The Chilcot inquiry has heard some damning testimony this summer. Last week the former head of MI5, Baroness Mannigham-Buller, told the panel that the 2003 invasion of Iraq "radicalised" young Muslims in the UK and heightened the domestic terror threat.
On Tuesday, the former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix described as "absurd" the idea that the US and Britain invaded Iraq to uphold the authority of the UN and branded the war "illegal". And yesterday the former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott said the secret intelligence on the threat supposedly posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was based on "tittle-tattle". Three of the main pillars that supported the case for the invasion – that action would make Britain safer; that the military operation was made inevitable by Saddam Hussein’s evasive behaviour; that the threat from Iraq was based on intelligence believed to be credible – have been demolished.
The public has now heard the disastrous consequences of the invasion. They have witnessed political protagonists try to disassociate themselves from the decision to invade. And they have seen public servants criticise the manner in which Britain was propelled into war. The Chilcot inquiry has already exposed – beyond doubt – the folly of the invasion of Iraq.
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: In your New Statesman interview last year you were quoted as saying "I do wonder, looking back now, having the privilege of discussing with Tony about all this, how did I then go along?" So why did you go along?
LORD PRESCOTT: I did for the same reason I have given you here. That, at the end of the day even afterwards, you say to yourself, "Look, we had gone into this war. All the controversy about it, all the difficulties of it, right, that pursued after the military intervention, probably more so than the military intervention, a kind of belief that Shock and Awe would have a military resolution and democracy would strike immediately. It didn’t work that way and the terrible circumstances and the people who died, you say to yourself, ‘How did I do it?’" What I was trying to explain to that journalist was that each stage was right. Then you get to the end stage and you are faced with the reality. Are you going to face action then? Then you are into argument about legality. So my justification I felt was: provided we go in the UN route and hopefully that will be successful, I could deal with that, because I didn’t see that Iraq was better than Saddam. I mean, that’s the old arguments of regime change. Tony called him an "evil man". I think Bush went even further. He was not a good man to his own people. He was a threat to the stability in the area of peace and security, and to those circumstances I was not a fan.
SIR LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: So in your book you say, looking back at the Iraq invasion, you mention its tragic effects: "I would still do the same again." That remains your position?
LORD PRESCOTT: I think so. That was the conclusion I came to, because I – as long as we are on the UN route. If it was simply saying: America and the UK are the policemen of the world therefore we have to do it, I don’t think I could have gone along with that. I am sure we wouldn’t, and I don’t think you could have got the party to go along with that. I mean, President Bush was not the favourite candidate of the Labour Party.
Half my life ago, I found myself struggling with something that I would have never wanted to have to deal with. I misdiagnosed a case and he died within hours. Even though it is unlikely that he would have been saved had I made the diagnosis the moment I met him, that didn’t matter. My mind went back over every step – again and again. At every point along the way, my actions were "right," but the story was what it was. There were even reasons I missed the diagnosis. The man was a soldier who could not tell me of his combat experience. It was classified and I had no security clearance. I had asked.
As it turned out, he had been in combat in a place in Southeast Asia where we were not supposed to be. He had tiny metallic fragments in his leg from an explosion, small enough to leave no scars. One had eroded into a vein creating a large clot that went to his lungs. His shortness of breath while jogging was a harbinger of the massive pulmonary embolus that killed him. I missed it – missed it cold.
I wince even now writing this some forty years later, because it sounds like "Of course you missed it. He didn’t tell you what had happened." But I know that’s not right. It haunted me, as it still does. Some time later, a dream lead me to the part of my own history that mattered, the part that explained why I hadn’t realized the magnitude of his illness in time to either figure it out or get help figuring it out. It was not something I was conscious of, but I knew something wasn’t right about my thinking. The piece of my history is my business, but its consequences are on point, I think.
I never wanted to be in a situation where some glitch in my psyche effected my work as a physician, but I was. Anyone in a position where decisions matter has to contend with the ominous consequences of their decisions. From my point of view, I killed that man, and it helps me to think of it that way. It teaches me to recognize when my own persona is getting in the way and to either figure it out or get help. It is also true. Believing that I was right every step along the way or believing my own excuses would have been a further error. Almost all physicians have to live with their mistakes. It’s a heavy burden, but it comes with the territory. The important thing is to learn from every one of them. That should be true of people in government too.
Lord Prescott seems to be at least trying to come to grips with his errors, but he doesn’t quite get there. At least he’s trying. He didn’t question Lord Goldsmith’s tortured decision about legality. Why not? He knew the intelligence was, at best, overinflated. Why didn’t he say something? He probably knew that Tony Blair wanted to depose Hussein [and that he probably wanted that himself]. But here’s the key:
So in your book you say, looking back at the Iraq invasion, you mention its tragic effects: "I would still do the same again." That remains your position?
He answers that question "yes" in the same way Bush did – because Saddam Hussein was a bad man. I expect that’s what they all thought. Unfortunately, that’s also what Osama Bin Laden thought when he sent an airplane to destroy the White House, and there are plenty of people in the world that agreed with him. I expect that John Wilkes Booth thought Abraham Lincoln was a bad man too.
Not one of the witnesses at the Chilcot Inquiry, or for that matter any of the people in our government, has gotten beyond "Saddam Hussein was a bad man." I believe them – that Saddam Hussein was a bad man and that they deposed him because he was a bad man. And I also doubt that any of these government luminaries would agree, in principle, that it should be allowed for a country to decide that another country is being ruled by a bad man and depose him by force and assassinate him. We have rules about that, clearly laid out by Lord Goldsmith himself. You are justified by going to war with another country if they attack you, if there is eminent danger that they will attack you, or if they are guilty of egregious crimes against humanity. Otherwise, it is up to the UN Security Council to authorize war. None of those things were true, no matter how hard they tried to twist the intelligence or the logic. The British and American governments’ collective group-think lead them to over-ride the time-honored wisdom of these rules, and the tragic outcome makes it very clear why we have them. Thus far, the only person who seems to be addressing the "why" of the rules is Dr. Hans Blix, "… one conclusion I am inclined to draw is that anarchy can be worse than tyranny."
I doubt any other person could have figured out why I missed the diagnosis in my patient all those years ago. While nobody blamed me, had they been asked – whatever they said would have probably been wrong. Only I or someone who knew my story well could figure that out. None of us can really understand how the perfect storm of people in power came together to produce our ill-advised invasion of Iraq. But I wish at least one of them would now be asking himself the right question, "Even though Saddam Hussein was a bad man and a constant irritant on the world stage, why did I go along with ‘regime change’ thinking it was the ‘final solution’?" [Hitler-think]. "Why did I go along with twisting the rules, padding the intelligence, following the leader? What can I learn from my mistake that I can pass on to future leaders so they might avoid going down the same path?" I hope Sir John Chilcot and his panel can get at that question with their "Lessons Learned" approach…