The Chilcot report: the longest work of academic history ever?

The report’s deep meditation on foreign policy makes it more than an inquest into the failings of individuals and institutions in the conduct of the Iraq War, argues Glen Rangwala

July 21, 2016
Iraqi woman holding and protecting child in front of army tanks
Source: Reuters

“Influence should not be set as an objective in itself. The exercise of influence is a means to an end.” So read the closing words of the six volumes of commentary – some 2,764 pages – on the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, found in The Report of the Iraq Inquiry, published on 6 July and popularly known as the Chilcot report. Six further volumes (another 2,899 pages, excluding annexes) follow on the consequences of the invasion, but that mini conclusion – an aphorism on the nature of foreign policy – serves to identify a major theme running throughout the gargantuan report. It is also rather revealing of the approach that was adopted by the inquiry team.

Typically, public inquiries do two things. First, they identify individual and institutional failures that lie behind a specific negative outcome. The 2005 Shipman Inquiry into GP Harold Shipman’s multiple murders of his patients found institutional flaws in the processes of registering deaths and the monitoring of doctors, in order to account for the failure to restrain Shipman’s actions; the Bloody Sunday Inquiry of 2010 identified specific British soldiers who acted recklessly and failed to obey orders in the context of the mass shooting of unarmed Catholic protesters in Londonderry in 1972. Second, on that basis, reports usually make recommendations for how to prevent the reoccurrence of the negative outcome through institutional and legal redesign. That is, they propose technical fixes, such as processes for the certification of firearms in the 1996 Cullen report into the mass shooting at a Dunblane primary school, or the independent self-regulatory regime for the press recommended by the first Leveson report, published in 2012, on the media’s previous excesses.

The Chilcot report – named after the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Chilcot – does identify individual and institutional failings, and it does propose some institutional changes. But its major focus is elsewhere. Although the headlines generated by the report have tended to focus on what it says about Tony Blair, its approach is not prosecutorial. Although there is plenty of material that could be used to criticise the then prime minister – as well as, among others, foreign secretary Jack Straw, defence secretary Geoff Hoon and MI6 head Sir Richard Dearlove – the report does not contain a sustained discussion about specific individuals failing in fulfilling their official responsibilities. And it explicitly declines to pass judgements on the legality of the actions it describes, either those of an individual or a state.

And when the report mentions serious institutional mishaps, it does not usually propose specific remedies. In regard to the occupation of southeastern Iraq by British forces, it pithily notes that “much more ministerial and senior official time was devoted to the question of which department should have responsibility for the issue of civilian casualties than to efforts to determine the actual number [of casualties]”. It recommends that greater future effort should be made to record civilian casualties, but it does not prescribe who precisely should have this responsibility, when the process should be activated and what methodology should be used.

So the report is not principally to be understood as an account of failings, and it is not significantly a set of recommendations for institutional change. What, then, is it? That is where the gnomic text quoted at the start of this article is illustrative. Its level of abstraction, its conceptual focus, perhaps even its theoretical weight, comes to the fore. The report is not to be understood as simply an inquest into an event in the past: it is a rigorous analysis of a particular approach to foreign policy, which is found to be wanting. In short, it can be read as a critically focused academic analysis, and it is only by approaching it as a set of intellectual arguments that we can start to appreciate its force.

Unlike many previous public inquiries, the Iraq Inquiry committee was not headed by a judge. Indeed, none of its five members was trained principally in law, and two were heavyweight scholars. One was Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, whose work on strategy, defence policy and the Cold War has come to define the mainstream academic approach to those subjects. The other was the late Sir Martin Gilbert, the eminent historian of war in the 20th century, who died prior to the publication of the report. The three other members also have a foot in the academic world – Sir John Chilcot himself as an honorary fellow of his alma mater, Pembroke College, Cambridge.

