By Rebecca Gordon | (Informed Comment) | – –
So now it’s official. The British Chilcot Report confirms what the world has known for 13 years: the invasion of Iraq was a legal, strategic, and moral disaster.
The report runs to 12 volumes – 2.5 million words – but its primary author, Sir John Chilcott, announced its key findings to the world early on July 6:
• We have concluded that the U.K. chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.
• The judgments about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMDs – were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
• Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.
• The government failed to achieve its stated objectives.
• Mr. Blair and Mr. Straw blamed France for the “impasse” in the U.N. and claimed that the U.K. government was acting on behalf of the international community “to uphold the authority of the security council.” In the absence of a majority in support of military action, we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the security council’s authority.
The world could have told Chilcot all of that back in February 2003, before the March invasion.
Actually, the world did speak up then, and resoundingly. So huge were the demonstrations around the globe, so unanimous was the international repugnance and outrage at the Bush and Blair administrations’ drive to war, that the distinguished journalist Jonathan Schell named the peoples of the earth “the other superpower.” And it wasn’t only the world’s people. Even their rulers objected. “For once,” Schell wrote in the Nation magazine, “the majority of the world’s governments spoke up unequivocally for the majorities of their peoples.”
The world spoke up, but Bush and Blair and the U.S. congress and the British parliament stopped their ears and raced relentlessly on to disaster.
Of course it wasn’t their disaster. They weren’t the ones who watched as their country descended into chaos. They weren’t the ones who lost their homes, their limbs, or their lives. The Iraq War has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and many more injuries. It has uprooted millions more, and has left what was once a modern, developed nation of twenty-four million people in utter physical, political, and economic shambles. The invasion, accompanied by ruthless aerial attacks in Baghdad—and followed by years of abusive, poorly planned, and under-staffed occupation—unleashed an earthquake of destabilization that continues to shake the region today.
In the years following the invasion, over a million refugees fled to neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan. The latter’s population already included millions of Palestinian refugees. As many as 2.5 million Iraqis became internally displaced. And the damage continues to this day. Far from solving the problem of terrorism with “shock and awe,” the Iraq War and a disastrous occupation plowed the field for a new crop of terrorist associations, including the so-called Islamic State.
Instead of bringing “stability” to Iraq and the larger region, the war brought to a boil long-simmering class, ethnic and sectarian hostilities in Iraqi society and has rendered ordinary life almost impossible for more than a decade.
That earthquake of destabilization? The Chilcot report says it was not only predictable, it was predicted. “The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability, and al Qaeda activity in Iraq,” said Chilcot, “were explicitly identified before the invasion.”
It’s Not a Bug; It’s a Feature
Not only were those risks “identified” before the invasion, but members of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and his longtime associate Paul Wolfowitz, actually came into office with an explicit plan to bring them about. The story goes back to 1996, when Wolfowitz and others wrote “A Clean Break” — a policy paper prepared for Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then, as now, the Israeli prime minister. The authors argued that “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria.” Such a campaign would begin by “removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq—an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right—as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.” The ultimate goal would be a realignment of power in the Middle East, with Syria destabilized, a Hashemite king ruling Iraq, and a new regional alliance among Turkey, Jordan, and Israel.
Syria has certainly been “rolled back” in a civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and made over half its population either internal or external refugees.The US invasion or Iraq did not cause the Syrian civil war, but it unleashed the shock waves—as Wolfowitz and his co-authors predicted and hoped—that made it possible, as well as creating the conditions for the rise of extremist forces like the Islamic State.
Netanyahu rejected “A Clean Break,” perhaps because one of its key suggestions was that Israel should also make a clean break from its dependence on US aid. But in 1998 a group calling itself the Project for a New American Century presented a similar proposal to then-president Bill Clinton, who to his credit, rejected it. The list of those who signed the PNAC letter reads like a Who’s Who of the neoconservative elite who helped pave the intellectual path to the Iraq nightmare, including Elliott Abrams, Richard L. Armitage, William J. Bennett, John Bolton, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, R. James Woolsey, and Robert B. Zoellick. Many of them found work in the new Bush administration, and when the terrorists struck on 9/11, they were ready with what seemed to them an obvious response — an invasion of Iraq.
It’s clear, too, from the Senate torture report and other public records, that U.S. torture in the “war on terror” began because Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush needed a reason to invade Iraq. The CIA tortured Abu Zubaydah into saying that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks. They shipped a Libyan named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who probably had been an al Qaeda trainer, to Egypt. There he was waterboarded until he agreed to the proposition that, as President Bush put it in an October 2002 speech to the nation, “Iraq has trained al Qaeda in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases.” Donald Rumsfeld wrote his famous memo okaying torture at Guantánamo in hopes that someone there would say the same thing. In 2006, the Army’s Inspector General interviewed a Major Paul Burney, who had been stationed at Guantánamo at the time. “[A] large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between al Qaeda and Iraq,” he told the IG, “and we were not being successful in establishing a link between al Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link, there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”
Holding Someone Accountable
There’s much more to be said about the Chilcot report and its implications. One important point is that in addition to being a human disaster, the war on Iraq was illegal under international law, as Kofi Anan said within six months of the invasion. Chilcot skirts the issue of legality, observing, “The inquiry has not expressed a view on whether military action was legal. That could, of course, only be resolved by a properly constituted and internationally recognized court. We have, however, concluded that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were far from satisfactory.”
It is long past time for a “a properly constituted and internationally recognized court” to begin to hold the men and women who started the Iraq War responsible for their actions. Let’s hope the Chilcot report marks the beginning of real accountability for the crimes of this illegal war.