So the Chilcot Report about the British government’s conduct during the Iraq War has finally been published. As we are all living with the consequences of this war today, journalists and politicians from all over the world are lining up to express their opinion over the report’s contents, despite the fact the executive summary alone runs to 150 pages and few people will ever read the full document.
The trouble is, the content of the report isn’t actually news. It merely confirms what was already long suspected, both in public opinion and through leaks of its content. Everyone now lining up to say “I told you so” is just milking their five minutes of fame, because people did not need to be told what they already knew, by Chilcot or anyone else.
It was already obvious that Tony Blair and his ministers must have known that the justification for the invasion, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, was at best debatable and at worst totally false, but they proceeded to present it as a matter of fact when it never had been. It was already obvious that all the diplomatic means of containing Iraq and preventing war had not been exhausted when the decision was made to go to war.
It was already known that there was no clear legal basis for invading Iraq, and that one had not been sought. It was already known that the equipment shortfalls during the campaign were not properly addressed because no one had bothered to work out who should have been doing that, as no one was really interested. It was already known that the UK had never had a plan for how to reconstruct Iraq afterwards, having started the war in the first place, and that it had sacrificed at least 200 of its servicemen and thousands of Iraqis as a result.
But what this report does reveal is something it wasn’t empowered to actually look at. It has inadvertently explained the real reason why Blair went to war on the basis of assumptions which were explicitly contradicted by the available intelligence, and why there was no plan for following the invasion through. The war wasn’t anything to do with Saddam Hussein, his non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction or his alleged willingness to give them to terrorist groups. It was about why Saddam had continued to defy UN demands for so long and got away with it – it was that, rather than him, which had to be stopped at all costs.
What couldn’t be investigated
The inquiry was supposed to look at UK policy towards Iraq before, during and after the invasion. However, as it admitted, its terms of reference were framed by what the public found interesting at the time and subsequently. This public interest is itself framed by hindsight about what happened. People want answers about things they have seen, not things that have not come to public notice.
This is why few politicians or commentators have taken much notice of certain things the report says, but doesn’t follow through because the public didn’t follow them through either. Consider the following paragraphs of the report:
“26. Before the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 (9/11), the UK was pursuing a strategy of containment based on a new sanctions regime to improve international support and incentivise Iraq’s cooperation, narrowing and deepening the sanctions regime to focus only on prohibited items and at the same time improving financial controls to reduce the flow of illicit funds to Saddam Hussein.
“36. In an Assessment on 1 November, the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) judged that Saddam Hussein felt “little pressure to negotiate over … resolution 1284 because the proceeds of oil smuggling and illicit trade have increased significantly this year, and more countries are increasing diplomatic contacts and trade with Iraq”
“40. The Key Judgements of a JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee of the UK Parliament] Assessment in February 2001 included:
• There was “broad international consensus to maintain the arms embargo at least as long as Saddam remains in power. Saddam faces no economic pressure to accept … [resolution] 1284 because he is successfully undermining the economic sanctions regime.”
• “Through abuse of the UN OilforFood [OFF] programme and smuggling of oil and other goods” it was estimated that Saddam Hussein would “be able to appropriate in the region of $1.5bn to $1.8bn in cash and goods in 2001”, and there was “scope for earning even more”.
• “Iranian interdiction efforts” had “significantly reduced smuggling down the Gulf”, but Saddam Hussein had “compensated by exploiting land routes to Turkey and Syria”.
• “Most countries” believed that economic sanctions were “ineffective, counterproductive and should now be lifted. Without active enforcement, the economic sanctions regime” would “continue to erode”.
The Assessment also stated:
• Saddam Hussein needed funds “to maintain his military and security apparatus and secure its loyalty”.
• Despite the availability of funds, Iraq had been slow to comply with UN recommendations on food allocation. Saddam needed “the Iraqi people to suffer to underpin his campaign against sanctions”.
• Encouraged by the success of Iraq’s border trade agreement with Turkey, “frontline states” were “not enforcing sanctions”.
• There had been a “significant increase in the erosion of sanctions over the past six months”.
Unlike the evidence about Iraq’s weapons programme, or lack of it, this assessment of what Iraq was doing was not challenged. The UK government didn’t know whether Saddam really was producing or developing weapons of mass destruction, or whether he had any which could be used, despite what it subsequently claimed to parliament. But it did know, and never disputed, that Iraq was ignoring the UN because it was making a lot of money by smuggling along known routes, and specifically by exploiting the Oil For Food Programme.
Does this sound familiar? According to the Chilcot Report, the failures of the US and UK in Iraq helped to create ISIS. The Islamic State earns its living by smuggling oil to the West. You can only do that if you control the routes, as that is the only way you can guarantee the security of supplies – no one buys oil one barrel at a time, as and when needed, they buy in bulk from people they know can ensure bulk deliveries.