The academic discipline that Freedman’s and Gilbert’s books inhabit began with what is still perhaps the greatest history of a war ever written, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Indeed, Thucydides provides the subject matter of a whole chapter of Freedman’s Strategy: A History, a mammoth text published in 2013, and written at least in part during the Chilcot inquiry. While the report easily eclipses Thucydides’ eight books in length, it replicates its approach of recording meticulously the words spoken (or, in this case, written) by politicians, noting the differences of their perspectives, extricating their reasoning and tracing their consequences, both intended and unintended. Moreover, the report could have been seen as following, in its own way, one of Thucydides’ most famous maxims: that the history of a war will have served its purpose “if it is judged useful by those who want to have a clear view of what happened in the past and what – the human condition being what it is – can be expected to happen again some time in the future”, as Jeremy Mynott’s superb recent translation puts it.

What is under scrutiny is therefore the political reasoning of leaders, traced through presenting the memos, minutes of meetings, parliamentary debates and press interviews surrounding the use of military force in Iraq. And, in that reasoning, the primary step is best articulated by Blair himself, this time in his statement to the Cabinet on 7 March 2002, more than a year before the commencement of the invasion. According to the minutes of the meeting, the prime minister said that: “Any military action taken against President Saddam Hussein’s regime had to be effective…The right strategy was to engage closely with the Government of the United States in order to be in a position to shape policy and its presentation.”

From this perspective, aligning with the most powerful actors in global politics brings influence, which in turn leads to effective politics. As the Chilcot report puts it: “Mr Blair’s approach reflected a deliberate choice that the right way to get close to the US in order to influence it was to offer the UK’s support for its objectives.” Crucially, for the report, this is not just the belief of one individual: instead, it figures in the shared mindset of a group of political and military figures. The report quotes a “think piece” from the policy director at the Ministry of Defence, Simon Webb, sent to Geoff Hoon on 12 April 2002, arguing that if the UK “only” contributed special forces, cruise missiles and air support to a US invasion of Iraq, it would “confer no significant influence on US planning”. The report repeatedly quotes a range of individuals in high office conveying the same belief, including Hoon himself, army head General Sir Mike Jackson and Robert Fry, who would go on to be the senior British military representative in Iraq. The report does not tangle with the psychodrama that so often surrounds commentary on Blair – much as he himself tries to turn the argument on to discussions of his “good faith”. Instead, it focuses on the beliefs that he and others held, and what the consequences of those beliefs were.

British Army troops covered in flames from petrol bomb, Basra, Iraq

This, then, was not just private reasoning, divorced from the actual business of decision-making. The report notes that the extent of the British military commitment to the invasion was discretionary: UK ground troops weren’t necessary to the US from a military perspective. Instead, the size and timing of that commitment was determined by calculations of what US policymakers would perceive to be a substantial contribution. Ground forces were committed on 31 October 2002 out of a concern that UK officials would be left out of US military planning if there weren’t a land contribution. The report mentions that Blair and Hoon agreed not to reveal the limitations of UK land forces to US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld in June 2002 out of concern that it would diminish UK political influence. Three combat brigades were committed on the grounds that this was the British provision in the 1991 Gulf War, and that any fewer would make it appear to the US that the UK was a diminishing military power in global affairs: “Anything smaller risked being compared adversely to the UK’s contribution to the liberation of Kuwait,” wrote Webb. The actual military purpose of two of those brigades was not fixed until March 2003, immediately preceding the invasion. This was a military commitment, then, as a purely demonstrative act, but unlike most such shows of force, this one was not to an enemy but to an ally.

The academic analysis sets up a way of thinking; it then shows how the consequences of that way of thinking unfolded. The report does that in a two-pronged critique. First, and at length, it shows how limited British influence turned out to be, notwithstanding the scale of the political and military commitment made by the government. There were specific occasions on which the US did respond to the British perspective, most notably in supporting a resolution at the United Nations Security Council in November 2002, and in its cautious response to the killing of four of its private military contractors in Fallujah in March 2004. But, in both cases, British influence had only a temporary effect: the US administration gave up on the UN route in January 2003, and its restraint over the Fallujah killings lasted only a few days. More generally, throughout its second half, the report shows how infrequently the British were consulted about the evolving US policy in Iraq once the invasion had taken place. The UK ran the southeast sector of the country, so its interests were tied closely to those of the US. But this did not translate into the ability to help shape policy.

