The long-awaited Chilcot Report, due to be published on 6 July, may offer more information on when the UK decided on going to war, as well as why it decided to do so. Piers Robinson, who has researched and published extensively on the 2003 Iraq War, says the stakes are high – and that it is crucial for the report to tell us when the UK Government agreed to invade Iraq, alongside more explanation of its motives and justifications.
Of the many issues that Chilcot is expected to report on, the issue of deception and its role in paving the road to war in Iraq is the most longstanding and controversial. Shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, journalist Andrew Gilligan reported suggestions by the UK’s leading biological weapons expert Dr David Kelly that intelligence had been manipulated for political purposes. Across the Atlantic, Ambassador Joseph Wilson made similar claims regarding the US government. Since then, the idea that people were deceived or lied to by the Bush and Blair administrations in order to mobilise support for war has been widespread and persistent.
This should be of little surprise. The multiple and changing justifications for war, coupled with the failure to find any usable weapons of mass destruction within Iraq, has led perhaps most of the British and American public to believe they were mislead. Moreover, democracies are not supposed to go to war based on lies and, in legal terms, unprovoked aggression is a most serious crime. The casualty toll from the Iraq war and its aftermath is horrific with some estimates putting the number of dead around the million mark. The stakes are very high.
On the question of deception, then, what are the key issues?
The first and most prominent issue concerns the way in which the British Government used intelligence assessments in order to persuade the British public of the necessity of action to deal with Iraq’s alleged WMD capability.
It is now well established that, from an intelligence base that was ’sporadic and patchy’ (Butler Report, page 67), the UK government’s September dossier presented an exaggerated impression of Iraqi WMD capability and expressed with certainty the idea that Iraq possessed an active WMD capability. As I have documented in my research with Professor Eric Herring, the most critical part of this process involved the use of what appears to have been an un-assessed piece of intelligence (Report X) from a ‘source on trial’ which claimed to know, through word of mouth, that Iraq was actively producing chemical and biological weapons. This flimsy piece of intelligence was used to strengthen the dossier by removing any impression of uncertainty that Iraq was a current WMD threat.
Who was calling the shots regarding Report X?
What we do not know, and one might reasonably expect Chilcot to report on this, is who authorised the use of Report X. At the moment, the key players (Blair, Campbell (Chief of Communications), Scarlett (Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee) and Dearlove (Head of MI6) have offered inconsistent, unclear or ambiguous evidence as to who was calling the shots. If it turns out that Blair or Campbell influenced its use in the dossier then, despite their public claims to the contrary, there was major political contamination of the September Dossier which was supposed to be purely the work of the intelligence services. If Dearlove or Scarlett authorised the use of this intelligence, then they can be justifiably accused of not having done their job properly by allowing a very weak piece of intelligence to underpin the boldest claims being made in the dossier.
Second is the broader question of whether or not Blair had already agreed to support the invasion of Iraq long before informing his cabinet, parliament and the British public. The issue over deception here is complex and hinges upon whether Blair had signed Britain up to regime change as the end goal or whether the disarmament of Iraq was the primary aim of the war.
If Blair had indeed committed to regime change, as many commentators are currently suggesting, then Blair’s claim that he sought peaceful disarmament of Iraq, via UN weapons inspections, was clearly untrue.
Evidence of propaganda
In research I undertook with Professor Herring, (University of Bristol), we demonstrate that there is already a considerable amount of evidence to support this theory. The evidence is in the form of published and leaked documents indicating that the policy of regime change came first. What followed was the issue of the UN route and peaceful disarmament which was discussed largely in terms of its usefulness for persuading a reluctant public to come on board with Government policy and for gaining legal cover for war. It is also the case that, as is now widely understood, the Bush administration was intent on removing Saddam from power, a fact that was well understood by the UK government at the time.
If Chilcot confirms, either through publication of previously unseen documents or instead by passing judgement on whether Blair had signed up to war, then the consequences could be extremely serious.
It would then be extremely difficult for those involved to plausibly and persuasively explain why the UN route was presented as an opportunity to disarm Iraq through peaceful means, when all the time the end goal was the removal by force of Saddam Hussein’s regime. For many, this might well be seen as a more serious deception than the one about Iraq’s WMD capabilities and it will undoubtedly contribute ammunition to those discussing possible legal action.
Uncovering further motives for war
At the very least, misleading the public as to the threat posed by Iraqi WMD and the possibility of any peaceful outcome would suggest that the UK government circumvented informed democratic debate within the UK, in order to achieve war. But even bigger questions might then flow from all this. We now know the intelligence was manipulated in order to present Iraq as far more threatening than it actually was, whilst it also appears likely that the British government was signed up to war regardless of Iraq’s WMD status.
That brings us to the geo-political goals of the Bush administration, its ‘war on terror’ and the opportunities it sought to pursue following 9/11. It may be that the Chilcot Inquiry is only a starting point toward understanding the bigger picture of how and why this war occurred. If the narrative of WMD and disarmament were either pure propaganda (i.e. a misinformation campaign designed to sell a war) or an exaggerated public face of policy, and assuming that policy makers had not deceived themselves about the scale of the WMD/terrorism threat posed by Iraq, then the invasion of Iraq starts to look more like an aggressive war for influence and control in the Middle East. Given the regional conflagration now underway, involving major wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the 2003 Iraq invasion may come to be understood as a starting point in a much bigger violent regional power struggle.
The case of deception, Government (dis)information campaigns and the 2003 invasion of Iraq raises multiple issues for British democracy. Deception and manipulation of public opinion work sharply against democracy and accountability and serious questions are raised about the honesty and accuracy of government communication, especially with respect to international affairs. The case also raises issues about the effectiveness of checks and balances designed to hold the executive to account. More generally it is time for a much broader debate about our foreign policy and the extent to which the public are sufficiently informed about the policies the British Government pursues in their name.
For more information see:
- ‘Report X Marks the Spot: the British Government’s Deceptive Dossier on Iraq and WMD’ Political Science Quarterly, 2014a, Co-author Eric Herring.
- ‘Deception and Britain’s Road to War in Iraq’, International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies, 2014b, Co-author Eric Herring.
- The Iraq Inquiry Digest