July 15, 2016 | The Weekly Standard
The Chilcot Report
The Chilcot report on the Iraq war ought to elicit two emotions: sympathy and pity for former British prime minister Tony Blair. As was evident by late 2002, when Europeans saw the frightful resolve of George W. Bush and began earnestly debating how evil Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was and what threat he posed, Blair was a brave politician and an exceptionally good ally of the United States. The English political elite has never been a fountainhead of pro-American sentiment, despite the close, at times intimate, relations between the British and American armed forces, intelligence services, and diplomatic corps. This envious English sneering, which erupted into disgust when the occupation of Iraq went south in 2004, is not in Blair’s repertoire. His affection for the United States seems untroubled and sincere. His admiration is both moral and strategic: Anyone who has watched the documentary shown in the theater at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City, in which Bush and Blair reflect on what happened that day and its aftermath, can tell that both men see history in broad brushstrokes, that 9/11 was a tocsin call of a new barbarian age, which the West needed to respond to with determination and force.
Blair's post-9/11 vision put him at odds with many in the British establishment, who had become increasingly uncomfortable with war as an unavoidable part of maintaining the post-World War II liberal order. There is some irony in that Blair consistently withheld the means for his mission: He is as culpable as any post-Cold War prime minister in allowing British military power to wane. Europe has excelled at disarming since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The punctilious ethics and legalisms that animate European discussions about the use of force remain, even in the age of Barack Obama, awkward and adventitious to Americans, who don't believe the legal or moral legitimacy of war is determined by a unanimous vote of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Poor Blair was too American for many Brits, especially after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan became arduous. John Chilcot and the other privy counsellors who have produced this seven-years-in-the-making, 2,600,000-word report (one shudders to think what Chilcot would have done with the Boer War) scold the former prime minister as dons would a wayward student. If Blair couldn't have stopped the Americans from going to war, the report not too subtly suggests, he should have at least joined the French and Germans in opposition.
Blair's Iraqi hopes, of course, foundered on (initial) American military incompetence. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and the light-footprint generals who thought they could go into Iraq, a society torn apart by Saddam's savagery (Chilcot refers to Saddam's rule as one of “harsh deprivation”), and leave within an undefined short period were delusional. Blair, like Bush, didn't pay sufficient attention soon enough to the occupation. Civilian leaders should always rigorously second-guess military brass and intelligence bureaucracies. Blair really should have known, especially given his defense budgets, that the United Kingdom could no longer sustain an expeditionary force in a hostile environment, particularly one where Iranian-manufactured explosive devices ripped apart lightly armored vehicles. After British combat operations ended in Iraq in 2009, senior British military officers apologized to their American counterparts for failing to hold their own, when British forces hunkered down and let militant Shiites run rampant through the south until American forces quelled the violence.
In a different time, the Brits, too, would have surged. A stout-hearted British prime minister might have objected to Obama's calamitous decision to withdraw all American soldiers from Iraq, which, despite the president's felicitous prognostications about the country's future success, helped lead rapidly to a government crack-up in Baghdad and the rise of Shiite militias, Iran, and the Islamic State. We wouldn't have need today for the quiet and ignominious return of nearly 6,000 American soldiers to Iraq. Yet any of these observations and conjectures would have been politically incorrect; the Chilcot report is, in the range and limitations of its curiosity, tirelessly in tune with accepted wisdom.
The privy counsellors surprisingly don't spend much time on Europe, on how so many governments were divided about whether to support Washington, and on why many politicians—though not the man on the street and intellectuals in the cafés—decided to back the war against Saddam or at least not oppose it. Twenty members of NATO or the European Union either supported the war or remained helpfully silent or neutral. Did these European politicians believe the increasingly hyperbolic claims and suggestions of some U.S. officials about Iraq's WMD programs, statements that may have been uttered because Washington was trying to gain a United Nations' blessing for its actions—a move dictated not by American domestic politics but by Washington's concern for Blair and other Europeans who felt they needed, politically, a U.N. imprimatur?
It's doubtful. Most of the pro-war neoconservatives I know were certainly uncomfortable with some of the commentary that could vividly bubble forth from Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. If neocons were skeptical and could nevertheless strongly back the war, then certainly Europeans, whose hearts and minds almost always veer more toward Venus than Mars, could be unmoved by this rhetoric and nevertheless find the war an acceptable choice for the United States. They surely acted how they did because they acknowledged the United States' preeminent position as their defender; it's also not outrageous to suggest that they may have paid some attention to Saddam's wars, his gassing of the Kurds, his longstanding appetite for weapons of mass destruction, or just the Stalinist hell inside Iraq. In other words, many European officials understood that the United States was going to war to remove Saddam not because of his refractory and deceptive behavior with U.N. weapons inspectors, and not because every major European intelligence service also thought that Saddam had active WMD programs (to be fair to the Europeans, bad intelligence and analysis can spread among the Western services like venereal disease, especially if Americans are responsible for the first infection). Whether the European backers of Bush had read Ken Pollack's The Threatening Storm, an influential book that made the case for taking out Saddam, a wild and crazy totalitarian who'd repeatedly shown himself immune to carrot-and-stick Western diplomacy, the theme was appreciated in Europe if not embraced as it was in Washington. That Bush got the support that he did in the Old World shows that the Kantian hold on post-Cold War Europe wasn't complete.
