By coincidence or by intention, the Chilcot Report on Britain’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War came soon after the country recently voted to leave the European Union. In both cases, Britain blundered badly because of the wrong policy decisions by the prime ministers of the time Tony Blair and David Cameron respectively. While Blair had no peace plan for Iraq, Cameron lacked forethought on EU referendum.
Though Britain’s involvement in Iraq War and its recent decision to leave European Union (EU) are completely different events, they bear some striking similarities.
An official report into the Iraq War published on July 6 criticizes Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, for his decision to lead the country into the 2003 US-led invasion and his failure to plan for its aftermath.
By coincidence or by intention, this long-waited report was released after Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Faced with multiple crises caused by Brexit, many people in the UK are questioning Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold the EU referendum and criticizing his government and leading Brexiters for not having a post-Brexit plan.
“Flawed” and “needless” decisions
The report published on Wednesday on the UK’s 5th inquiry into its involvement in the 2003 Iraq War was ordered by former prime minister Gordon Brown in 2009 and conducted by Sir John Chilcot, a former civil servant. It is 2.6 million words long and contains 150,000 documents.
In the report, which took seven years and cost about £10m to complete, Sir John describes Britain’s decision to take part in the “invasion and full-scale occupation” of Iraq as “a decision of the utmost gravity.”
Though it does not clearly and strongly condemn Blair’s role in the conflict nor does it say anything about the legality of the war, the Chilcot report’s conclusions are very critical of him, his government as well as his civil and military advisers.
One of the report’s indictments is that “the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament [of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction] had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”
Britain’s decision to go to war was flawed also because it was based on “flawed intelligence and assessments.”
Thus, though it reserves scathing criticism for Blair and his government, the report also, to some extent, criticizes the UK’s political, military and intelligence establishments for their misjudgements or incompetence.
During the last two weeks, Cameron has also attracted strong criticisms for his decision to hold the EU referendum. Other leadings Brexiters have also been denounced.
Writing in the Financial Times on June 24, Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister in the Cameron coalition government from 2010-2015, said he was angry with Cameron and George Osborne because they called a “needless referendum” that, he believed, was “designed to settle an internal Tory feud.”
The argument that the referendum was aimed at silencing the Euroskeptics in Cameron’s own party was also supported by others.
For some others, his decision to hold the plebiscite was intended to “lance the noxious UKIP [the United Kingdom Freedom Party] boil that threatened his general election chances” and “to save his job.”
Thus, though different in terms of their purpose and context, Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq and Cameron’s decision to hold a EU referendum, which resulted in Britain’s exit from the EU, are somehow similar.
The former’s was found “flawed” though Blair insisted that he “acted in good faith” whereas the latter’s was seen as “needless” and “irresponsible” though Cameron said before the referendum that it was right to hold it.
“Inadequate planning” and “no plan”
Another main finding of the Chilcot report, which is also a key charge against Blair and his government, is that “the planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.”
The British “government’s preparations failed to take account of the magnitude of the task of stabilizing, administering and reconstructing Iraq, and of the responsibilities which were likely to fall to the UK.”
It also said that Blair was explicitly warned of the consequences of the invasion. Yet, they were underestimated or ignored.
Thirteen years later, the UK apparently made the same mistakes.
Neither Cameron and Osborne nor Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and other Brexiters prepared a plan for Brexit.
This has shocked and angered many people because the UK’s vote to end its 43-year membership of the EU is a life-changing decision, with far-reaching implications. In economic and political terms, it could even make a greater and longer-lasting impact on Britain than its decision to join the US-led war in Iraq.
In his piece, Clegg said he was also “angry at the brazen mendacity of a Leave campaign which has no idea what happens next.”
Before June 23’s referendum, many experts had warned of dire consequences if the UK would leave the EU. However, such warnings had been ignored or rubbished by leading Brexit campaigners.
Both “went badly wrong”?
Given Blair government’s flawed decision to go to war and its failure to adequately prepare for its aftermath, the Chilcot report concludes that “the UK military role in Iraq ended a very long way from success.”
More precisely, Chilcot states that his report “is an account of an intervention which went badly wrong, with consequences to this day.”
In a media interview after the release of the report, though acknowledging that mistakes were made, Blair still maintains that the Iraq war was justified because the world is better without Saddam Hussein.
But what has happened in Iraq and the world ever since supports well the Chilcot report’s conclusion.
As many as 179 British service personnel died in the conflict. It is estimated that between 150,000 and 500,000 Iraqis died and more than a million lost their homes and were displaced since the 2003 invasion. It also inflamed extremism that has greatly destabilized Iraq, the region and triggered terror around the world.
The suicide bomb attack in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, that killed 165 people on July 3, three days before the publication of the Chilcot report, is a reminder of the deadly consequences of the Iraq War.
Given such outcomes, many people in the UK are strongly critical of their country’s military intervention in Iraq in 2003, regarding it as a disaster, with catastrophic consequences.
Such a strong language is also used by a number of people to describe Brexit.
For some, Britain’s leave vote “is probably the most disastrous single event in British history since the Second World War” while others regard it as “the biggest disruption of British politics since the Labour Party eclipsed the Liberals after the first world war.”
For some others, it is not the UK’s humiliating Suez invasion of 1956 or its fallout from the 2003 Iraq war, but Brexit that “is now the greatest British political crisis” since the end of the Second World War.
Some even claim that Britain’s exit from the EU is a “far greater disaster” than the Iraq War.
Those who are critical of the EU referendum and Britain’s Brexit often vent their criticism and anger at Cameron and leading Brexiters.
Clegg said he is “angry at the careless elitism of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Steve Hilton and other leading Brexiters.”
But his “greatest anger is reserved for David Cameron and George Osborne” because “they and they alone are responsible for bringing our great country to this sorry pass.”
Some newspapers and commentators already link Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq with Cameron’s to call the referendum on the EU, with one regarding both of them as “catastrophic misjudgements.”
For another, Blair made “the worst foreign policy mistake in British history” whereas Cameron committed “the worst domestic policy mistake the UK has ever seen.” That can be a reason why Cameron was seen as “the true heir to Tony Blair” and both of them were regarded as “totally reckless.”
During their tenure as the UK’s prime ministers, Tony Blair and David Cameron achieved some significant achievements. Yet, their legacy is marred by their decision to lead their country to war in Iraq and to leave the EU respectively.
For Blair, following the Chilcot report, his mistakes in the run-up to the Iraq War and its aftermath as well as their consequences are evident and officially testified. Unless history proves him right or judges him more favorably, he will forever be infamously associated with the deadly conflict in Iraq.
With regard to Cameron, whether he is “totally reckless” and his decision to call the referendum is the “worst domestic policy mistake” in the UK’s history as some have already suggested, time will tell.
However, judging by what has happened since June 23’s EU referendum, Brexit has severely affected the UK. The country is now facing a political and constitutional crisis, a financial and economic turmoil and an uncertain future.
If Brexit eventually dents the United Kingdom’s unity, prosperity and its role in the world, his legacy will be also greatly damaged.
Xuan Loc Doan is a UK-based researcher. He holds a PhD in International Relations and researches and writes on a number of areas. These include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN, EU, UK’s politics and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region”.
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