The Chilcot Inquiry: Imperialists waged illegal war

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‘The most important questions – war, peace, diplomatic questions – are decided by a handful of capitalists, who deceive not only the masses, but very often parliament itself.’

VI Lenin, Ninth Congress of the Russian Communist Party, 1920

The Iraq Inquiry (Chilcot) report was published on 6 July 2016, seven years after it was commissioned by Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.* The Financial Times concluded that the entire political, military and intelligence establishment are condemned by the Chilcot report (7 July 2016). However, no politician will be prosecuted, no general demoted and no spy chief stripped of their honours as a result.

Sir John Chilcot said of the Inquiry that:

‘Above all, the lesson is that all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour. And, when decisions have been made, they need to be implemented fully. Sadly, neither was the case in relation to the UK government’s actions in Iraq.’

The Iraq war was a defining moment in British politics, where the government disregarded public opposition to pursue an illegal, bloody war, reflecting both inter-imperialist rivalries and deep divisions in the British ruling class. Supporters of war on the Labour benches in Parliament are still judged for their votes in favour. Thirteen years later, the Chilcot report has found British imperialism guilty, not of warmongering, murder and pillage in breach of international law, but of incompetence. The intention is to reassure the British ruling class that future imperialist assaults will be better prepared and conducted and consequently less likely to arouse the opposition that greeted the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Carol Brickley and Trevor Rayne report.

Preparations for war

Between January and April 2003, approximately 36 million people worldwide took to the streets to demonstrate against the invasion of Iraq. Three million marched in Rome. In Britain millions joined such demonstrations and, on the day before the invasion on 20 March 2003, opposition was so widespread that thousands of young students staged walk-outs from schools and further education colleges to protest all over Britain. Despite the fact that millions of British people were unconvinced by the Labour government’s warnings about the threat from Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime, the Blair government and its majority supporters in Parliament stuck to their guns and voted for war.

What Chilcot shows is that, behind the scenes, Prime Minister Blair had agreed with US President Bush, months beforehand, that the war on Iraq would begin in March 2003. In an infamous memo of 28 July 2002, Blair wrote to Bush ‘I will be with you, whatever’. No matter what spin Blair now puts on this commitment, what it actually meant was that, come what may, Britain would join the US in waging war. The very opposite of how the public are led to believe that wars begin took place; this was not a series of events that led to the unfortunate necessity to declare war, but a strategic decision to go to war, followed by months of scheming and manufacturing of ‘evidence’ to justify regime change and slaughter.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! summarised the War Coalition’s main justifications for war on Iraq at the time:

‘1) To stop the production and use of weapons of mass destruction.
2) To halt the threat to western democracies of rogue states and international terrorism.
3) To liberate the Iraqi people from a regime of intolerable repression ...’

(FRFI 173 June/July 2003)

In Britain and the US, ‘intelligence’ agencies were busy trying to assemble evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime was amassing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that would be deployed against ‘the west’, specifically Israel and other imperialist allies. The so-called evidence was not just arriving on their desks, it was systematically manipulated and manufactured. In the US, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council with dubious information about mobile chemical weapons units, while in the UK two ‘dodgy dossiers’ provided the framework for the government’s argument that the threat was ‘imminent’. In the foreword to the September dossier, Blair claimed that WMDs could be activated at 45 minutes notice. Rogue states were said to be supplying the chemicals, biological agents and technology necessary for manufacturing these weapons. In fact such weapons had been supplied by the US and Britain in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein was considered an ally. The UN weapons inspectors disputed ‘evidence’ of WMDs, stating that they had been destroyed after the first Iraq war in the 1990s, but the inspectors were dismissed as dupes of Saddam Hussein. As a result of media lies, by the start of the invasion over 60% of the US public believed that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 and was in league with Al Qaeda.

The Chilcot report criticises the British Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for not being more sceptical about reports of Iraqi WMDs. The reality is that the JIC repeatedly told Blair what he wanted to hear: that Iraq had such weapons; any who expressed doubts feared for their careers. The decision to wage war had been made and the intelligence was constructed to fit that objective. The chair of the JIC, John Scarlett, was duly promoted to become director of the Secret Service (MI6), knighted and is now a director of The Times.

Preparations for war went ahead regardless of facts. The US and UK had been bombing Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. In the period up to 2003, thousands of troops were transferred to the Middle East to prepare for the invasion. The UK dropped twice as many bombs on Iraq in the second half of 2002 as they did during the whole of 2001. The tonnage of UK bombs dropped increased from 0.3 in April 2002 to between 7 and 14 tons per month in May-August, reaching 54.6 tons in September. General Wesley Clark, the former Supreme NATO Allied Commander, describes in his 2003 book, Winning Modern Wars, a conversation with a military officer in the Pentagon shortly after the World Trade Centre attacks: ‘Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia and Sudan.’

