The Chilcot Report: A timely reminder for a change in British policy in the Middle East

  Richard Mills/The Times

Richard Mills/The Times

The unveiling of the long-awaited Chilcot report has reconfirmed the devastating political and geo-political consequences of Britain's military support for the United States' war in Iraq. In a month which promises to be significant in British political, military and sporting history and the United Kingdom's future, the Chilcot report is the latest condemnation against a catastrophic war. 

Seven years of occupation in Iraq gravely damaged British foreign policy, invited international condemnation and cost it dearly in blood and treasure. The estimated number of Iraqi civilians, security and military personnel dead are difficult to calculate and have been argued to range from 150,000 to over 1,000,000. 179 British servicemen and women are dead and £4.5 billion was expended while our American counterparts lost 4497 servicemen and women and lost a staggering $1.7 trillion. 

The death toll for British in Iraq, while ultimately senseless in the pursuit of a fruitless and poorly prepared campaign, was limited when compared to other British military affairs in the Middle East. However the self-created quagmire in which British troops found themselves between 2003 - 2009 carried immense geo-political consequence in the latest chapter of a history laden with decades of British interference in Middle Eastern politics and conflict.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's promise to to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11 guided his decision-making. Between 2001-2003 his key role in boosting support for deposing the dictator Saddam Hussein was using the story which alleged that Iraq possessed and was developing weapons of mass-destruction which, he argued, necessitated a preemptive strike.  In 2003, Blair alongside George W. Bush embarked on the invasion without the approval of the United Nations. The invasion, while initially successful in removing the Ba'athist regime from power, received condemnation as claims before, during and after the war proved that the claim by American and British intelligence services that Saddam was hoarding chemical and biological weapons were flawed. Equally the claims that Saddam was harbouring members of Al-Qa'ida was equally disputed. Bush stated on 18th March, 2003: "The regime...has harboured terrorists, including operatives of Al-Qa'ida. The danger is clear; using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, obtained with the help of Iraq, the terrorists could fulfil their ambitions and kill hundred of thousands of innocent people."

The narrative promoted by Blair and Bush to invade Iraq on the basis of the presence of terrorist groups was twisted truth. The organisation they eluded to, Ansar al-Islam, while certainly existing in Iraqi Kurdistan was focused on limited local objectives and showed little interest in waging Bin Laden's proclamations of global jihad.

As the occupation dragged on it became clear that coalition promises for the new Iraq were failing to live up to expectations. There was no democracy, no electricity, dire sanitation, nearly half the population remained unemployed and coalition forces killed, harassed and tortured Iraqi men, women and children as the stress of urban combat in an alien environment took its toll on soldiers. The dismantlement of the Ba'athist military and political institutions sent thousands of angry young men into various rebel groups across Iraq. The coalition, targeted by an enemy it barely knew, became an actor in a complex war not a guarantor of peace. As they fought the rebellion, coalition policy 'unconsciously amalgamated the worst of colonial experiences at state-building in the 1920s: the forceful integration of the three governates of Iraq and the sectarian re-partition of power' to Islamist Shiites (Filiu, From Deep State to Islamic State, 240). This was to prove calamitous for years to come. 

Blair, alongside Bush, denied the existence of such failings and dismissed and labelled all insurgents under one stereotype: Islamic fundamentalism, fanatical sectarians, 'terrorists' or affiliates of Al-Qa'ida. Both administrations in the White House and Parliament also began accusing Iran and Syria of hijacking their plans for Iraq. While Iranian and Syrian involvement cannot be denied, they were supporting actors. The Iraqis were the primary actors in destroying Bush and Blair's vision for their country as anti-colonial, nationalist and anti-Western narratives become stronger and stronger the longer the brutal occupation continued. 

This collapse of the state-building project continued to be dismissed by British and American politicians as Saddam's deposition, capture, trial and execution brought nationalist and religious-nationalist politics, insurgency and civil war to the streets of Baghdad. Little did policymakers realise that British and American soldiers inadvertently acted as the function which returned mass politics to Iraq and ignited a revolution in Iraqi society while set the stage for a wave of violence in post-Saddam Iraq. As Blair emphasises the true lesson of the Iraq War is that state-building, absent an effective strategy and in a society which had been long-conditioned for revolutionary politics and which was anti-Western would be an impossible procedure. 

Critics of British and American policymakers decisions, while riddled with errors during the invasion and occupation, rarely consider that they 'introduced a new language and new era of contentious politics' (Gerges, The New Middle East, 1) to Iraq, a prototype of the current revolutions and subsequent violent trends across the Arab Middle East. As Blair argued on 6th July and an essay in 2014, while revolution swept the Arab world in 2010-2011 was it really conceivable that Saddam's regime, the most violent and hated of all the despotic Arab regimes would have been at peace surrounded by such turmoil? 


