Sign Up

Iraq Invasion: Why Did No One Raise An Eyebrow?

An insider’s account on the decision to invade Iraq, in view of the Chilcot Commission’s report.

July 7, 2016

An insider’s account on the decision to invade Iraq, in view of the Chilcot Commission’s report.

The whole world agrees that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, in the words of Napoleon’s secret police chief, Fouchet, was worse than a crime – it was a mistake.

The oddest consequence was that, having seen the failure of Iraq, the British state went and made exactly the same blunder in Libya.

In the latter case, the UK government followed France’s lead. Nicolas Sarkozy is not George W. Bush, more a Napoleon III than the original.

Either way, twice in less than a decade, a British prime minister tucked in behind a dubious ally and joined in the destruction of a Middle East state, with disastrous consequences.

Both Iraq and Libya were led by evil dictators, but when you destroy a state, the gates to hell are opened.

You reap the fruits of what you have sown: No economy, no law, no army, no police, no judges, no frontiers, no local administration.

Plus, a war of all against all ensues, as every citizen either grabs the first Kalashnikov for self-defense or simply seeks to get out in the tsunami of refugees from or through the destroyed states.

I was there

In the run-up to Iraq, I was a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, No. 2 to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. I voted for the invasion. Again and again, I have tried to work out the reasons for my own failure.

I was not a principal but, as Minister for Europe, my job was to travel around Europe, and indeed the world, in the run-up to the war. I worked closely with diplomats and MI6 officials and, to a lesser extent, generals on a daily basis.

I read intelligence agency summaries and talked about the looming conflict on a daily basis with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, fellow ministers in the FCO and other departments.

I also spent a lot of time with MPs in the House of Commons across Whitehall from the Foreign Office.

I kept a daily diary and I can report that I met no one in the state apparatus who so much as raised a hair or an eye-brow about the need to tackle Saddam Hussein.

Even vehemently anti-Bush British members of parliament were supportive because they were pro-Kurd. They were keen to see Saddam punished for the genocidal use of mustard gas bombs to kill thousands at Halabja.

At lunch in Stockholm with Swedish ministers and the head of Sweden’s intelligence agency, the latter told me: “Minister, everyone knows Saddam has weapons on mass destruction. The question is what are you going to do about it?”

I remember thinking that if the neutral Swedes whose export-mad businessmen burrow into every corner of the world think Saddam has WMD, maybe he does.

The professional diplomats’ collective failure

But why didn’t a single FCO insider, other than a junior lawyer who to her eternal honor resigned in protest, raise any questions?

Unlike Suez in 1956 — when senior Foreign Office hands wore black ties in protest at Eden’s folly — there was no sense even in the months after the invasion that it was a disaster.

Every political generation wants to not repeat the errors of the team they succeed in office.

In the 1990s, the main foreign policy charge against the John Major government was that it was weak and failed to stand up to the human rights abuses associated with Milosevic in Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Kosovo.

In addition, British diplomats at the UN were accused of failing to stop a genocide in Rwanda or the mass murders in Somalia and Sudan.

The concept of the “Right to Intervene” or the “Responsibility to Protect” or the need for an International Criminal Court to deal with the Milosevics and Saddams of the world was developed by intellectuals like Michael Ignatieff or Bernard-Henri Levy.

Their ideas were promoted by human rights political activists like Bernard Kouchner and human rights lawyers like Geoffrey Robertson and Philippe Sands in London.

How Blair handled Milosevic

The Labour Party came to power in 1997 with a burning desire to use British foreign policy and military power to reverse what was seen as the years of appeasement.

Previous Tory administrations had failed to intervene in the Balkan wars or in Africa or, under Mrs. Thatcher, had turned a blind eye to Pinochet’s crimes in Chile as well as to the Apartheid regime’s denials of human rights in white supremacist South Africa.

In 1998, only a year after taking office, Tony Blair, the new Prime Minister, moved quickly to send ships and Indonesia, after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship.

I was with Robin Cook, the new Foreign Secretary, in his office when the decision was taken to offer the East Timor leader Xanana Gusmão shelter in the British Embassy in Jakarta.

It was also decided to send a Royal Navy frigate in order to make it clear to the Indonesian army that they should stay in their barracks.

When Slobadan Milosevic, the then Serb president, turned his full fury on the Kosovans including the massacre at Racak, early in 1999 which led to 850,000 Kosovans fleeing their nation to avoid the genocidal attacks of Serbs, Blair twisted Bill Clinton’s arm.

He got him to agree a full air attack on the Serbs backed by a land force preparing for an invasion if Milosevic did not give way.

There was no UN authorization, but the military pressure worked. Milosevic withdrew from Kosovo and the people there no longer faced the fear of a new Srebrenica.

Who gives the right to intervene?

Soon after Blair’s triumphant re-election in May 2001 came 9/11 and the desire from Washington to hit out and punish someone, anyone really.

The pain felt by the Republican administration due to being completely blindsided by the biggest attack on U.S. territory with more Americans killed than at Pearl Harbor was enormous.

The British government and state machinery was now trapped. On the one hand, it had not just articulated a desire not to return to appeasing murderous dictators, but acted accordingly.

On the other hand, Labour was all of a sudden enveloped in the traditional Thatcherite fealty to Washington.

But above all, there was a prevailing sense that Saddam Hussein was just an Arab Milosevic – a bully who could be easily dislodged with firmness and in the end military force.

We all know that assessment and what followed was disastrously wrong. But all I can report from being in the heart of government at the time is that there was no official, adviser or “expert” who challenged Britain’s right to intervene and protect Kurds in Iraq who faced oppression and worse from Saddam.

In that case, the fault in the end was Blair’s. But the fault for the equally ill-advised move to destroy Libya or to send 500 British soldiers to unnecessary deaths in Afghanistan during 2010-2015 is Cameron’s.

Prime ministers have the ultimate Yes or No decision and must live with the consequences.

But the bigger question is why did no one in the state apparatus say “No, prime minister” on both Iraq and Libya? The question will haunt Blair and all British state officials until the end of their days


I voted for the Iraq invasion. I have tried to work out the reasons for my own failure. #Chilcot

“Experts” said Saddam was just an Arab Milosevic – a bully who could be dislodged by force. #Chilcot

Why did no one in the state apparatus (including me) say “No, prime minister” on Iraq? #Chilcot