Does the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq Invasion Matter?

The role of the United Kingdom in the international arena has been one of much debate over the past three decades, but more particularly since the ending of the Cold War. Summed up neatly by former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, the United Kingdom has been ‘punching above its weight’ internationally effectively, driving international policy at the UN during a period of American uncertainty following the disastrous American-led Somalian adventure in the early and mid-1990s and dominating the UN Security Council discussions under Sir David Hannay (then British ambassador to the UN).

This confidence has been knocked more recently through the long engagement in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan is Britain’s longest engagement since the nineteenth century, and while public sentiment is still generally behind engagement, Prime Minister Brown and American president Obama have been framing their words with care in the run-up to increased troop deployments, speaking of defending American and British streets from terrorism, rather than rebuilding some far away land’s political infrastructure.

Behind Afghanistan still lurks the specter of Iraq. While American troops remain with boots on the ground, pressure to disengage from Iraq is increasing — British troops withdrew from the country earlier in 2009, and publically, the United States intend to have combat troops out of the arena by August 2010, having already withdrawn from Iraq’s cities in July 2009.  Given the strong feelings expressed by both supporters and opposers of the invasion of Iraq in 2001, the British electorate had repeatedly been informed by the government that an enquiry into the Iraq war would be held once British troops had been withdrawn.

Following the official launch of the Iraq Inquiry on 30 July 2009, the first evidence was heard on 16 November 2009.  According to Sir John Chilcot:

Our terms of reference are very broad, but the essential points, as set out by the Prime Minister and agreed by the House of Commons, are that this is an Inquiry by a committee of Privy Counsellors. It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. We will therefore be considering the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.

The Inquiry committee members are Sir John Chilcot (Chairman), Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne and Baroness Usha Prashar.

The first week of the Inquiry’s evidential hearings proved interesting, and included:

  • British policy toward Iraq in 2001, 24 November, Chairman’s Opening Statement;  Simon Webb, Peter Ricketts and William Patey
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction, 25 November, William Ehrman and Tim Dowse
  • The Transatlantic Relationship, 26 November, Christopher Meyer
  • Developments in the United Nations, 27 November, Jeremy Greenstock

For many, it is this opening week which is probably the most important, and hinges upon two important questions — was the invasion of Iraq by the American-led international force legal, and, whether legal or not, when was the decision to invade taken?

British politicos and public interactions with the media, not least upon radio and television debates, demonstrate that the latter of these two questions is considered the most important. In many ways, the timing of the decision to invade is important, but not for the obvious reasons. The previous Clinton Administration had passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 in the United States, with a stated claim of regime change in Iraq, although not much publically perceptable action was subsequently seen. The Act aimed to work through the Iraqi opposition to establish regime change, but did not sanction invasion. There are numerous UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCRs) on Iraq, but the most important were UNSCR 678, 687, and 782 which set out Iraq’s obligations over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the territorial integrity of Kuwait. UNSCR 1205 of 1998 framed the possibility of military action in the event of non-compliance under the WMD declarations. Discussions over the toppling of Saddam and regime change in Iraq by members of the public — including ex-soldiers who fought in the first Gulf War — focus upon the viability of ‘going all the way to Baghdad’ after expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait, often concluding that such a proposition was not possible due to the resources available and the threat of becoming bogged down in a long guerilla war. Other arguments for removing Saddam are premised upon the authoritarian and inhumane nature of the regime, and the humanitiarian reasons for invasion. However, these discussions miss the point. The first Gulf War was fought to preserve the territorial integrity of a sovereign state which had been invaded by another state, as protected under the UN Charter, and the responsibility of the UN Security Council to preserve — i.e., to protect Kuwait’s right to exist as a state against invasion by Iraq. To then ‘go on to Bagdhad’ would have violated the very ideals and international obligations under which Iraqi forces had been expelled from Kuwait. Humanitarian intervention was a very popular premise in the early 1990s, until events in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Somalia (amongst others) deterred further military adventures on the part of Western powers in the name of humanitarian intervention. Besides, humanitarian affairs falls under the UN’s 6th Committee and not the 7th (the Security Council), and has no remit under international law for military action on its humanitarian merits.

