The night before the publication of the Chilcot report, Twitter did what it does best: engaged in a silly hashtag game. Using the tag #ChilcotsLastLine, users joked about what bombshell he might use to conclude his 2.5 million word epic.
As it turned out, the right answer should have been: “I told you it was worth waiting for.” The report didn’t pull any punches, piling criticism onto an over-confident Prime Minister, a tame Cabinet, unprepared strategists and a Government which sent troops into danger without adequate protection. Tony Blair remains defiant but, as Andrew Gimson wrote this morning, that says rather more about his character than about the inquiry’s conclusions.
Chilcot did his job, but I confess I’m worried about the consequences. His report is a justification for those who argued intervention in Iraq was unwise and unmanageable, but it will also be used as a justification by those who argue every intervention, anywhere, ever, is a bad idea.
The two groups overlap but aren’t identical. Anyone who thinks Jeremy Corbyn opposed Iraq because of the specific circumstances has missed the fact he spent his career arguing against any measures against anyone whom he felt to be an “anti-imperialist”, which translates into honest English as anti-American. He is the proverbial stopped clock – just because he turned out to be right on Iraq should not disguise the fact he was horribly wrong many other times, such as in his opposition to action in Kosovo.
In the flood of Chilcot reporting, that fact is in danger of being missed. The report should teach us to be more sceptical, more cautious, more questioning and more insistent on proper consideration of – and preparation for – the consequences of intervention abroad. It should not be treated as a graven tablet instructing us never to try to help anyone, anywhere, ever again. We must choose whether we think Iraq is a lesson about the quality of an intervention, or about the wisdom of all intervention.
If we draw the former conclusion we will likely intervene less, but with better results when we do. If we draw the latter conclusion then many, many more people will die – shot, bombed, murdered and tortured by tyrants and genocidal killers across the world, secure in the knowledge that Britain and her allies will do no more than shrug and perhaps add a ribbon to their Facebook profiles.
To allow that to happen would be to extend, not shorten, the bloody butcher’s bill from Iraq.
It would also be another tragedy for which Blair would be squarely responsible. In his irresponsible eagerness to intervene then, he may yet end up deterring us from necessary and effective intervention later.
Thanks to Chilcot we now have a better appreciation of the possible consequences of action. But the weight of those millions of words must not obscure the fact that there are also consequences of inaction.
Consider what a Chilcot inquiry into our failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide would teach us. Even before a detailed investigation of the official documents and the testimony of witnesses from the time, we already know that Whitehall and Washington were warned that something awful was coming, but chose to do nothing to prevent it. John Major told Parliament that: “It simply is not practicable for [the UN] to become the policeman of every part of the world.”
Hundreds of thousands died as a result of that inaction - just as hundreds of thousands died as a result of poorly planned action in Iraq. It would be a horrible error to react to the latter by simply repeating the former. If we aren’t careful, the cause of the next international tragedy could be the aversion we learned from the last.