As the Russian action against ISIS demonstrated, the US bombing campaigns are never actually aimed at ISIS troops. They are aimed at the smuggling routes it uses, the ones through Turkey and Syria mentioned in the report. The object of these airstrikes is not to disrupt ISIS supplies, which are known to be sold in the US, but to protect the routes.
Everyone in a position of authority wants a piece of the oil and drug smuggling action, as residents of any South American country will tell you. Saddam’s crime was that he was controlling the smuggling routes, and thus able to ignore the UN. Now the US controls them through ISIS, which is why ISIS exists and is still around.
Sir John Chilcot can’t explain why the UK felt obliged to act on false intelligence and had no reconstruction plan afterwards. Here is the explanation, sir. There was no plan because no one was interested in the future of Iraq, just controlling the smuggling routes. There was a need to falsify the intelligence to justify this because no one would have supported a campaign to take over smuggling routes.
If the general public had looked at these issues, rather than the ones the government and media wanted them to look at, they would have been part of your remit, sir. Then you would have examined them in the course of your inquiry and drawn the same conclusions, sir. How much it would cost to protect Mr. Blair from being torn apart by the families of the soldiers he murdered to help George W. Bush take control of smuggling routes is another question, but one we also may ultimately find the answer to.
Oil for pockets
The report mentions Saddam’s “abuse” of the Oil For Food Programme in a very casual way, as if this was happening all the time and no further comment was necessary. It is a significant indictment of the UN that it can be automatically assumed that any of its programmes will be abused, as government programmes which are abused are generally shut down, or the loopholes which are being exploited closed.
But everyone knew this one was being abused because it was designed to be. Saddam’s crime wasn’t the abuse itself, but the fact he was using a UN programme to give him the means to defy the UN. If the UN complained, he could undercut those complaints immediately by telling the world how he had been encouraged to exploit it by the same UN, and strengthened his diplomatic hand considerably.
The Oil For Food programme was supposed to be a means of providing Iraqis with food via the supervised sale of oil to reputable customers. Saddam chose who these customers would be, and they ended up making illegal payments totalling $1.8 billion to Saddam, most of it in secret deals which went unmonitored. That was the basis on which they were selected, as the UN should have known, and probably did.
Saddam was simply fulfilling the terms of the programme by selecting his own customers. If they then paid him large sums in kickbacks, whilst hugely benefitting themselves from these sales, that is the fault of the UN. As Saddam might point out today if he were still alive, if the UN member states which were calling for his head had actually cared about what he was doing they would now be prosecuting the companies and individuals involved. Very few countries have brought any actions, and not all of those have been successful. The UN was happy to see Saddam abuse its largesse as long as the military-industrial complex was satisfied, and everyone involved knew it.
The beneficiaries of the programme, which ironically included the leader of Russian’s Communist Party, are too important to bring down. The only way to stop Saddam abusing this programme and getting away with it was to remove Saddam, not them. This is why there were calls for regime change in Iraq long before the war, but not when he was gassing his own citizens or summarily executing opponents.
Murdering a few thousand Iraqis isn’t important. Protecting Western criminals is, because governments know that, unfortunately, they rather than their people are the constituency they have come to represent. That’s why they are more interested in smuggling than human rights. One makes a fortune for their paymasters, the other doesn’t.
Shot down in his own flames
After the release of the report Tony Blair delivered a 90 minute justification of his actions, despite what the report said and despite the fact he had advance knowledge of its contents and they had been accepted by his lawyers. Just imagine what would happen in court cases if the prosecution had to agree the content of its case with the defendant beforehand, and could be prosecuted itself if it said something the defendant didn’t want presented as evidence.
As Blair says, it is probably in everyone’s best interests that Saddam is no longer in power. This is of course the same Saddam who the British delivered a lot of sophisticated weaponry to when he was attacking Iran, which was more of a pariah at the time, despite his crimes being well documented. Iran was more of a pariah because the West had been made to look stupid by the fact it hadn’t seen its revolution coming, and oil interests had been threatened by it. These things were considered more important than supporting a man with Saddam’s record, and this remains so today.
If he had cared about the world’s best interests Blair would have repudiated Britain’s previous support of Saddam when he was in power. Instead he defended it as justified at the time. He would also have made sure that British companies were prosecuted for their role in the Oil For Food Programme during his tenure. How many were? Not one, as far as we know.
The next time a state and a leader are presented as pariahs who must be stopped, the world will remember the Chilcot Inquiry. Hopefully it will also understand that it didn’t touch the reasons why the war actually took place – and that if the public knew what they were, the slaughter we have seen since would never have happened, and never will again.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.