US Still Ducks Iraq Accountability

With the Chilcot report, Great Britain somewhat came to grips with its role in the criminal invasion of Iraq, but neocon-controlled Washington still refuses to give the American people any honest accounting, explains ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The United States and Britain each have suffered from the blunder of invading Iraq in 2003 — and have made many others suffer as well, not least of all the Iraqis. But the release in Britain of the mammoth Chilcot report is a reminder of how differently the two allies have treated their coming to terms with the blunder.

That difference had been apparent even before this week. An earlier British inquiry, the Butler report, had explicitly pointed out, for example, the improper mingling of intelligence analysis and policy — which, although such mingling occurred on this side of the Atlantic as well, has never been directly and officially acknowledged in the same way in the United States.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands after a joint White House press conference on Nov. 12, 2004. (White House photo)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush shake hands after a joint White House press conference on Nov. 12, 2004. (White House photo)

Now the Chilcot report, in its extremely thorough examination of all aspects of the decision to go to war and of what followed, has made the trans-Atlantic difference in retrospection even greater.

Oh, sure, there have been some official after-the-fact inquiries in the United States related to the Iraq War. They have served a cathartic function and also have served to divert attention and blame away from those — Democrats as well as Republicans — who supported the invasion at the time.

The Senate Intelligence Committee and a White House-appointed commission both examined in minute detail intelligence work about weapons of mass destruction. But the so-called WMD issue was not the driver of the war.

As super-war-hawk Paul Wolfowitz later admitted in an unguarded comment, it was just an issue that people could agree on as a rationale for launching the war. And even a firm conclusion that weapons programs exist in the hands of a nasty regime does not constitute a case for launching a major offensive war. (Anyone up for war in North Korea?)

It was the highly costly, destructive, destabilizing aftermath of overthrowing Saddam Hussein that made launching the war a blunder. The war would have been highly costly, destructive, and destabilizing even if every word that the Bush administration said about WMD had been true.

And conversely, if the war had ushered in the sort of blossoming of democracy and stability in Iraq that its most fervent promoters envisioned, the war would not be widely considered today a blunder and we would not be seeing 2.6 million-word reports of commissions of inquiry, WMD or no WMD.

Among the Chilcot report’s very pertinent lines of inquiry that have had no counterpart in any American inquiry has been how peaceful channels for resolving differences with the Iraqi regime were never adequately explored. Actually, applying the same inquiry in the United States would require blunter language than that used by Chilcot.

The chief promoters of the war in the Bush administration did not want to resolve peacefully issues of WMD or any other issues. One of their fears in the months leading up to the invasion was that the Iraqi regime would say yes to all international demands and the case for war would be deflated.

The Predicted Chaos

As for the destructive aftermath of Saddam’s ouster, the Chilcot panel said, “We do not agree” — with Tony Blair, that is — “that hindsight is required. The risks of internal strife in Iraq, active Iranian pursuit of its interests, regional instability and Al Qaeda activity in Iraq were each explicitly identified before the invasion.”

At the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to conduct a devastating aerial assault on Baghdad, known as "shock and awe."

At the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to conduct a devastating aerial assault on Baghdad, known as “shock and awe.”

In the United States, the intelligence community had produced major assessments before the war anticipating much of the post-invasion mess, but the policy-makers ignored those assessments. Redacted versions of those assessments can be read today in a tardily released “report” of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was supposed to look into war-related issues other than the much-beaten WMD intelligence issue but got so tied up in partisan knots that what it finally released could hardly be called a report at all. (I have told this sorry story in detail elsewhere.)

As for the decision-making process leading to launching the war, the Chilcot report goes into much detail, down to what word-smithing the prime minister’s senior aides recommended for messages going to the U.S. government. Here in the United States there can be exhaustive inquiries into decision-making processes when there is a political appetite for it. Right now, for example, Republicans in Congress are trying to do that regarding a decision by the FBI director involving some matter involving emails.

