The Chilcot Report On Iraq Invasion: Lessons for Australia

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Worshipping the cult of military and intelligence agencies led Australia to an unjust war, writes Professor Stuart Rees.

The British Government’s recently published report by Sir John Chilcot into the conduct of the Iraq war has condemned former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to go to war.

Australia has numerous lessons to learn from this scathing report. Unless those lessons are heeded, Australia will stay hoodwinked by unprincipled politicians, by unintelligent intelligent operatives and by a dangerous subservience to US policies and interests.

But to learn the lessons, the usual compliance with establishment dictates has to be replaced by a culture which encourages scepticism and analysis. A first lesson could begin if citizens insisted that establishment figures – Prime Ministers, senior Cabinet Ministers, military and intelligence personnel – should never be regarded as so expert that they can do almost what they like.

Without scepticism about experts’ claims and analysis of proposed policies, leaders like John Howard, Tony Blair and George W. Bush can make a case for war by ignoring law, deceiving the public and cosying up to the military.

It is clear from the Chilcot Report that senior members of Blair’s Cabinet were kept in the dark. Cabinet government meant rule by a self-important oligarchy. Widespread scepticism was not entertained.

This secrecy would not occur if politicians of all persuasions were far more courageous, far more able to analyse and question.

Former Labour British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. (IMAGE: Center for American Progress, Flickr)
Former Labour British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. (IMAGE: Center for American Progress, Flickr)

In the 2003 deliberations preceding the Iraq war, the usual practice of toeing a party line or waiting to conform to prevailing establishment views was cowardly and irresponsible. It was as though, in times of war, respect for democracy should be officially suspended.

Scepticism must also be applied to the intelligence arms of government. A monstrous mausoleum on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin houses hundreds of secret service employees. God knows what they do. Even if their intelligence is much more impressive than that which influenced Blair’s decision to go to war – though he and his press officer Alistair Campbell sexed up intelligence advice – we would still have to conclude that they are not worth the budget which keeps them going.

At a time of history when citizens are meant to worship the great God ‘security’, it may seem heretical to be unduly critical of individuals who can’t speak openly. But the invisibility and non-accountability of intelligence personnel runs counter to ideals of democracy, justice and even security.

At the very least, let’s heed Chiclot’s demand: don’t let establishment figures pull the wool over your eyes.

Scepticism and scrutiny must also be applied to the military. I’ll put that point another way. The almost uncritical reverence for the views of senior members of the military is part of militarization-for-ever culture: armed forces mean flag waving, strength, loyalty to country, defence of a realm (or defence of borders) and a series of other patriotic clichés. At times of conflict, who dares to question that culture? But question it we must.

Chilcot found that the British military were ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the Iraq invasion. British soldiers were left wondering what to do once the initial fighting was over and many soldiers felt left to their fate. The anaesthetizing effect of believing that force is the way to solve problems left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, a country in ruins, a million Iraqis displaced and many thousands of American and British soldiers dead or badly injured. Scepticism and analysis?

For centuries, too few people have calculated the human, environmental and political costs of going to war. Establishment figures – politicians, senior civil servants, military and intelligence staff – should be asked to count the costs before they say that might is right; before they say we don’t have to bother about invading weak nations or worry about the rules of international law.

Chilcot also shows that the skills of scepticism and analysis were not deployed by most sections of the mainstream media. The Fourth Estate could have, but did not, hinder the Bushes, Blairs and Howards careening to war. In Australia, the UK and the USA, the Murdoch press sang for a dangerous patriotism and derided anyone – like the former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cooke – who told Blair and his inner circle that there was no case for war.

Former US president George W Bush (IMAGE: Peter Stevens, Flickr).
Former US president George W Bush (IMAGE: Peter Stevens, Flickr).

The major influence in the momentum building towards the Iraq war included Australia’s deference to the US alliance and Tony Blair’s cringing – ‘I’m with you whatever you do ‘ – devotion to George W. Bush.

Chilcot implies serious questions for Australian governments. When will you cease your uncritical alliance with American foreign policy, when will you start being critical of the consequences of US initiated wars?

In the USA, families of slain and wounded soldiers are demanding their own Chilcot Inquiry. They are also asking, why accept the illegal use of force, why the apparent indifference to death and destruction, why can powerful people get away with their criminal behaviour?

In 2003 a vigorous scepticism and analysis existed in cities around the world when millions marched in opposition to the impending Iraq war. Their protests and pleas were ignored. The traditions of establishment superiority and secrecy meant that millions protested in vain. Respect for scepticism and analysis? There was none.

Worse than that, protesters were ridiculed by a right wing press and in America individuals were arrested for wearing shirts with the motto ‘Say No To War.’

Chilcot concludes that the protesters in the streets have been proved correct. That is no consolation for the Iraqi dead and maimed, the ruin of a country and the immolation of a whole region.

The Bush, Blair Howard decision encouraged terrorism and gave birth to Isis. In each of their countries, the establishment still seems unwilling to learn.

In response to Chilcot, Tony Blair says that even with the wisdom of hindsight, he would make the same decision again.

The Blair’s of the world can never be allo0wed that same error again.

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Stuart Rees

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.

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