The legal steps towards declaring war were examined by the Chilcot Inquiry. Central to them was the British government’s efforts to get a second UN resolution supporting the war. In the Security Council, France, Russia and China opposed such a resolution and Britain did not dare to force a vote as it would have been vetoed. The US was determined to act without UN approval if need be. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith initially said a second resolution would be necessary to legitimise war, but by 12 March he had taken ‘a better view’ and said that Iraq was in breach of existing UN resolutions and this constituted a legal basis for war. Chilcot said he ‘should have been asked to provide written advice explaining how, in the absence of a majority in the [UN] Security Council, Mr Blair could take that decision’ and that the Cabinet should have discussed the policy. Lord Goldsmith has no explanation of why he changed his mind or why the Labour Cabinet was uncurious about the legality of the war. Only the former Foreign Secretary, then Leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook resigned, saying on 18 March, ‘The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner – not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council.’

What the Chilcot report avoids is that, although Blair, Bush and their cohorts were responsible for waging an illegal war, the imperialist agenda was wider and far more important than the power-hungry personal ambitions and failings of these criminals and thugs.

The imperialist agenda

The invasion was dubbed ‘Operation Iraqi freedom’. The notion that this was an ethical war of liberation was a late justification when other reasons were wearing thin. In contrast the propaganda surrounding the Coalition’s plans was that the invasion would be ‘Shock and Awe’; inevitably this would mean paralysing civil society with terror, not liberating the people.

The Iraq war was the 44th separate British military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa since the end of the Second World War. 46,000 British troops were sent to Iraq in 2003 and the last were withdrawn in 2011, although the bulk of the mission ended on 30 April 2009. The Chilcot report states that, ‘More than 200 British citizens died as a result of the conflict in Iraq. Many more were injured. This has meant deep anguish for many families…’ The report says that ‘at least 150,000 Iraqis, probably many more, were killed’, most of them civilians. The occupying Coalition was not bothered to keep an accurate count. Studies estimate Iraqi dead at between half a million and one million people. The number of refugees from the Iraq war is up to four million people; Chilcot says more than a million people were displaced.

Overall the report concludes:

  • The case for war was presented with ‘a certainty which was not justified’;
  • It was based on ‘flawed’ intelligence about the country’s supposed weapons of mass destruction ‘which was not challenged as it should have been’;
  • The US-led coalition resorted to force to remove Saddam before peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted and in a way which undermined the authority of the United Nations Security Council;
  • Planning for post-conflict Iraq was ‘wholly inadequate’, with shortfalls in armoured vehicles to protect UK troops which ‘should not have been tolerated’.
  • Risks of military action were ‘neither properly identified nor fully exposed to ministers’ and the UK took on responsibility for four provinces of southern Iraq ‘without ensuring that it had the necessary military and civilian capabilities to discharge its obligations’.

The report condemns the armed forces’ chiefs for making no serious assessment of what their forces could deliver. In fact, they were enthusiastic about going into battle and trying out new weapons. The resulting military operation ended ‘a very long way from success’. According to the report ‘it was humiliating that the UK reached a position in which an agreement with a militia group [the Mahdi Army] which had been actively targeting UK forces was considered the best option available’. Chilcot considered the torture and killing of Iraqi prisoners and drowning of civilians by British troops beyond the Inquiry’s remit.

Bid for global domination

In response to the widespread view on the left in Britain that Blair was a poodle to Bush in the promotion of war, FRFI wrote, ‘This war initiates the new century that the US has marked down as its own: this is its opening bid for global domination. The British ruling class, under the leadership of its most committed imperialists, the Labour government, is no poodle, but a greedy partner in this enterprise’ (FRFI 172 April/May 2003). At the time the Middle East was thought to contain two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves (today the estimate is 60%). Control over oil supplies is crucial for world power; China, Germany and Japan, potential rivals to the US, all depend on oil imports. Since the 1956 Suez Crisis, the British ruling class has supported US hegemony over the Middle East and joined in the spoils.

In 1990 Iraq occupied Kuwait, thereby commanding 20% of the world’s oil supplies and challenging imperialist domination of oil. In 1991 the US and Britain led the assault on Iraq, dropping the explosive equivalent of seven Hiroshima bombs on the country, killing a quarter of a million people. Sanctions on Iraq followed, to enfeeble the country. The World Health Organisation reported that 1,211,285 children died in Iraq between August 1990 and August 1997 as a result of UN sanctions.

In 1998 the British Labour government sought a UN resolution endorsing an attack on Iraq. However, China and Russia opposed the attack and France refused to support any new military threat. Germany, Netherlands and Portugal offered ‘support facilities’ only and key Middle Eastern allies of the US and Britain refused to join the attack. The UN brokered a deal with Iraq allowing the inspection of sites for WMDs. In FRFI we commented, ‘However, the US cannot allow itself to appear in any way constrained by the UN which brokered the deal with Saddam Hussein, for that would give the green light to European interests to lever the US out of its dominant regional position by doing deals with local rulers.’

