Why Britain's Iraq War report matters to Americans
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Less than 24 hours after FBI Director James Comey announced that former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSusan Collins signals she won't campaign against Biden Cuccinelli says rule forcing international students to return home will 'encourage schools to reopen' Clinton labels ICE decision on international students 'cruel' and 'unnecessary' MORE and her colleagues were “extremely careless” sending and receiving classified information on her private email servers, the long-awaited Chilcot Report was released. This exhaustive seven-year examination of Britain’s role in the Iraq War is estimated to be twice as long as Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” 

Three guesses which story is getting short shrift on this side of the Atlantic.


The Chilcot Report is every bit as important to Americans as it is to Britons and every bit as relevant to this country’s current politics, not to mention our Middle East policy. For two reasons:

First, in their analysis of the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues make clear, once and for all, that Saddam Hussein posed no imminent threat to his neighbors, never mind to the rest of the world. Statements by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair that it was “beyond doubt” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction were crucial in backing up Bush administration claims that the West had no choice but invade Iraq.  

On this score Chilcot is damning. The United Kingdom and, by extension the United States, chose to invade “Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”  In other words, yes, there was a rush to war.

The damage that Blair has done to British politics, alone, is hard to over-estimate. Since 2003, his Labour Party has been torn between “Blairites” who backed his decision to go to war, and critics, like the party’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who said at the time that the war was a mistake and probably illegal. This ongoing intra-party strife goes some way toward explaining why Labour’s response to the disastrous “Brexit” referendum has been so feeble.

More broadly, the British people are bitter that their leaders allowed the UK to be cynically used by George W. Bush. Far from standing up to America’s neo-cons, Blair allowed himself to be turned into “Bush’s poodle” loyally following wherever his master led, even to disaster. The next time an American president needs the help of a British prime minister, and that day will come, it will be a lot harder for the latter to say “yes” to the former.

The disaster that is the current state of the Middle East is the second reason that Chilcot is relevant to Americans. A staple of this year’s presidential campaign is that the rise of ISIS-led terrorism is a direct consequence of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump may be DACA participants' best hope, but will Democrats play ball? Biden hires top aides for Pennsylvania Spencer Cox defeats Jon Huntsman in Utah GOP governor primary MORE’s withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. And since she was secretary of state, Clinton, according to her opponents, is also culpable.

But Chilcot in effect rejects that charge by delving more deeply than anticipated into the Anglo-American failure to plan for the Iraq War’s aftermath.  Again, in unusually blunt language, the report finds that the U.S.-led coalition’s plans for stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq never matched the scale of the problem.

Sir Christopher Meyer, the UK’s ambassador to Washington at the time, predicted that restoring order to Iraq “will probably make pacifying Afghanistan look like child’s play.” Yet instead of pressing the Americans for “definitive assurances” about their post-war plans, Blair accepted Bush administration claims that their would a “relatively benign security environment” once Saddam was gone.

Speaking on the BBC World Service program “Newshour,” former Bush national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley rejected Chilcot’s conclusions. There was “a lot of post-war planning,” he maintained. “The thing we did not anticipate was that al-Qaeda would decide to make their stand against the West in Iraq.”  

Hadley also told the BBC that Bush officials thought they could rely on as many as 150,000 Iraqi troops to maintain law and order. Instead, those “troops melted away when the regime fell” and the result was “a lot of the chaos that occurred in the post-war period.”

But in this same BBC program, Hadley’s revisionist history was rejected by British Major General Timothy Cross. “I think to a degree people are in denial,” Cross said in a separate interview, and the idea that Iraqi forces simply melted away is “disingenuous.”

According to Cross, a logistics expert, Bush administration officials were reckless when they talked about post-war reconstruction. “The plan is we don’t need a plan,” he quoted them saying. Instead, the Iraqi people would be so “grateful” for Saddam’s fall that they would happily restore their government with a minimum of outside assistance.

According to Chilcot, for all practical purposes the British had no input in governing Iraq once L. Paul Bremer took over as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. As has been chronicled elsewhere, any cooperation from the Iraqi military disappeared when Bremer suddenly disbanded these forces, sending these men home without any prospects for future employment — but with their guns. That, not the withdrawal of American combat forces, is the root of the violence that has engulfed Iraq ever since and has led to struggle against ISIS.

But don’t expect Chilcot’s forensic examination of the Iraq war, its origins and its aftermath, to garner the attention it deserves in America.

More’s the pity.

Matthews is a professor of British history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.