Chilcot exposes how Blair kept ministers and generals in the dark
Sir John Chilcot’s report is more than just a carefully worded, clearly argued dissection of the decisions that led Britain to go to war in 2003, and the failures thereafter. It amounts to an uncompromising and in office during this period.
In page after page, the report highlights how the former prime minister appeared to be privately saying one thing “sotto voce” to George W Bush, while keeping many of his own ministers – and military commanders – almost completely in the dark.
It also underlines how huge decisions about the legality of the war and the execution of the military campaign were never properly discussed at cabinet meetings.
In one particularly damning passage – paragraph 634 of the executive summary – Chilcot clinically exposes the inadequacies of organisation, analysis and management within government that contributed to Britain’s disastrous mission in .
All of these failures of leadership, the report notes, were down to the then prime minister. “Mr Blair did not establish clear ministerial oversight of post-conflict strategy, planning and preparation,” Chilcot wrote. Nor did he “ensure that ministers took the decisions needed to prepare a flexible, realistic and fully resourced plan integrating UK military and civilian contributions”.
The prime minister, Chilcot said, also failed to “seek adequate assurances that the UK was in a position to meet its likely obligations in Iraq”.
And despite concerns about the state of US preparations for war, Blair “did not make agreement on a satisfactory post-conflict plan a condition of UK participation in military action”. These omissions contributed to the chaos that engulfed British forces in Iraq after the invasion, the report states.
The problems, it seems, began a year before the invasion when Blair met Bush at Crawford, Texas in 2002. According to evidence given to Chilcot, Blair discussed “a British armoured division taking part in the invasion”.
Yet the prime minister had not discussed this with the then chief of the defence staff, Admiral Lord Boyce, or his foreign policy advisor, Sir David Manning. Boyce told the inquiry that military action on that scale was – as far as he was concerned – just not on the table. “We were flatly saying we are not considering or contemplating military action in Iraq,” he said.
Yet the letters sent by Blair to Bush underlined the prime minister’s determination to stick close to the US for personal and strategic reasons, though only a few of Blair’s closest officials were allowed to read the notes before they were sent.
“I will be with you, whatever,” . “But this is the moment to assess bluntly the difficulties.”
However, according to Chilcot, these difficulties were not properly appraised or discussed, and ultimately Blair did not manage to use his influence on the president to buy more time to gain support for military action, or to get the assurances he was seeking about what plans had been made for Iraq after the invasion.
Chilcot said Blair should have been more open about his plans with senior ministers because the July note “represented an extensive statement of the UK government’s position by the prime minister to the president of the US. The foreign and defence secretaries should certainly have been given an opportunity to comment on the draft in advance”.
It left the military, in particular, unclear about what was being expected of them and unable to plan ahead.
By January of the following year, Blair had agreed to deploy a UK division with three combat brigades for possible operations in southern Iraq – but Chilcot noted there was “no collective discussion of the decision by senior ministers”.
In fact, Chilcot in which there should have been wider discussions “by a cabinet committee or small group of ministers” about important issues.
This, he wrote, “might have identified some of the wider implications and risks associated with the deployment of military forces to Iraq. It might also have offered the opportunity to remedy some of the deficiencies in planning.”
Although Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, was invited to attend the cabinet on 16 January 2003, “there was no discussion” about his views on the legality of the war. Nobody outside Downing Street was privy to his advice, Chilcot says. He adds the “cabinet should have been made aware of the legal uncertainties” given the gravity of the decision to be taken.
Chilcot records that there was also “no substantive discussion of the military options, despite promises by Mr Blair, before the [cabinet] meeting on 17 March – three days before the invasion.
Geoff Hoon, defence secretary at the time, told the inquiry that Blair was “well known to be extremely concerned about leaks” and this was one reason why decisions were not made in cabinet meetings. The tight hold, Hoon admitted, meant few people outside Blair’s close circle were in the know.
“At no time when I was serving in the Ministry of Defence were other cabinet ministers involved in discussions about the deployment of specific forces and the nature of their operations … I do not recall a single cabinet-level discussion of specific troop deployments and the nature of their operations.”
A day later, on 18 March, Blair set out the UK’s vision for the future of Iraq in the House of Commons, yet the inquiry concludes there appeared to be no substance behind the words.
“No assessment had been made of whether that vision was achievable, no agreement had been reached with the US on a workable post‑conflict plan, UN authorisation had not yet been secured, and there had been no decision on the UN’s role in post‑conflict Iraq,” it states.
In addition, the report says it could find “no evidence that any department or individual assumed ownership or was assigned responsibility for analysis or mitigation” about what might happen after the invasion. Chilcot puts the blame for this firmly on Blair.
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