But there has been no inquiry at all into what was one of the most extraordinary aspects of the decision to launch a major offensive war in Iraq: that there was no policy process at all leading to that decision. All the meetings and memos and discussions in the Bush administration about Iraq were about selling or implementing the decision to go to war, not about making that decision in the first place.

What accounts for this big difference in how the two countries have handled this tragic episode in their history? One reason probably is that the political forces in the United States that promoted the war have remained, despite their ghastly blunder, powerful. Neoconservatives continued to dominate foreign policy thinking in the Republican Party (although more recently Donald Trump — who claims, without a record to back him up, to have opposed the war — has shaken things up). In Britain, by contrast, Blair is almost alone in defending his decision to go to war, lamely echoing Wolfowitz’s lines about how the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.

A related reason is that partisanship in the United States has become more poisonous and ruthless than it is in the United Kingdom. It seems that everything is fair game to try to knock down opponents, no matter how much the knocking down distorts history and thus pollutes or negates any effort to come to terms with that history.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq War.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War on May 1, 2003.

Republican efforts to propagate the myth that Barack Obama, by implementing a troop withdrawal agreement negotiated by the Bush administration, somehow snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory in Iraq — notwithstanding the still-ongoing civil war there, and the patent failure of earlier military efforts to achieve their objective of political reconciliation among Iraqis — have fed the notion that maybe the decision to go to war wasn’t really a mistake and it was just later implementation that was mishandled.

Second Thoughts?

The release of the Chilcot report ought to be the occasion for Americans to reflect on another asymmetry between the United States and Britain regarding the Iraq War: that it was the U.S. administration, not any British government, that initiated this whole horrible idea. The United Kingdom got involved because Blair was Bush’s poodle, who was so concerned about keeping U.S.-U.K. relations harmonious that he wrote to George W. Bush, “I will be with you, whatever.”

Americans ought to think about the responsibilities of global leadership, and about how easy it is to abuse a position of power in which even a significant and proud country like the United Kingdom will fall in line that way. Dragging Britain into the Iraq mess was such an abuse of power. It was a betrayal of one of America’s most important and staunchest allies. It gives many, including not just in Britain but elsewhere, reason to be less inclined to follow the U.S. lead in the future.

Dragging Britain into the Iraq mess probably has had other deleterious effects in Britain as well. Blair’s role in the Iraq War has come to be perceived as one of the biggest aspects of his legacy, and that has helped to reduce support for Blairite New Labourism. This helped to make the feckless left-winger Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party. And that in turn was an ingredient in the outcome of last month’s Brexit vote.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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21 comments for “US Still Ducks Iraq Accountability

  1. Gregory Herr
    July 9, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    “Dragging Britain into the Iraq mess was such an abuse of power….[and] probably has had other deleterious effects in Britain as well…[including making] the feckless left-winger Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party”.

    Yeah, Blair was “dragged” into it kicking and screaming.
    The abuse of power was murder and destruction. We know about the motives, the lies, and the cynically played “justifications.”
    Britain would do well to have more leaders like Corbyn. So would the U.S.. Then we wouldn’t be talking about “blunder.” Pillar’s snide dismissal of the man is odious.

    • July 10, 2016 at 12:13 am

      The occupation of Afghanistan was not an unpremeditated blunder, just as with the occupation of Iraq or the possible occupation of Yemen. The wars are part of the extension of US power to all corners of the globe, a process that has quietly been accelerating in the past two decades, confirmed by US proconsul Hillary Clinton’s presence at both the Yemen and Afghanistan conferences in London, as well as their outcomes.

      The fact that the mightiest war machine in history is being tripped up by a handful of ragged-trousered, determined young men is astounding.

      If Obama, Hillary, the Neocons, NATO & co., wants to rid the world of terrorist threats, the logical thing would be to stop invading countries and inciting the people to take up arms and work with any forces against the invaders.

  2. Zachary Smith
    July 9, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    I”m going to keep watching this story, but so far I’ve seen two things claimed about the Chilcot report. The first is that it was sort of like what the FBI did with Hillary. Kick Blair around a lot, heap blame on him, but to avoid saying anything which could lead to him actually being put on trial for his actions.