We wrote, ‘There can be no doubt that the contentions over oil, the Gulf, Middle East and Caspian regions will be resolved by force and that the US must use violence, sooner rather than later, if its position as dominant imperial power is not to be undermined’ (Iraq, oil and the war suspended, FRFI 142 April/May 1998). This is why in 2003 Blair, Goldsmith, the Labour Cabinet, the intelligence chiefs and armed forces’ commanders chose to ignore international law and the niceties of government protocols in the drive to war: it was a strategic imperative for British imperialism, but that would never surface in a government commissioned inquiry.        

In response to Chilcot, on the question of the occupation of Iraq, Greg Muttitt and David Whyte wrote in The Guardian:

‘Under the Hague and Geneva rules, occupying powers are prohibited from fundamentally transforming the economy and political system of a country. Yet this is exactly what happened: the coalition provisional authority (CPA), through which the UK and US governed [in Iraq], forced through a series of major structural economic reforms … It also reformed the political system root and branch, creating a government structure based on sectarian identity, which arguably played a key role in stimulating the violence that continues to this day.

‘Iraqi oil revenues were used to fund reconstruction, the majority of it carried out by US and UK contractors. Chilcot noted that by the end of the CPA’s first year of occupation, there were more than 60 UK companies working in Iraq, on contracts worth an estimated $2.6bn …

‘Contrary to Blair’s protestations, government documents released this week spell out how Iraqi oil was a central motive behind the war. Throughout the six years that British troops remained in Iraq, the UK consistently maintained two objectives in relation to oil: to transfer oil from public ownership to multinational companies, and to ensure BP and Shell got a large share of it.’

(The Guardian 11 July 2016)

Labour Party imperialists

In April 2003 we said ‘the myth is being peddled that Blair has hijacked the Labour Party, when in fact Labour’s history is entirely on the side of imperialism. The left in the Labour Party stands convicted of a failure of principle’ (FRFI 172 April/May 2003). Much of the response to the Chilcot report was to blame Blair. Blair is guilty of war crimes but his party should be convicted of warmongering. Speaking of Iraq in March 2002, Labour Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said, ‘I am absolutely confident, in the right conditions, we would be willing to use nuclear weapons.’ Before the war, Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown designated a £1bn war chest.

Jack Straw, who replaced Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, told British ambassadors the invasion was a strategic priority ‘to bolster the security of British and global energy supplies’. The Labour government succeeded in pulling 18 European Union states away from France and Germany to support the US. Straw said, ‘I say to France and Germany: take care … we will reap a whirlwind if we push the US into a unilateralist position.’ After the invasion when no WMDs had been found in Iraq, Straw said, ‘Saddam’s removal is necessary to eradicate the threat from weapons of mass destruction’ (2 April 2003). Witless to the last, Straw is still convinced that the war was justifiable. During the Arab Spring of 2010-11, he pointed out that Iraq was ‘one of the few countries in the region where there were no crowds in the streets trying to bring down the government – hard evidence, he suggested, that Iraq was beginning to function like a democracy’ (Independent 4 July 2016).

In 1990, while in opposition, the Labour Party enthusiastically supported US war plans on Iraq; only 38 MPs voted against the proposed assault. In 1998, with a far larger number of Labour MPs, just 25 MPs voted for a motion against war and of these, four were from Plaid Cymru.

In a press conference in London following the publication of the Inquiry report, Blair said he would never agree that those who died and were injured in Iraq ‘made their sacrifice in vain’. ‘They fought in the defining global security struggle of the 21st century against the terrorism and violence which the world over destroys lives, divides communities’. ‘Their sacrifice should always be remembered with thanksgiving and with honour when that struggle is eventually won, as it will be.’ Brazenly deceitful to the last, he argued that, while the Chilcot report contained ‘serious criticisms’, it showed that ‘there were no lies, Parliament and the Cabinet were not misled, there was no secret commitment to war, intelligence was not falsified and the decision was made in good faith’.

Responding to the report, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn used guarded language in Parliament to say that the Labour Party had been misled by a ‘small number of leading figures in the government’ who were ‘none too scrupulous’ about how they had made the case for war. The argument that hard-boiled Labour MPs were bamboozled by their own leadership is scarcely believable when millions of British people knew that Blair and Bush were lying.

In December 2015 Corbyn allowed Labour MPs a free vote on the government’s proposal to extend bombing from Iraq to Syria. 66 Labour MPs backed bombing Syria, compared to 152 against, resulting in a 174 majority for bombing. Prime Minister Cameron cited 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels that needed British help. These 70,000 were invented by the same Joint Intelligence Committee that manufactured Blair’s lies about Iraqi WMDs. Chilcot said the Iraq Inquiry was ‘to identify lessons for the future’. The lesson for the ruling class is that government inquiries have few consequences. The lesson we must take is that an anti-imperialist movement must be built in Britain that rejects and opposes Labour imperialism.      

* The Chilcot Inquiry cost about £10 million. Chilcot was paid £790 a day while the other panel members were paid £565 a day.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 252 August/September 2016