The Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war has been released. Like most people, I have not read the report and don’t plan to – it stretches into the millions of words. Even the executive summary is 150 pages long! According to news reports, the report criticises the decision to entertain war, mostly because of the sketchy intelligence in regards to Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction. The report also reportedly criticises the lack of post-war planning, which allowed Iraq to descend into chaos within months.
This post will examine the decision to enter the war through the lens of the big picture. There are some key points to consider.
First, the UK didn’t act alone. The push to invade Iraq came from the US. Yes, the UK could have said no, but this would have considerably undermined the relationship between the two countries. The same obviously goes for Australia’s involvement. That might be an unfortunate cost of being the weaker party to an alliance relationship, but that’s the unfortunate reality.
The UK could have and did use its influence with America to shape the operation (and day-after plans). Whether or not London did enough is up for debate, but it would have been a courageous decision (in the Yes, Minister tradition) for the UK to have stayed out of the war.
Second, from the Western perspective, it was a mistake to enter Iraq. My argument for this is (and has been from the beginning) that Iraq in 2003 was weak and stable. In a place like the Middle East, having your enemy weak but stable is one of the best possible outcomes.
Hindsight has proven this basic theory correct, but it wasn’t hindsight that formed it.
Third, the outcome of the Iraq war demonstrated Western power in a state-to-state war, but also demonstrated that Western forces can be defeated in insurgencies. This was a powerful lesson.
Fourth, and important to this discussion, the outcome of the Iraq war helped focus the big picture. In 2003, Iraq was neither a member of the Status Quo Bloc nor a member of the Iranian-led (though more ambiguously populated) Resistance Bloc. The US-imposed government placed Iraq into the Status Bloc. Subsequent events have handed Iran so much influence in Iraq, however, that Baghdad is, for all intents and purposes, now in the Resistance camp. And since the Resistance Bloc is implacably opposed to Western influence and presence in the Middle East, this translates into a substantial loss for the West. An example of a greater foreign policy disaster is hard to think of.
Fifth, it is worth contemplating if the outcome could have been different. Obviously, we’ll never know for sure, but the answer is ‘probably not.’ Yes, better planning would likely have resulted in considerably less bloodshed since the ‘Mission accomplished’ aircraft carrier press conference. But with so many Shi’ites in Iraq, and with so much vested Iranian interest, I think the end result would have been a contest of wills – out of the US and Iran, who would be willing to spend the blood and treasure for the long-term to see Iraq reside in their camp. Yes, the US spent plenty of blood and treasure, but it was always going to leave, and the (correct) view was that bleeding the Americans would bring about a faster exit.
Had the US set up Iraq as a (pro-Western) Sunni dictatorship (like much of the pro-Western Middle East is), things might have been different. But attempting to impose a democracy on the Shi’ite majority country essentially doomed all prospects for the country to remain within the Western sphere of interests. What planners in the West still apparently don’t realise is that holding an election does not make a country a democracy. A democracy is the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, as well as representative government answerable to the people. Iraq was not ready to become a democracy in the Western sense, and the West’s attempts to make it so doomed it to fail. (Of course, they hardly had a choice, did they? Western leaders could hardly go back to their own democracies to proclaim a new Iraqi dictatorship. It ain’t the ’80s anymore…)
In summary, the Iraq war handed the Resistance Bloc one of the most important countries in the Middle East – a disaster for Western policy that will haunt us for a long time to come.