Seven years in the making, Britain’s Chilcot report on the United Kingdom’s participation in the 2003 Iraq war does not offer any big surprises, but it still makes for absorbing reading. The inquiry confirms, authoritatively, what most people long suspected—that there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein, that the war took place before efforts at peaceful diplomacy had been exhausted, that the evidence of weapons of mass destruction was exaggerated to make a case for war, that the United States and its partners were “wholly unprepared” for the aftermath of the invasion. The inquiry found mistakes made all along the line in Britain—on the part of the military, the intelligence community and the government.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair comes in for the brunt of the criticism. In the press conference that senior civil servant and inquiry chairman Sir John Chilcot held last week on publication of the report, Mr. Blair was said to be mentioned roughly once every minute. The report concluded that the prime minister thought British support for the war was necessary to preserve “the special relationship” between Britain and the United States, a point of view not shared by the committee members who pointed out that France and Germany did not support the war and experienced little fall-out. They found that the prime minister wrongly believed he and his country could have much greater influence on the United States and the conduct of the war than proved to be the case. Instead, the United States repeatedly overrode or ignored counsel, criticisms and concerns from the United Kingdom. Though Mr. Blair was able to persuade President Bush to go to the United Nations for a second vote, the report concludes that one of the ultimate effects of the war was to undermine the authority of the United Nations.
Its findings are important, but what is most crucial about the Chilcot report may not be what it says but what it is—a thorough, honest and credible investigation of Britain’s participation in the 2003 Iraq invasion and an effort at government accountability for an unnecessary war of choice that failed to achieve Britain’s stated war aims.
The Chilcot report is at least Britain’s third inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq war and its most definitive. Members of the inquiry committee examined 150,000 documents and interviewed 150 witnesses. In mounting a serious effort to determine what went wrong and why, Britain’s inquiry committee offers a model for the United States to follow. No similar investigation into the Iraq war has taken place here or is even suggested, despite the billions of U.S. dollars spent on the war, the thousands of American lives lost and the untold damage to Iraq, in terms of human life, infrastructure, safety and stability. Indeed, one reason for such an inquiry is to assess the damage and to acknowledge the full scale of the disaster.
But there appears little willingness in Washington to confront past mistakes or try to learn from them. Democrats and Republicans alike voted for the war, but the response of both parties to the debacle is silence. How much better would it be to openly acknowledge and analyze one of the most significant blunders in U.S. history. Without a thorough public appraisal of its costs and causes and a firm repudiation of pre-emptive war, there is every likelihood that the blunder will be repeated. Libya is a case in point. Millions of dollars have been spent pursuing a politically motivated Congressional investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya and none on the more momentous NATO decision to topple Muammar Gaddafi, an intervention that has left Libya in chaos and a safe haven for the Islamic State. Even today, after a string of failed wars and military engagements, there are voices clamoring for greater, not less, military involvement in Syria.
Nothing can alter the past, but the American public, no less than the British public, deserves answers to how we got to where we are today. Lame statements from our leaders that they are focused on the present, not the past, ignore the need for government to be accountable. Billions of U.S. dollars were spent on a war waged on false premises that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, forced a million of them to flee their homes, left Iraq worse off today than under Saddam Hussein, destabilized the Middle East and seeded the Islamic State that U.S. forces are now bombing. Why? Was it for oil? For Israel? To improve George Bush’s poll numbers? Simply a blind striking out after Sept. 11? What did the architects of the war on Iraq think they were accomplishing in going to war and why were they so unprepared for what ensued?
A serious, non-partisan inquiry into the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath could offer the American people the most important education in civics since the Watergate hearings of 40 years ago. Requiring those involved in planning and carrying out the war to explain their actions is little enough to ask given the dimensions of the disaster they created.