“It is now clear that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments. They were not challenged and they should have been.”
Sir John Chilcot, 6th July 2016
Of all the major news stories of the last 25 years I’ve always taken a particular interest in Iraq. The First Gulf War in 1991 was one of the first big stories I worked on as a television journalist.
Eight years later I went to Baghdad to report on the effects of economic sanctions on ordinary Iraqis and efforts being made by the Anglican Church to foster reconciliation between Iraq and the West and between the different religious factions within Iraq itself. Over the years I’ve also met the relatives of British servicemen who lost their lives in the Second Gulf War and its aftermath.
I had, therefore, eagerly anticipated the publication today of the Chilcot Inquiry into events leading up to Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
In short it found that:
- then Prime Minister Tony Blair led the UK into war before “peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted”;
- at the time of the invasion “there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein”;
- policy was “made on the basis of flawed intelligence and assessments”; and
- claims Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction were made “with a certainty that was not justified”.
As Sir John pointed out, Saddam Hussein was “undoubtedly a brutal dictator who had attacked Iraq’s neighbours (and) repressed and killed many of his own people”, and military action may have been necessary at some point. But the fact is that, in March 2003, war “was not the last resort”.
It’s hard to comprehend the scale of human suffering the decision to go to war has caused. More than 200 UK and nearly 4,500 US citizens died as a result of the conflict. But those numbers are dwarfed by the figure for Iraqi citizens. By July 2009 more than 150,000 Iraqis had lost their lives, and the carnage continues to this day.
There will be all sorts of opinions expressed in the coming days about the lessons to be learned, but for me this whole sorry saga demonstrates, more than anything, how we simply don’t ask enough questions. In the case of Iraq, that includes not just politicians but also my own profession, journalism. There are in short, too many columnists and too few reporters; too many opinion pieces, not enough serious investigation.
We saw exactly the same with the Brexit debate — plenty of noise and rhetoric, but ultimately too little sustained and detailed questioning. Too much emphasis on headline-grabbing claims, not enough on cold, hard evidence. And just as with the invasion of Iraq, we were so focused on the event itself that no one properly asked what the plan was for afterwards.
There are questions to be asked of the British public as well. Have we become too trusting of those in authority? Are we too naïve about their motives behind what they say and do? Are we too ready to accept what the media tells us? Have we become too busy with our everyday lives to ask the questions that really matter?
Whatever it is you’re trying to do — whether it’s challenging your elected representatives to make the right decisions, learning a new trade or investing for your retirement — refuse to accept what you’re told at face value. Never stop asking questions.