent, public opinion has galvanized against following George Bush into a second conflict before securing approval from the UN Security Council.
Who is exposed to what?
Two accusations in particular weigh heavily on Blair prior to publication, firstly whether or not he knowingly deceived people or parliament. His motive for going to war is the other – if the Chilcot Inquiry concludes that “regime change” was the real goal of the invasion, as opposed to disarming Saddam’s regime, Blair could be accused of overstepping his mandate.
Current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a virulent pacifist who voted and campaigned against the war as a back-bencher, recently said he would consider seeking to prosecute Blair if the inquiry’s findings warranted it. However, Corbyn is now rather busy dealing with an open rebellion within his own parliamentary party.
The International Criminal Court, for its part, told The Daily Telegraph that it was interested in some evidence within the inquiry – for instance details of alleged abuses carried out by British soldiers in Iraq. But the ICC also said that the British government’s decision to declare war on Iraq did not fall within its remit to investigate or prosecute.
The Iraq war cost British taxpayers 9.24 billion pounds (10.8 billion euros or $12 billion at today’s exchange rates), 179 British soldiers died during their 2003-2009 mission there, and a minimum of 150,000 civilians were killed.
Now, after seven more years and another 10 million taxpayer pounds (the cost of the inquest), a thorough post-mortem should be available online for all to see. Families of deceased British soldiers will now receive a printed copy free of charge, following an outcry over initial plans to ask them to pay the sticker price of 767 pounds if they wanted a hard copy.