RICHARD BUTLER. The Invasion of Iraq: Will anyone be brought to trial, held to account ?

Jul 8, 2016


There was anxiety about why it had taken 7 years for the result of the UK’s Iraq Enquiry to be published. Would it prove to be a whitewash of Tony Blair and his decisions?

Within minutes of watching its Chair, Sir John Chilcot, introduce to the public the Enquiry’s report, yesterday, it was clear that those apprehensions were not be fulfilled.

I have not yet read the whole report. It is some 2.5 million words in 12 volumes. The index includes 133 entries on UNSCOM, the UN organization which had the task of removing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, WMD.

UNSCOM was established by the Security Council to “ destroy, remove, or render harmless”, Iraq’s WMD. I was appointed Executive Chairman of UNSCOM by the Security Council in1997. I repeatedly held discussions in Baghdad with Iraqi Ministers, led by Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, and managed a team of several hundred inspectors.

In my final report to the Council, at the end of 1998, I wrote that I was not able to state, with finality, that the task of accounting for all of Iraq’s presumed holdings of WMD had been achieved, but made clear that the weapons unaccounted for represented only a fraction of what had existed. In answer to a question then put to me by Russia’s representative, in a Council meeting, I expressed the view that what remained unaccounted for, if they existed, would pose no serious threat.

The Executive Summary of the Iraq Enquiry Report and Sir John Chilcot’s brilliantly clear and uncompromised statement introducing it, record the following conclusions:

  1. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was undertaken before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted: “Military action at that time was not a last resort”.
  2. “The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were posed with a certainty that was not justified”.
  3. “The Government failed to achieve its stated objectives”.

In addition to these bedrock conclusions, the Enquiry also concludes that: the UK intelligence authorities failed to make clear to the government the limitations of its information, the legal justification provided for the invasion was unsatisfactory, UK actions undermined the authority of the UN Security Council ( Blair had claimed the reverse, blaming the French ), Blair overlooked the threat the invasion would pose to UK security and overestimated his ability to influence US policy and actions, and he should have shown far greater interest in what might happen in Iraq and the region, as the consequences of the invasion.

Chilcot and his colleagues have assembled their report with extraordinary care, obviously sensitive to both the political mine-field through which they were walking, but also aware of what can only be called their duty to history. That duty is underlined by the countless thousands of dead and injured in Iraq, UK and allied dead and injured, the massive cost of the military operations, and not least, the derived continuing and massive instability and violence in the regions neighboring Iraq and in the wider world in which violent terrorist action is continuing and possibly expanding.

The results from the decisions taken 14 years ago by Blair and George W Bush, then roundly applauded and joined by our own John Howard have been devastating. Not only did they utterly fail to solve the problem they purported to address but they caused it to grow, to metastasize. Immediately after Sir John Chilcot launched the report, Tony Blair held a public and media event in which he sought to address its conclusions. He spoke and answered questions for over 2 hours. Under the Maxwell principles, prior to finalization of the report, he had been able to read and comment on passages referring to him.

The length of this event and Blair’s demeanor was, itself, disturbing. While he said he was sorry for some mistakes, he repeatedly stated that his intentions had been of the highest order of probity, and then through a tortuous analysis of the decisions he took and his repeated assertion that he had had no decent alternatives, he both rendered his attempted apology virtually meaningless and instead, tended to affirm its assertions about his actions.

It is important that on a number of key issues, Blair continues to seek to deny established facts and possibly, plainly lie. I say “possibly” because it seems not impossible that he believes he is dealing in the truth on some of the matters where the evidence contradicts him.

In particular, his representation of his conduct of his relationship with George W Bush and his receipt of legal advice from Lord Goldsmith, is contradicted by documentary evidence provided in the report and in the “Downing Street memorandum”.

The decision by Bush, Blair and Howard to invade Iraq violated international law. The Charter of the UN forbids such action unless taken in self defence, the need for which must be demonstrated to the Security Council, or if authorized by the Security Council for “the maintenance of international peace and security”.

It is with respect to the notion of self defence, in this case of the UK, that Blair’s contentions on Iraq’s WMD, in 2003: that they existed and could be ready to be used in 45 minutes, were an egregious misrepresentation. It was matched by US National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice’s drawing a picture of a “mushroom cloud” emanating from Iraq. It did not have nuclear weapons. This is why, following the invasion, none were found.

In the case of Iraq, in 2003, the Council refused to authorize the use of force proposed by the US and UK indicating that its preference was that the disarmament process then under way should be allowed to continue in order to finally clarify the issue of Iraq’s possession of WMD. This was what my successor as Chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, recommended.

