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Chilcot’s lessons

08 July 2016

THE contents of Sir John Chilcot’s report on Iraq are still being digested. But its very existence suggests, if nothing else, that momentous and fatal decisions by government will, eventually, be held up to scrutiny. Delays and obfuscations may have softened the blows that land on those responsible for taking Britain into the Second Gulf War, under-equipping our troops, mishandling the conduct of the war, and neglecting to plan for its aftermath. Armed with Sir John’s report, many will work to bring its conclusions to bear more forcibly.

Whatever action follows, the inquiry’s work may at least instil a little more caution into the next generation of politicians. Lifting the fog of any war is bound to reveal incompetence and casual cruelty. What Sir John has done so devastatingly is trace the lines of responsibility back from the military to the politicians. It should not take 12 volumes to give politicians the message: “If you go to war, many people will die, and usually not the ones you wanted.” But we recall the visionary zeal exhibited by Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq War, which seemed to strengthen as opposition to the war increased. Well might David Cameron announce: “Whatever else we learn from this conflict, we must all pledge this must never happen again.” We recall similar sentiments after earlier wars.

In the past, military might was used to protect a country’s interests, which later came to include those of a close ally. Modern communications have extended the reach of our sympathies further. In recent years, we have seen examples of the laudable desire to intervene on the part of groups that are seen to be suffering persecution. As Iraq showed, however, indifferent compassion is seldom enough motivation to commit combat troops, or even the expensive remote-controlled ordnance of modern-day warfare. Thus a threat to the West had to be invented, as Sir John demonstrates conclusively. What he also shows is that there is no value in extending our sympathies if we do not extend our competence to react effectively.

This said, we must beware of limiting our responsibility to sins of commission. There is another, less tangible, consequence of the Iraq War blunders. It has had the effect of paralysing international leaders, and preventing their taking the precise, swift, and limited military actions — ideally under the auspices of the United Nations — that could stop an escalation of violence. The First Gulf War might fall into this category, as did the action of British special forces in Sierra Leone in 2000. There are those, too, who would argue that this type of intervention could have halted the disintegration of Syria. When Sydney Smith advised the young Queen Victoria: “Say upon your death-bed, ‘I have made few orphans in my reign,’” he was talking about British military action. Nowadays, international leaders need to consider orphans made by in-
action. Sadly, Iraq now displays the tragic consequences of both.

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