It's a painful irony that Blair got hoist by his own petard: He insisted that the United States and his own government make a case for war closely tied to the issue of U.N. weapons inspections and security-council deliberations, and not to Saddam's past or to post-9/11 arguments about preemption. This “American” understanding of the world, which Blair privately seems to have ardently embraced, actually created the philosophical space, in both the United States and Europe, that allowed Bush to move decisively against Saddam, an aspiration that Chilcot reports President Bill Clinton also had. If the occupation had gone better, Blair and Bush would have escaped the WMD booby trap: Saddam's “harsh deprivation” would surely have held the high ground in the West's moral imagination.
Recall that the active European opposition to the Iraq war consisted only of four countries: France, Germany, Belgium, and Russia. The Belgians and the Germans were implacable. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made it clear he would never support the war, even if the U.N. Security Council approved American military action. The opposition of the French, who became determined critics of the campaign to eliminate Saddam, wasn't a foregone conclusion. In Paris there was lingering shame about earlier French support to the Butcher of Baghdad. Saddam's atrocities against the Kurds had long had a sympathetic audience, and French president Jacques Chirac, despite his open ambition to constrain American power, wasn't ardently anti-American and was sensitive to standing against an American juggernaut. It's entirely possible that if George W. Bush had been a better diplomat, if Secretary of State Colin Powell had not so often sent mixed messages about whether the United States could be dissuaded from conflict, if he'd just bothered to travel to Europe to chat with natives, the die might have been cast differently. Blair would not have been “America's poodle” if France had joined the coalition: The effect of French participation, even if led by a conservative French president, on the antiwar Western left would have been significant.
The Chilcot report lacks any variable, “what if,” history that doesn't tilt against the war. Its dry narrative, devoid of color and the personal interaction that frames so much of foreign policy, leaves the reader undernourished and bored even before escaping the 150-page executive summary. An assessment of a small action that has major ramifications—the 9/11 Commission report—can be illuminating and at times surprising because its questions are relatively simple and apolitical, and its methodology and intent aren't speculative.
The Chilcot report wasn't content with such a factual exploration of tactical questions but had to stroll off into a wormhole of strategic conjectures, camouflaging them, as headmasters are often wont to do, with august assertions. What else could privy counsellors do with a report on a war about which, conspiracies possibly aside, serious people knew already all the pertinent facts? It's mean-spirited and hopelessly American-centric to say so, but a British inquiry into the Iraq war was superfluous from the start. Adults knew that there had been no lies and prevarications about weapons-of-mass-destruction intelligence after the publication in 2005 of the American Robb-Silberman Commission's findings. For better or worse, Blair attached his fate to Bush, Rumsfeld, and their generals. Junior allies in big wars have no other choice. Somewhere in Washington, preferably close to the British embassy, Americans ought to erect a tribute to Blair, probably their truest ally since Winston Churchill.
A serious British reflection on 9/11, the Iraqi tyrant, and Blair's decision to stand by the United States could have been done in 26,000 words, even allowing for Chilcot's odd speculations about Europe's willingness to continue to starve Saddam's regime, to deny it the resources to rebuild his war machine. There would even have been enough space for guesses on what the Middle East might have looked like if the Butcher had survived, on how many Iraqis would have perished if the Great Arab Revolt, which began in Tunisia and spread far and wide, had ignited in Mesopotamia, or on whether the Kurdish enclave could have survived Saddam's rebirth, even with American air support. Chilcot could have speculated on whether Washington could have held the line with Europeans, Russians, and Chinese eager to re-attempt a policy of engagement with Baghdad. Or whether the mullahs in Iran would have been inclined to slow their nuclear-weapons ambitions, let alone stop them as some in Europe and the Obama administration want to hope the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has done, if Saddam had survived. The Iraqi ruler was, after all, the inspiration for the Islamic Republic's clandestine quest for the bomb. It's a good guess that Iranian intelligence, too, didn't dissent from the CIA's estimate that the gentleman hadn't given up on active WMD programs.
At 26,000 words, it would have been a taut essay. But Chilcot, a civil servant rigorously trained to write memoranda, surely could have done it.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.