These international obligations then frame the engagement with Iraq until the decision to invade was taken. The Second Gulf War was undertaken due to Iraq’s perceived refusal to oblige with UNSCRs on WMD since UNSCR 687, despite the work of the UN’s Weapons Inspection teams. This was made clear under Tony Blair’s statements to the House of Commons, and was the remit under which the House of Commons voted to take the United Kingdom to war. If UNSCR 1441 is seen as giving permission for military action — despite omitting the key wording of ‘all necessary measures’ — then this is only due to the obligations of Iraq under the WMD issues included in previous UNSC resolutions. Only subsequently has the public vocabulary changed to include ‘regime change’ — something which is illegal under international law, under which the two Gulf Wars were fought. If regime change was the true reason for invasion, UNSCR1441 does not permit military action for this, and this then makes the invasion illegal, and its proponents and instigators liable to prosecution for war crimes.

This is why the timing of the decision to invade is so important. If a decision was made, as intimated by some evidence already given to the Chilcot Inquiry, in a private meeting between Tony Blair and George Bush early in 2002 to invade Iraq to instigate regime change, then the legality of the invasion is questionable (to say the least) under UNSCR1441. 

This is why those private meetings between President George Bush and Prime Minister Blair are so crucial to the Inquiry. However, only George Bush and Tony Blair are able to speak of the events in those meetings. Blair is to give evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, and this is one reason why the Inquiry matters.

Why Van Rompuy Might Be a Wise Choice After All

When the Belgian prime minister Herman Van Rompuy was selected to become Europe’s very first “president” of sorts, all media were quick to characterize his election as the kind of compromise that is so typical of how the continent continues to handle its political future. Especially across the pond, newspapers were weary of the man. Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal called him a step backward for Europe: with Van Rompuy at the top, the Americans seem to think, the union can never hope to claim its rightful stake in world politics.

Van Rompuy is something of a bore, that much even the greatest Europhile ought to admit. He was picked over the likes of Tony Blair because he is a conservative and a patient negotiator. Germany, France and especially the United Kingdom don’t care for a Brussels that dictates foreign policy to them: the larger states believe, for good reasons, that they’re quite able to look after their own interests overseas. Besides, Van Rompuy is known to oppose Turkey’s entry into the union: a position that Germany and France both share.

At the same time, whoever occupies the position of permanent chairman of the European Council (which is really all the “presidency” entails) must be able to satisfy the many smaller member states. Hence, the chairman had to come from such a smaller member state himself. Someone of a higher profile, like Blair, would never have been able to secure support in all countries on the continent — that is not even mentioning his initial support for the Iraq War which so many Europeans opposed.

Anita Kirpalani describes the “cautious choice” for Van Rompuy as a wise one therefore. In Newsweek she writes that with Van Rompuy and Baroness Ashton, Europe “picked people who actually have a chance at fostering consensus,” especially on what to do with Afghanistan and Iraq. “What looks like timidity might just lead to a stronger Europe after all.”

David Cameron and the British Welfare State

The Conservative Party in Britain has never been a fan of anything that reeks of socialism. But with David Cameron, it takes on something of a new attitude toward it.

In a speech delivered earlier this month, party leader Cameron admitted that social policies enacted since the Second World War have benefited lots of people: inequality has decreased while access to education and health care is now near universal.

At the same time, people seem to feel less responsible for their own lives and because of that lack of responsibility, they are less inclined to contribute to society voluntarily. “As the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbors,” said Cameron.

Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society — and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

And change, of course, is not something the Conservative particularly cares for. The solution is not so simple as to diminish the role of the state, however. “Just because big government has undermined our society, it does not follow that retrenchment of the state will automatically trigger its revival.”

What Cameron wants is not big government but something he calls a “big society” in which everyone truly takes part. The state is still necessary to bring it about, though. “We must use the state to remake society,” he said.

In the first place, that implies a shift of power from London to local government. Cameron’s thinking is that if you grant people more responsibility, they will act more responsibly.

Compare that for a moment with what Margaret Thatcher said in 1977. “The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy and practice. The economic results are better because the moral philosophy is superior,” declared the woman who would go on to lead the United Kingdom for more than a decade. “It is superior because it starts with the individual, with his uniqueness, his responsibility and his capacity to choose.”

Choice is the essence of ethics: if there were no choice, there would be no ethics, no good, no evil; good and evil have meaning only insofar as man is free to choose.

Cameron gives new meaning to this Thatcherist thinking by demanding that Britons be allowed to take charge of their own lives once again.

At the same time, he does set himself the task of fighting poverty and social inequality. “We need new answers now,” he said, “and they will only come from a bigger society, not bigger government.”

Wasn’t it also Thatcher who stated that there exists no such thing as “society” you might ask? “There are individual men and women and there are families,” she said in 1897. “And no government can do anything except through people and people must look after themselves first.” But, she added, “It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.”

That’s something that might be contested but it isn’t all too different from what Cameron is saying these days.