    The second was to blur and/or minimize the involvement of Israel. I’m paraphrasing this next ‘quote’.

    “The Chilcot Report gave the British public what it wanted. It blamed Blair for failing in his responsibilities to them. But the report’s focus on Blair, diplomacy, the military and intelligence failures concealed the Lobby that was pulling the strings. Since the Iraq war, the same Lobby has mounted enormous pressure on western governments, promoting more Zio-centic interventionist wars in Syria, Libya and Iran,” Gilad Atzmon wrote on July 7, 2016.

    • July 10, 2016 at 12:16 am

      Two of the five committee members of the Chilcot inquiry into the (il)legality of British participation in the invasion of Iraq are Jewish — Sir Martin Gilbert a militant Zionist, and Sir Lawrence Freedman the drafter of Blair’s invasion policy. Despite the deck being stacked, witness after witness has testified the invasion was illegal, and former British prime minister Tony Blair was booed after telling the inquiry he has no regrets.

      Is this just symbolic ? Will the Brits hang the rat ? We shall see. Won’t we.

  3. Bill Bodden
    July 9, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    Dragging Britain into the Iraq mess probably has had other deleterious effects in Britain as well. Blair’s role in the Iraq War has come to be perceived as one of the biggest aspects of his legacy, and that has helped to reduce support for Blairite New Labourism. This helped to make the feckless left-winger Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party. And that in turn was an ingredient in the outcome of last month’s Brexit vote.

    This cheap shot at Jeremy Corbyn brings to mind a time during the American Revolutionary War that our original “elites” (John Adams in particular) looked forward to the end of the war so they wouldn’t need Thomas Paine and his associates any more and they could be gotten rid of having served their purpose of rallying the people to the cause of the revolution.

    Feckless: 1. Ineffectual, weak 2. Worthless, irresponsible. These interpretations of “feckless” certainly do not apply to Jeremy Corbyn. His election to leader of the Labour Party brought out expressions demanding a return to more democracy in the UK. Whatever charges of of being worthless and irresponsible that are applied to Mr. Corbyn should be redirected towards the Blairites who are supportive of the discredited Tony bLIAR and not the British people.

    It is Mr. Corbyn who wants Tony Blair to be held accountable, not the right wing Blairites or the Tories who oppose him..

    The Chilcot Report reveals another aspect of democracy. There remains some semblance of democracy in the UK while there is only an illusion of it in the US.

    • Bill Bodden
      July 9, 2016 at 7:34 pm

      “Corbyn simply refused, noting that he had an overwhelming mandate from the rank-and-file membership of the Labour Party. And although some credit must go to him personally, Corbyn is not standing alone. His political platform has generated excitement and a movement among working people. Once he became a candidate to head the Labour Party, an organization called Momentum quickly formed to lend support. Momentum is a separate organization but supports the Labour Party and especially supports Corbyn.” http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/07/08/class-war-in-the-u-k-labour-party/

      • Joe Tedesky
        July 9, 2016 at 11:44 pm

        Bill, allow me to inject one thing. The one thing I picked up on regarding The Chilcot Report, was possibly the English politicians are at least listening to the roar of their people. With that said, can we say this about our American politicians? I’ll leave you all to decide what the correct answer is to that question.

        • John
          July 11, 2016 at 7:40 pm

          The roar of the people you hear in the US is cheering for the Dallas Cowboys. If you ask an American what he thinks about Iraq he is likely to think that this is the name of our first president, and will therefore be highly complimentary.

    • Bill Bodden
      July 9, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      “Even David Brooks of The New York Times jumped on the bandwagon, calling Corbyn an “incompetent, inexperienced outsider” without providing any evidence other than the vote of no confidence by an overwhelming majority of the Labour Party members of Parliament. The idea that such a vote could have been politically motivated by class interests was simply beyond the reach of David Brooks’ imagination.” http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/07/08/class-war-in-the-u-k-labour-party/

      Anyone agreeing with David Brooks should give consideration to the possibility of not knowing what he or she is talking about

      • Gregory Herr
        July 9, 2016 at 9:46 pm

        Consideration of possibilities is not a strong suit of anyone agreeing with Brooks or that other mamby-pamby hush-toned “in-the-know” New York Times bloviator, Thomas Friedman.
        Corbyn’s competent intelligence runs circles around such “insiders”.

