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From Curveball to Chilcot

11/07/2016 12:41 | Updated 11 July 2016

The purpose of the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq War was to find lessons for the future from the mistakes of the past. It found plenty of mistakes but few lessons. But, at least, it has provided a degree of closure for families bereaved by the war.

Two of the lessons were obvious soon after the allied military success in April 2003. The first was that the UK does not always need to fight alongside its US ally to sustain the special Anglo-American relationship. Harold Wilson stayed out of the Vietnam war. George W. Bush, seeing the strong public opposition in UK, phoned Tony Blair to let him know that he did not have to proceed. The special relationship had some influence over the US in obtaining UN resolutions but also had something of a romantic pretence about it.

Second, and this is taught in police academies around the world, if a suspect's guilt is assumed too early in an investigation, without enough firm evidence, you tend inadvertently to close your mind to other possibilities. A mindset develops that discards contrary indications and overvalues unsubstantiated corroborative evidence. The intelligence source Curveball could have featured in a spoof spy comedy. The US and UK's security services as well as Prime Minister Blair appear to have fallen into a crude trap.

A closed mindset prevailed in the case of Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Though there was also exaggeration of the import of spurious intelligence. The Chilcot report delivered the humiliation of Tony Blair foretold, but many others joined him on the pyre of public opprobrium. Most significant, Chilcot exonerated him from charges of deception and lying.

A more puzzling - unanswered - question is why did Tony Blair and his key ministers - with the exception of Robin Cooke - choose to ignore the weight of expert opinion about the likely results of military intervention in Iraq. I remember before the war a near consensus amongst experts that the removal of Saddam Hussein and his brutal system of repression would result in the disintegration of the country, already debilitated by years of sanctions. Iraq like Syria was held together by state terrorism.

On the matter of politicians' attitude to experts, Mr. Gove is of help here. You shouldn't listen to them, he told Britain. They often get it wrong. But as Iraq illustrated, they often get it right.

Military interventions promoted by Tony Blair had, until Iraq, gone rather well. Sierra Leone was a mini-triumph. I worked for eight years in the Faith Foundation of which he is patron. I had several people in Sierra Leone say to me, quite spontaneously, and out of his earshot: "That man saved our country". I have walked down streets in Kosovo named after him. The initial post-9/11 removal of the Taliban government was also a military success, albeit temporary. Iraq was the intervention too far.

The catastrophe in Iraq was made more certain by having no effective plan of action after victory in the field, by believing the army could be disbanded, the Baathists removed and that a collapsing state would somehow regenerate. To think as if this were the post war de-nazification of Germany was folly. Under such circumstances the disintegration of Iraq's national politics into religious and ethnic blocs contending in a vacuum for power and dominance became well nigh inevitable. It is unclear what control Britain had over this "nation-building" fiasco. Chilcot gives the impression that it was very little.

The Chilcot enquiry, however judicious its findings, has inevitably played in into a very British blame-game whilst the USA, holding 95% of the military assets, has brushed aside all guilt. But Iraqi political leaders cannot escape responsibility so easily. Successive Iraqi governments failed to strive for national unity, falling back on brutal ethnic and religious patrimonialism, generating civil war from entrenched Sunni-Shi'a sectarianism. Iran and other Middle Eastern States fed the fire. ISIS in Syria and Iraq would not have gained momentum without armed, and unarmed, Sunni support. Sunnis had much to fear from Shi'a militias and much to resent in Shi'a majoritarian government. Many saw Isis 'protection' as a lesser of two evils. Just chart the road paved with sectarian graves from Al Qaida's Abu Musa al-Zarqawi to ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Then came the Arab Spring, rapidly becoming an Arab Winter and a secondary cause of recruitment to terrorist organisations. The massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya Square on 14 August 2013, sanctioned by the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior, was one of the largest killings of demonstrators in recent history. Over 800 people died at the hands of Egyptian security forces. The massacre gave a clear message to Islamists around the world that peaceful, democratic, paths to state power end in tragedy.

Western governments' support for Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi reinforced the message from terrorist organisations that takfiri jihad was the only way forward; the "far enemy" had to be fought as well as the "near enemy". Yet the USA had initially tried to support the inept Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi; the continuation of military rule in Egypt cannot fairly to placed at the door of the West. None of this was a consequence of the Iraq war.

The urge today to blame all the ills of the Middle East on the Iraq war, to account for Da'esh as a product of the Iraq war, is overwhelming. The temptation is to take a sequence of apparent consequences too far, leaping a decade, in order to find blame for the contemporary terrorist threat from ISIS and the continuing existence of Al-Qaida and its regional franchises and affiliates.

The Iraq war would have taken place irrespective of British participation. By early 2003 massive US troop deployments indicated no intention or possibility of stepping back. Britain had become engaged in a joint military enterprise over which, as a junior partner, it could have little control while sharing a great deal of public responsibility. When it comes to exporting democracy, "stuff happens".

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