Coursing through the entire Iraq crisis, one major theme stands out from Britain’s (and America’s) handling of Iraq which, if not addressed, will undermine every intervention in the future, including the present ones. Though it is never stated explicitly, the whole Iraq Inquiry (aka Chilcot) report exposes it at every stage.
It is the patronising, arrogant and contemptuous attitude towards Arabs, Iraqis and indeed Arabists. There was a systematic failure in treating Iraq and Iraqis with respect, an attitudinal malaise that goes to the heart of this, the most disastrous episode in British foreign policy in modern times, and one shared by the American neocons of President George W Bush.
Historically the evidence for this British contempt for Iraq is voluminous. Britain arbitrarily drew up Iraq’s borders to ensure that the oil fields around Mosul lay under British control, regardless of the implications for whether this new state would be viable or whether the locals minded.
Dead Iraqis never seemed to trouble the British and US establishments. Madeleine Albright, the then US secretary of state, believed that the additional deaths during sanctions of 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five were a price worth paying, but so too then did Tony Blair and all those British politicians who similarly said nothing. Blair never objected to these devastating sanctions and never uttered a word against that statement. For him, sanctions failed only because the Iraqi regime was managing to thwart them, not because of their lethal impact on Iraqis. Sanctions were arguably more devastating than the entire war and its aftermath. Iraq was “contained”, meaning Iraqis were made to suffer the double penalty of a brutal regime and sanctions.
As for the 2003 war, there was the whole conceit that US and UK forces could wander into a huge country like Iraq and remodel it into some 21st century mini-US. This was a devout tenet of the neocons, but one that clearly Tony Blair never challenged and may have believed himself. It was an imperial arrogance of Victorian scale amplified by Blair’s contempt for Arabists and refusal to have anyone in his kitchen cabal of initiated advisers who were Middle East specialists. Just as experts were not required for the Brexit referendum, they were also surplus to requirements for Iraq.
The total lack of preparation, planning and proper resources also emphasises how little this mattered to those prosecuting the war. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein and then finding the weapons of mass destruction (to try to post-justify the invasion) were key, not the interests of the Iraqi people who we were there purportedly to help. Warnings of looting and revenge killings clearly were not taken seriously as a failure to deploy sufficient coalition forces meant Iraqis had to watch their treasures looted, many of which were to be sold in western antiquities markets just as Syrian ones are today. British commanders in Basra had no instructions so “had to make their own judgements about what to do”.
This attitude meant that Saddam Hussein was dangerously underestimated. He avoided a conventional war with coalition forces and instead prepared for a long insurgency. The invaders did not, and triumphantly declared “mission accomplished” when it had barely began.
How Iraq was to be run or occupied was not even agreed upon before the war. In the UK, on the eve of war, no funding had been earmarked for post-conflict reconstruction, only a few civilian officials had been appointed, and there were no plans for delivering essential services to Iraqis.
Did the British government even raise an eyebrow at the appointment of Paul Bremer, the new US-imposed ruler of Iraq. He had zero knowledge of the Middle East let alone Iraq and perhaps more relevantly, no experience of post-conflict environments.
Donald Rumsfeld infamously dismissed doing body counts of Iraqis. British officials were somewhat quieter about the fact that Britain did not either. Chilcot was critical of the failure of the British armed forces to assess the number of civilians killed, “Much more ministerial and senior official time was devoted to the question of which department should have responsibility for the issue of civilian casualties than to efforts to determine the actual number.”
American abuses of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib were globally condemned. British forces too have been implicated not least in the death of Baha Moussa in British custody. Human rights groups are critical at the delays in investigating hundreds of alleged war crimes by British nationals against Iraqis.
Whilst few questioned the received "wisdom" that Iraqis would welcome American and British forces with flowers, other Arab opinion was merely fobbed off. Blair wanted George Bush to publish the road map to Middle East peace and Palestinian statehood. It was a nonsense at the time and remains so. No serious effort was ever made to implement it. It assumed that Arab opinion would not be able to see through his hollow gesture and appreciate it for what it was and what Chilcot finds it was. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should not be toyed with – it is a serious and dangerous issue. A cabinet paper prepared at the time of the infamous Crawford meet said that one of the conditions for war would be that the Israel-Palestine crisis was “quiescent”.
Turkish acquiescence was also assumed. Chilcot was scathing about the inadequate understanding of Turkey’s intentions and as a result, British forces were in the end forced to invade in the south from Kuwait not from the north. Here was yet another presumption that local populations would just submit and be grateful.
But Chilcot cannot be immune from the charge either. Not one single Iraq was invited to give evidence to the inquiry in the UK. The inquiry met with Iraqis in Iraq but their testimonies are not available. These visits were held after all the evidence had been heard. The report barely contains Iraqi comment at all.
And have British politicians learnt anything? It does not seem they have learnt from the scathing Mesopotamia commission of 1917 let alone Chilcot in 2016. Look at the record in Libya and Syria. Did David Cameron have his own 45 minute moment and stretch the truth that there were 70,000 moderate rebel boots ready to fight ISIS on the ground in Syria? Others argue that Britain overstepped the legal basis for military operations in Libya.
For all the procedural lessons in Chilcot, unless Britain and its allies learnt to understand and respect this area of the world, they will be condemned to continue to make such mistakes in the future. To address this, a degree of humility is required not least about the limitations of western understanding of the Middle East.
- Chris Doyle is the director of Council for Arab-British Understanding. As the lead spokesperson for CAABU and as an expert on the region, he is a frequent commentator on TV and radio and gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.