The report recounts this in detail in its discussion of the development of Iraq’s security forces (in the jargon, “security sector reform”, or SSR). It finds that “the UK expected the production of an SSR strategy to be led by the US and, when it was clear that one did not exist, was unable to exert the necessary influence on the [US-led “Coalition Provisional Authority”] in Baghdad to ensure that one was developed”. As a result, the British instead found themselves having to create their own policies, unclear if these were consistent with a national approach and unsure if they were supporting or undermining Iraq’s security forces. In the end, UK policy came to be driven exclusively by the need to demonstrate that they could withdraw their own forces from the quagmire, and any strategy to create a plan for viable Iraqi security forces was set aside.

Across a range of issues, the report illustrates the highly limited influence exercised by the UK. The theme is set up before the invasion itself. As well as its inability to persuade the US to await negotiations over a Security Council resolution to authorise an invasion, it was also unable in January 2003 to talk the US into giving the UN a leading role in establishing an interim administration in Iraq once the invasion had taken place. Other important decisions in Iraq “in which the UK played little or no formal part” include the dissolution of the Iraqi army; the allocation of funds generated from Iraq’s oil income; the creation of an independent central bank and a new court system; and the overall “vision for Iraq” produced in the main by the Coalition Provisional Authority, but in which only one member of the “Coalition” seems to have had a say.

The report analyses some of the reasons for this. It details how, from a British angle, influence was conceived to operate largely via communication from Blair to US president George W. Bush: quiet words from the wise adviser in the ear of the powerful ruler. But the report observes that this is hardly an effective mechanism for day-to-day policymaking, or even a way to make tactical decisions. Blair drafted his own memos to the president, and clearly put considerable effort into them, but it is far from clear that they were read with the same diligence.

The report draws no overarching conclusions about the extent of the UK’s influence on US policy. But its central evaluation is the second prong of its critique, summarised in that opening quotation. “The issue of influencing the US, both at the strategic and at the operational level, was a constant preoccupation at all levels of the UK Government,” the report explains, and this pursuit of influence goes a major way towards explaining British policy throughout the era under consideration. But political leaders did not stop to ask what purpose that influence served. This observation resonates with another abiding theme of the report – that among a small group of leading officials with shared political goals, critical questions from those who do not have a personal stake in the matter can helpfully impel some re-evaluation. As there was limited discussion of Iraq in the Cabinet, the report invokes the notion of “groupthink” to explain why this did not happen. Amid the vast number of memoranda and speeches reproduced in the report, it is hard to see any explanation of what purpose, precisely, greater UK influence on the US was intended to serve. The simple question seems not to have been put, and was therefore never answered: perhaps never even considered. And that is why the conclusion of the report is quite so devastating.

The Chilcot report is probably one of the most thorough and exhaustive accounts of the politics of a specific conflict in the history of the study of international relations. If it is read not as the evaluation of an individual leader or as a set of narrow policy prescriptions but instead as a critical evaluation of a way of thinking about foreign policy, it takes on a political force that goes beyond the specific context of the account. Like all good academic analysis, it has resonance beyond its own immediate moment.

But who is the report for? Presumably its ideal audience is not – or not only – historians: its critical attention is not focused simply on the past. Nor is the report aimed primarily at journalists, given its limited focus on the political characters of the era, while policymakers will look somewhat in vain for the handy list of fix-it recommendations usually found at the end of such reports. Instead, the Chilcot report seems most oriented towards the serious thinker about international politics: the individual of a scholarly disposition with the opportunity and inclination to read 2.6 million words undisturbed and to formulate big ideas about foreign policy on their basis. And yet whether such individuals still exist, in the worlds of either government or academia, has to remain an open question.

Glen Rangwala is a lecturer in Middle Eastern politics at the University of Cambridge. His book, Iraq in Fragments: The Occupation and its Legacy, co-authored by Eric Herring, was published in 2006 by Hurst.

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