By Guy Brandon, 7 July 2016
The Chilcot Report has painted a bleak picture of the circumstances surrounding the decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003.
The Prime Minister has the power to declare war without Parliamentary approval. In this instance there was a debate, followed by a (non-binding) vote. There was strong support in the House of Common; MPs voted to approve the invasion by 412 to 149 votes. At the time, the UK public was also in favour overall, with around 54% saying they believed going to war against Saddam was the right thing.
But the issue at stake is not whether or not there was approval: it is the grounds on which approval was given and what this tells us about decision-making in government at the time. The Chilcot Report and various critics since its publication have argued that the process was rushed, heavily influenced by the US, and made without proper examination of the evidence. In particular the intelligence collected on Iraq’s military capabilities and weapons of mass destruction was thin and often inaccurate, as later events proved. Jeremy Corbyn has argued that ‘the report proved the Iraq War had been an “act of military aggression launched on a false pretext”, something he said which has “long been regarded as illegal by the overwhelming weight of international opinion”.’
The picture by the Chilcot Report is of a decision made and then justified, on the basis of poor evidence and with little to no accountability. It was a decision taken by an individual, or a small group of individuals at best, behind closed doors, and then sold to government and the people – with long-lasting and serious consequences. The referendum serves as a recent parallel, albeit in a different sphere and with different implications: regardless of whether history will prove the decision wise or otherwise, public approval was a marketing exercise, made without solid facts and with little concern for what might come afterwards.
Unlike the early Israelites, we live in a representative democracy, but some of the biblical principles around government are keenly relevant to this situation. In contrast to neighbouring countries, decision-making was not to be centralised around a single figure: the chances of abuse were too high. Deuteronomy 17 sets out the Law of the King, which ensured he was not unaccountable – he was always subject to the Law, as maintained by the Levites. This separation of powers was complemented by the prophets, who arguably functioned something like the modern media: they were a ‘fourth estate’ who sat outside the institutions of state and Temple and spoke truth to power, whether their words were welcome or otherwise.
The Second Iraq War was likely illegal, it was not Wise and it may not have been necessary. History may treat Tony Blair kindly on his legacy of peace in Northern Ireland, but it will be eclipsed by his legacy of violence in the Middle East.