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.