Comprehensive though the Chilcot report is, and 12 volumes long, its promised revelations about how Britain went to war in Iraq and the lessons to be learnt are incomplete. What’s missing is particularly important for Australia, which has yet to hold such an inquiry, and where public pressure for one is mounting.
The Chilcot report took seven years to appear. The successive delays were attributed in part to exchanges of view between London and Washington over releasing American documents. Clearly, Washington’s will to suppress them prevailed, because neither what George W. Bush said and wrote to Tony Blair nor what passed between American officials and their British counterparts appears in the report. This absence creates an unintended illusion that Blair was leading the conversation and taking all the initiatives, while we know from contemporary reporting that the reverse was the case. It would be illuminating to be able to read a record of the meeting at Bush’s Crawford ranch in April 2002 in which Blair agreed to back the US, and the exchange in July 2002 when he told the President he would be ‘with you, whatever’. This context would not excuse Blair’s reckless sycophancy, but it might show the pressure he was under to do Bush’s bidding.
Chilcot leaves another important question unanswered. If Blair knew the intelligence on which he relied was wrong, or was ‘fixed’ to suit the policy he had already formed, and if he was advised that the evidence of Iraq’s WMD was dubious, and that the war would be illegal and counterproductive, why did he go ahead with it? Several British authors have analysed Blair’s motives, including his record of successful risk-taking, his determination to have Britain under New Labour regain its former greatness as the United States’ advocate in Europe, and his personal hubris (Andy McSmith, The Iraq Report; Peter Oborne, Not the Chilcot Report; Steve Richards, Blair & Iraq: why Tony Blair went to war – an investigation). Chilcot shows that Blair would not have attacked Iraq, Bush’s enemy of choice, without the US doing so, no matter how tyrannous Saddam Hussein was. But the report does not press on to investigate the influence of major oil companies on British and American policy, their interest in exploiting the oil industry of a sanctions-weakened Iraq, and the advantage they might have gained if Western pressure had resulted in stabilising OPEC.
Also missing from Chilcot is any account of events following 2009. That was the last year for which he collected evidence, so of course his account of the disastrous results of the invasion cannot include the worsening situation in Iraq since then. Nor can Chilcot cover the sequential re-entry of allied forces into Iraq from 2014, which was explained first as being for humanitarian purposes, then for bombing insurgents, and then for training Iraq’s army, and now its police. The bombing of targets in Syria followed in 2015, and continues. Blair at least consulted the Commons and secured their approval before the invasion in 2003. David Cameron similarly sought Parliament’s agreement to bombing Syria in 2013 but was turned down, a mistake he did not repeat two years later. So Chilcot’s promise of lessons to be learnt has been hollowed out by the long delay: if his report had appeared in 2011 as first promised, Cameron would have had to apply its lessons to his own actions then and since, and more MPs would have opposed them. We might not still be fighting this same illegal war.
A fourth consideration, naturally missing from the outdated Chilcot, is the shift under President Obama to reliance on drone strikes against ‘enemy’ targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Drones have largely taken the place of Western troops which Iraq does not welcome on its soil. Not only are drone attacks relatively cheap, they are secretive and deniable. Their successes in killing some IS leader or another are always reported: their collateral damage is not. In the week of the multiple attacks in France, a US drone was reported by a local online journalist to have ‘mistakenly’ – once again – destroyed a medical facility in Iraq, killing more than 80 people. Her story was ignored by the mainstream Western media.
The lessons to be learnt from Chilcot’s report apply to Australia even more than they do to Britain, because Australia has had no report to match his. More questions remain to be asked and answered here. No record of the pre-invasion conversations between Bush and John Howard exists: all we have is Howard’s airbrushed allusion in his memoir, Lazarus Rising, to their exchange at Crawford in June 2002. No independent legal advice to the government, if any existed, has been made public in respect of the deployments to Iraq in 2003 and 2014 and to Syria in 2015. The government is unable or unwilling to produce an invitation from the governments in Baghdad or Damascus for Australia to commit troops there since 2014, and in Syria Australia is clearly in breach of Article 51 of the UN Charter. And of course, Parliament has not voted on any aspect of this long war.
Australia desperately needs a Chilcot report of our own. Its central purpose should be to make clear what was done in our name, why, and with what result. Its potential benefit will be to change the way Australia goes to war, so that we do not continue making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes.
Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President, Honest History and Vice-President, Australians for War Powers Reform.