“We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t. We can argue as to whether our policies a points have helped or not: and whether action or inaction is the best policy. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.”
— Tony Blair, June, 2014

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The frequent revolts by Kurdish, Sunnis and Shiites alike, which culminated in the genocidal slaughter of the Al-Anfal campaign (1986 - 1989) and the butchering of 150,000 Iraqis (predominantly Shiite) in 1991 following the First Gulf War, serve as a reminder of Saddam's chilling record. Saddam's cruelty and his wars of aggression in Kuwait (1990) and Iran (1980 - 1988) made him numerous enemies at a regional and international level. These military defeats were married to botched government policies in the 1990s to secure the loyalty of rural areas at the expense of the urban classes produced socio-economic ruin, a blackmarket economy, and rampant unemployment. Saddam's carefully constructed tribal relationships and networks of patronage ensured the concentration of political and economic power. While Blair's point is certainly counter-factual, it is fair to argue that Saddam's Iraq would have descended into civil war if his regime had existed following the Arab Spring. While Blair and Bush's dire policies shaped the conflicted post-2003 Iraq of today, Saddam's 'U-turns, blunders and megalomanic whimsies...wreaked havoc on the region and the world, but above all on Iraq itself.' Saddam's legacy remains potent and powerful and his impact upon Iraq's diverse communities both harrowing and profound.  

Nonetheless while Saddam's removal was entirely welcome on humanitarian grounds, the decision of Blair and Bush to invade without an effective strategy and initiate military operations unsuited for sustained and savage guerrilla and urban combat was fool-hardy. The inevitable problem facing the coalition is that as it unleashed an array of powerful socio-political forces and reinvigorated political conversations, it established an occupation which became widely despised by Iraqi civilians almost instantaneously. Instead of giving power to the Iraqi people, the Coalition Provisional Authority attempted to fashion a Jeffersonian democracy and Weberian state. The British and Americans signalled that they would determine future of Iraq, a notion which was intolerable to the Iraqi people and in the context of Middle Eastern politics. 

British and American policymakers woefully underestimated the historical factors stacked against them and the strength of non-state agencies, agencies which even Saddam struggled to control at times such as the tribe, clan, and patronage. Equally they did not consider the radicalising effect of Western policies adopted in the 1990s to drive Saddam from power including draconian sanctions, the destruction of the First Gulf War, and bombing sorties over Iraq and the impact they would have on the perceptions of the Iraqi people. The result was a bloodbath as coalition forces were stranded in a power vacuum and locked in a confrontation with multiple Iraqi, Shiite and Sunni insurgencies fighting for the future of the country simultaneously. 


“America’s ideological dream sank amidst suicide bombs, jihadist and militia atrocities, and violent U.S-sponsored counterinsurgency and torture. Blair’s government ensured Britain was on the same sinking ship.”

  The Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Basra, 2015: Haider Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images

The Shiite militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq in Basra, 2015: Haider Mohammed Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Nor did Washington and London consider the geo-political implications of occupation. The invasion, spearheaded by the Bush doctrine sought, to create a domino-effect and revolutionise Middle Eastern politics by democratising the region in an effort to combat extremism. States such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria were to be the recipients of exported Western democracy. However, regime change in Baghdad, resulted in Damascus and Tehran entrenching their political establishments and increased their determination to insure Iraq became the graveyard for Western ambitions in the region. As Iran and Syria fed the insurgencies in southern Iraq, the 'Sunni triangle' and northern Iraq, America's ideological dream, nothing short of a forced revolution, floundered in the face of the realities of Middle Eastern politics and finally sank amidst suicide bombs, jihadist and militia atrocities, and violent U.S-sponsored counterinsurgency and torture. Blair's government ensured Britain was on the same sinking ship as the Bush administration.

The invasion and the subsequent collapse of authority also allowed extremist cells such as Al-Qa'ida in Iraq to flourish as foreign fighters from across the Muslim world flocked to Iraq to fight the invaders and Iraqis alike. The rise of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi (and eventually Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), leader of the brutal subcell Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, carried long-term significance as it planted the seeds for the rise of ISIS and their caliphate which was founded in 2014 upon Zarqawi and Baghdadi's hard-line and intolerant doctrine of pan-Islamic nationalism and neo-Wahabbism. Such revolutionary ultra-violence could only have been nurtured in an atmosphere of war and this was provided to Zarqawi by the mistakes of American and British policymakers.


“The Chilcot report raises an important question, the question which matters most: Has the British government strived to learn its lesson from Iraq in how it conducts policy in the Middle East?”

While Blair argues that the Surge (2007-2008) led by General Petraeus led to the defeat of Al-Qa'ida, such a statement should be subject to scrutiny. In 2007, American and British policymakers had no alternatives in Iraq at this point. The Surge took place at a time when American and British credibility had been critically damaged by an inflexible military strategy, the outbreak of civil war in Baghdad, and inflammatory political policy before 2007. Credit can only be given to Petraeus for his ability to sell the spectacular collapse of the Iraq project as a success. The Surge created short-term stability and paved the way for the coalition's withdrawal from the mess it had created. The long-term consequences of the Surge, supported by the British, were dire as they reinforced by violent resistance against the state by arming warlords, tribes and Sunni groups while reinforcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's state-sponsored sectarian violence. Such a strategy was always going to lead to a renewed wave of violence and create conditions of violence in which Al-Qa'ida in Iraq (now known as ISIS) would eventually reemerge. The warnings to Blair that an invasion would "increase the threat from Al-Qa'ida to the UK and to UK interests" have become very real as ISIS militants have murdered British humanitarian workers and thirty tourists in Tunisia. Al-Qai'da and ISIS's violent ideologies have never had more influence on the policymaking and the public imagination. 

