Peter Oborne's "Not the Chilcot Report": a review

An official verdict on Britain's policy towards Iraq, and Tony Blair's role in the 2003 invasion, is imminent. But the journalist Peter Oborne gets there first.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 June 2016
Tony Blair. Nicki Dugan Pogue/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Tony Blair. Nicki Dugan Pogue/Flickr. Some rights reserved.A decade ago this week, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a targeted assassination by two United States airforce RF-16 strike-aircraft. Tracking him down had been a key part of Operation Arcadia, itself a core element in the Joint Special Operations Command’s operations to destroy the heart of the AQI insurgency, seen as the core of the war against the US-led coalition.

Al-Zarqawi’s death on 7 June 2006 was seen in some western circles as the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq, a war which was then killing thousands of civilians each year. Iraq Body Count estimated that 2006 was actually the worst year, with 29,000 civilians dying in the conflict (including 2,584 in June alone). Within four years the situation had improved, though 2010 still saw over 4,000 killed. In turn that proved to be only a brief pause, as the nearly 50,000 killed in the past three years indicates.

The terrible violence in Iraq confounded the expectation of a quick victory when the Saddam Hussein regime collapsed in 2003, and is one of the main reasons why there is still such interest in the war. Another is the striking contrast between the huge public opposition to the war and the UK's heavy involvement in it from the start. Without that opposition and the chaotic and violent aftermath in the Middle East, there would not have been calls for an inquiry and the Chilcot report would never have been written.

After years of work the report is due to be published on 6 July 2016. But its monumental scale makes almost certain that just a few of its contents will reach the public eye, and that much else of interest will be missed. True, academic researchers will pore over it and in due course will publish further analyses; but for most people, and for the more immediate debate over the report's relevance to current wars, that will be too late in the day.

In this context, a clear aid to more immediate reflection comes with Peter Oborne’s Not the Chilcot Report (Head of Zeus, 2016).  Oborne has long been a gifted if controversial figure among journalists, and notably consistent in his concern with the origins and conduct of the war. His short but closely referenced book makes a good job of focusing on some of the key elements that Chilcot has had to address.

Oborne seeks to answer four questions:

* Did Blair lie to the British people before the war?

* Was the war lawful?

* Did he and Bush agree to go to war many months before it started?

* Did it leave Britain safer?  

He makes extensive use of oral evidence given to Chilcot by many witnesses, including Tony Blair, as well as the outcome of the Butler review of 2004 into UK intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The work has great value in providing a well-sourced guide to the key issues that will be reported on next month. In short, for any busy person, he will make the job of making sense of Chilcot’s massive report very much easier.

A book densely packed with information also contains some real highlights that deserve closer attention. An outstanding example is the evidence of the former senior FCO diplomat, Carne Ross, to Chilcot. Ross left government service early in the war and went on to start a small but potent diplomatic advisory service, Independent Diplomat. His key contribution to the inquiry was to describe the FCO’s cautious view on Iraqi WMD, in sharp contrast to what was coming out of Downing Street.

By the end of the book, Oborne has to conclude that in spite of the disaster of the war – the loss of life, the cost, increased insecurity for Britain, catastrophe for Iraq, and the emergence of ISIS – the neoconservative worldview is still deeply entrenched in British politics. Cameron's participation in a new war in Libya, a return to war in Iraq, and its extension to Syria, are all indications of this.

He contrasts post-Iraq political developments with the rapid downfall of Anthony Eden after the Suez debacle in 1956, and in doing so makes a significant point. The UK government, along with its allies, no longer tries to send tens of thousands of troops to war but relies much more heavily on remote warfare. Special forces, armed drones, private military and security companies, and all the “below the radar” means of waging war are now the chosen instruments. These are conveniently available with far less visibility and accountability than was previously the case.

At the end, Oborne is pessimistic that anything of substance has been learned – unless July’s publication proves to have a formidable impact. As he puts it, the report is "the last chance for the British Establishment to show that it can learn the lessons of its failures – and hold those who fail to account. If Sir John Chilcot and his inquiry fail to achieve this, the Iraq Inquiry will be the final proof that our system of government is broken”.

In light of this week’s indication that Tony Blair remains utterly convinced that he was right, Oborne’s scepticism seems all too appropriate. 

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