After three years in that role, in which he had directed an extensive review of UNSCOM’s actions and a further examination of the situation in Iraq, Blix said he “reaffirmed the Butler report”, meaning my final report of 1998, and pointed out that the additional work his team had conducted did not reveal new problems. He stated with splendidly Swedish economy, that the concept “unaccounted for” meant just that and should not be taken as implying that weapons in fact existed. But, to meet the concerns newly stated by the US and the UK, he would need a little more time. He said he thought that this would be preferable to war.

The so called allies ignored this and invaded Iraq. Chilcot contends that, among other negative outcomes, this weakened the authority of the Council. Incredibly, Blair claims he agreed to act with the US as a means of strengthening the Council.

The issue of respect for international law is not merely academic. It is truly serious. Whenever force has been used illegally, both in the pre UN Charter period during the 20th Century, and certainly after the Charter was adopted, its effects have been deeply injurious, have solved nothing, and has led to an expansion of violence.

This is particularly true of the attempts by large States to assert their “responsibility” to intervene in and fix the problems of other smaller States. The term “responsibility” is, of course, largely deployed as propaganda. What is really meant is national interest, such as the US/UK national interest in the area in which Iraq is found, the area described as “the Middle East”, the oil lands. Appropriately, middle east is a colonial term: eastwards from where – London and Paris.

A current example is Russia in Syria seeking to bring “stability” to that shockingly troubled country, provided it is able to retain its bases in Syria and deny western influence in the region.

So it now seems that another consequence of western intervention in Iraq, in addition to the rise of ISIS/DAESH is what many are styling as the new Cold War or what many Arabs see as a new Great Game (cf. Peter Hopkirk ), a new crusaderism.

Such perspectives, points of view, are often rejected or at least ignored because they inadequately represent an essential truth cherished in our polities and media: that we are the good guys. Our interests, our uses of force, our troops, by very definition, are on the side of right. This is motivated by pride, patriotism, xenophobia, wishful thinking, to mention only some of its drivers. Note that all of these are emotional rather than rational impulses and they bring sometimes severe penalties and scorn upon those who challenge them.

Possibly Chilcot’s elemental and hopefully enduring achievement is the assertion that serious policy and decisions on going to war, or not, need to be based on rational analysis and evidence. The Report asserts that this was clearly not he case with Blair’s decisions in 2002/3 and it has led to disaster.

Where do we put John Howard and his successors in this picture? The automaticity of his decision to join Bush and Blair was stark. He ignored the largest public protests ever held in Australia, over half a million people on February 16-17th, 2003, in London, it was 1 million people ). There was no parliamentary debate and it seems little Cabinet consideration. And, so it has continued under all subsequent Prime Ministers, irrespective of political colour, with Australian troops sent, seriatum to Afghanistan, Iraq, and in air operations over Syria.

The question which begs to be answered is, why?

What Australian principles or interests are at stake, requiring such a costly commitment, far from Australia, the results and wider fallout from which is unable to be accurately assessed. The main answer offered is the alliance answer; that our alliance with the US requires it and it is right that we take part in ventures mounted by the west, the good guys. The first of these is almost always not the case and the second borders on infantility. We should behave as a grown up, self respecting nation, even if others, particularly the US, have become accustomed to us as a dependent.

On the UK’s relationship with the US, during Blair’s tenure, the Report states: “ Mr Blair overestimated his ability to influence US decisions on Iraq… The UK’s relationship with the US has proved strong enough over time to bear the weight of honest disagreement. It does not require unconditional support where our interests or judgements differ”.

Surely the same was true of John Howard in 2002/3. And subsequently, the conviction that we Australians must accompany the Americans everywhere seems to have grown. Prime Minister Gillard’s speech to a joint session of the US Congress in March 9th, 2011, reached unprecedented heights of sycophancy.

Not only have our main political parties become thoroughly convinced that there is no appetite in the electorate for our asserting independence in foreign policy, but there seems to have been a growing acceptance that on military intervention overseas, we have a Presidential system, where the Prime Minister decides and may or not consult his colleagues, let alone the Parliament. As is pointed out by Australians for War Powers Reform (, urgent action is needed to clarify the practice under which Australia decides to go to war and such a decision is authorised in a way which is consistent with our constitution and democracy.

It is possible that Tony Blair will be indicted for war crimes or the crime of aggression or in some other way, abuse of office for example, and tried by the UK Parliament or a Court. Given the nature of his public appearance yesterday, he certainly appears to fear this.

If he is brought to trial, the question is, why not John Howard as well? But then we don’t have clarity about how Australia decides, constitutionally, to go to war. We need this.

In listening to Sir John Chilcot and Tony Blair, at this significant moment, it seemed to me that another abiding principle was illuminated: that whatever is done must be done for the right reasons. This may not guarantee success, but the absence of the right reasons will surely guarantee failure.

Richard Butler AC, Was Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, and Executive Chairman of the United Nations Special Commission to disarm Iraq (UNSCOM).

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