Despite this, Patrick Cockburn contends 'the demonisation of Tony Blair is excessive and simple-minded and diverts attention from what really happened in Iraq...in going to war in alliance with the United States, Blair was not doing anything very different from his predecessors or successors.'  Equally, Cockburn's point raises an important question, the question which matters most: Has the British government strived to learn its lesson from Iraq in how it conducts policy in the Middle East?  Britain's direct involvement in the deposition of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the aerial bombardment of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, its contribution to a disastrous Western policy in the Syrian War, its blood-soaked war in Afghanistan, its support for Saudi Arabia's brutal military campaign in Yemen and interference in the Arab Revolutions suggest not. If anything, we have expanded our wars and remain entangled, for better or for worst, in the region. 

The consequences are clear and increasingly dangerous. Stretching from Pakistan to Tunisia, an assortment of states have been critically destabilised. British policies which have promoted and supported regime change through invasion, covert war, occupation, channelling weapons and resources into volatile anti-regime insurgents and propping up regimes despised by the wider population which has helped catalyse the disintegration of geo-political order. Large areas of the Middle East and North Africa lie in ruins or consumed by violence and beneath the rubble of Western policies lie the corpses of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians while millions more have been dislocated from their homes. British foreign policy in the Middle East since the 9/11 attacks has largely been an unmitigated failure of policy and humanity. Britain has indirectly fed a refugee crisis, death, and tragedy while its unconditional support for its regional allies and a fractured Syrian opposition (many of its members showing sectarian or separatist agendas) has culminated in a surge in casualties, the elongation of conflict in Syria and the rise of ISIS. Military solutions are absent political solutions. 

While military action must be utilised by Parliament to combat violent groups such as ISIS, but government refuses to adequately challenge and debate its role in creating the conditions Iraq finds itself in. Such conditions have extended to Syria and Libya, wars which Britain have found themselves deeply involved in, a role both contradictory and destructive. Equally the generation of politicians who led us to war refuse to come to terms with its historic role in Iraq and the wider region. Contemporary Iraqi violence is the product of a century of social arrangement and rearrangement of tribal, class and ethnic lines by successive, ideologically conflicting regimes. Britain has played an essential role in keeping Iraq in permanent conflict in the pre-Saddam and post-Saddam eras.

The consequences of the Iraq War continue to carry great gravity for the United Kingdom and its conduct in foreign policy. However the Chilcot report comes at a timely juncture as Britain reconsiders its relationship with the rest of the world. Blair's failures in Iraq cannot mask the errors of judgement made by David Cameron's government since the onset of the Arab revolutions. Nor can it mask Britain's long-term and short-term actions over the 20th and 21st century which have gravely destabilised Iraq. However in a region of disorder, revolution, and significant geo-political shifts, Britain's role as a major international power determines that it cannot turn away from the historical events unfolding in the Middle East. 

 The Battle of Basra, 2003: Kate Geraghty

The Battle of Basra, 2003: Kate Geraghty

The lessons of the Iraq War and the United Kingdom's continued entanglement in the Middle Eastern wars highlight a need to reevaluate foreign policy. Policy must be reshaped into a balance between securing Britain's security abroad and at home from threats such as ISIS and Al-Qa'ida while using soft power to challenge the status quo, former Cold War policies, traditional alliances and our country's colonial legacy. This does not mean breaking from the past completely, however the core pillars of traditional British policy in the Middle East must be reevaluated and shaped in accordance with contemporary problems and future threats and opportunities. Policy must be realistic, pragmatic, and forward thinking, a combination of old and new and certainly not driven by the ideological myth that democratic values and Western institutions are always necessarily the endgame for a stable Middle East.

The Middle East is swiftly changing with far-reaching short-term and long-term significance for global order. Britain must adapt quickly in the midst of a geo-political earthquake and the Chilcot report and the Iraq War serve as a timely signal for a change in policy and strategic thinking. Britain cannot become 'Little Britain' in the wake of Brexit and changing policy does not mean disengaging militarily or politically from the region. However the Chilcot report and the tragic consequences of Britain's recent wars in the Middle East indicate a drastic need for a more nuanced and flexible approach to the region. The maintenance of a rigid diplomatic, military and political approach rooted in Cold War calculations and the events which initiated and shaped the original 'Global War on Terror' are no longer tenable and swiftly proving to be outdated in the face of regional and global challenges. 

Matthew Williams