“In the name of God, go!” – Oliver Cromwell, On The Dissolution of the Long Parliament, 1653
The Iraq war presented me with the most profound moral crisis of my life. I was working in Washington, immersed in two major efforts offering advice on post-war Iraq planning. Yet I could see there was none. The only Iraqis who were being talked to were exiles who had last been in the country in 1958, well before my birth. At one crucial moment, I asked the Washington foreign policy elite assembled if any of them had ever been to Iraq, as we were talking about re-making a country of which we knew nothing. There was a moment’s resentful silence, and then things went on exactly as before.
After months of agonising, I refused to go along with the talking points any more and was pushed from my lucrative and relatively powerful job. For all my many flaws, there is no doubt in my mind that it is the single best thing I have ever done, keeping faith with American and British servicemen being placed in a wholly untenable position, fighting an unwinnable war. I lost my job over the Iraq War; many thousands lost their lives.
Which brings me to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent post-Brexit musings on the need for serious leadership in the coming negotiations with the EU, seemingly offering himself as the obvious candidate to lead the talks. Given what I do for a living, it takes an awful lot to enrage me, but this did – more for what it said about the state of democracy in the US and the UK, than for Blair’s otherworldly yearnings. If the neo-cons in America can still run the Republican Party and Blair is still taken seriously after the colossal mistakes they made in the deserts of Iraq, our systems of government have truly ceased to be self-correcting and the end is nigh.
Thank God, then, for the Chilcot report. Yes, the Iraq Inquiry proceeded at a snail’s pace, taking an eye-watering seven years to complete. Yes, it cost £10m and weighs in at an unreadable 2.6m words. But for all that, Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues have restored my faith in British democracy, in that the great and the good have at last been called to account for their wholly avoidable and calamitous mistakes, as befits a robust political system.
Merely by officially making crystal clear what I knew to be true from my own searing experiences, the Chilcot report has done the country a service. Yes, obviously, Blair went to war before peace options had been exhausted. Also obvious is the notion that the WMD pretext for the war was wildly over-sold. It was the worst kept secret in official Washington during the Bush years that the neo-con White House was going to go to war whatever the rest of us – from realists in the Republican Party, to Wilsonian Democrats and foreigners of all stripes – thought. Blair’s creepy love note to Bush, “I will be with you whatever,” is merely rhetorical icing on the cake.
But the real damage of the war, as I said to the rage of my enemies at the time, is geopolitical, and can be explained to any five-year-old (which I actually have done to mine). There are three big powers in the area (Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia). The third, while always being important (Saudi Arabia), will never have enough people to dominate the other two. If you utterly destroy one of the remaining powers (Iraq), what happens? My five-year-old immediately pounced on the answer. “The other one (Iran) is strongest.” Upon hearing that eminently sensible answer from such small lips, I wept in rage, at the fact that the leaders of powerful and important nations couldn’t also work this out and all the senseless death that followed.
Read more: Chilcot report: What are the key takes?
Finally, while the rise of Islamic State could not have been foreseen, its birth is the direct result of the doleful post-war planning that followed the invasion. In the chaos of “victory”, the Iraqi insurgency was created, which morphed into Al Qaeda in Iraq which in turn became Islamic State. The fact that this was not foreseeable does not absolve either Bush or Blair from what happened, as an eminently unnecessary war (and the incompetence that followed) opened Pandora’s Box to Iranian domination of the Gulf and the rise of Islamic State, surely not what Bush and Blair had in mind when they began their crusade.
Two obvious lessons follow Chilcot. For Blair, all I can do is echo Cromwell and yell at the top of my lungs, “For God’s sake, go!’ Second, David Cameron must be refuted in the names of all the unnecessary dead. The Prime Minister said that Chilcot should not rule out future military interventions. That is true. But as Sir John rightly put it, the bar for engaging in military action must be far higher, as the consequences are so profound and can be so dire. Thank God for the Chilcot report.