        And by what measure, pray tell, is Corbyn “inexperienced”? It certainly wouldn’t be in the category of being able to think for himself, the experience of which would disqualify Brooks from his lofty perch.

  4. Dennis Merwood
    July 9, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Pillar’s odious dismissal of Jeremy Corbyn, ensures that I will never read any of his columns again.

    • Zachary Smith
      July 9, 2016 at 7:17 pm

      I missed that on the first pass. A look at Pillar’s past columns verifies he really doesn’t like Corbyn. A look at Corbyn’s wiki makes me wonder why.

  5. Bill Bodden
    July 9, 2016 at 8:01 pm

    US veterans on Chilcot: we need our own inquiry to avoid repeating mistakes: UK’s investigation into Iraq invasion is ‘example of what we could do with political courage’, says codirector of Iraq Veterans against the War – https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/09/us-veterans-chilcot-inquiry-iraq-war

  6. Joe Tedesky
    July 10, 2016 at 12:11 am

    Mr Pillar is correct to establish that in America no one has been held accountable for the Iraq invasion. I would further this, to if we were to include such notables as bankers, pharmaceutical companies, transportation outlets, military procurement agencies, and whoever I’m leaving out, is ever held accountable for anything, or at anytime in this country. Pillar is also right on the money, when he points out how many, or maybe even most of these sociopaths are still on the job. Even though these genius manipulative warmongers were responsible for countless deaths, and for the trillions they spend one must question what did we get, and to this day they are still ensconced in their ivory towers making lots of dough like bandits. I wonder how many of them are the children, or had been mentored, by the same people who knew who killed the Kennedy’s, and Martin Luther King. If there would be a link between the past and present, then this would also explain a lot, to the kind of leadership America has been stuck with, for over at least the last fifty years or longer.

    Until this country’s government officials start telling the truth, and or when each citizen is finally hearing the truth coming out of these hack politicos mouths, nothing will get better. There can be no hope & change. Forget any yes we can. And nobody (Hillary can you hear me) is fighting for you. It’s all built on a lie.

    As far as Blair goes, he most likely won’t suffer anymore than Hillary did over her email breach. If I were a close friend to Blair, I’d advise him to start picking better friends…then again isn’t he now out of office, and worth fifty million dollars?

  7. R.A.
    July 10, 2016 at 12:56 am

    Thanks to the discussion here, I went and read the Wikipedia entry on Jeremy Corbyn. Pillar should be ashamed of himself for his attempt to smear an exemplary progressive politician. Corbyn is rather like Bernie Sanders, transposed to the British political environment. The current Labour leadership finds him controversial and tries to undermine him, but the Labour membership supports him–rather like the situation with Sanders and the Democratic party here.

  8. Roger
    July 10, 2016 at 4:46 am

    I have to agree with Dennis Merwood: Pillar’s detestable comment about Labour Leader Corbyn means that I will avoid ever reading any of his stuff again. Pillar clearly knows nothing about Mr.Corbyn, and such odious ad hominem rubbish means I might just drop Consortiumnews entirely.

  9. Roger
    July 10, 2016 at 4:58 am

    Pillar’s last paragraph is such a mess! Discrediting Blairism would seem to be deleterious. Corbyn, an honest man opposed to war as a policy, all-powerful consumerism, de-humanising globalisation, and privatisation of essential public services, is call a ‘left-winger’, and feckless to boot. He is even accused of having caused ‘Brexit’, in some undefined way. So ‘Brexit’ is bad. What are you Pillar? A closet neocon?

  10. Bill Bodden
    July 10, 2016 at 10:06 am

    It is interesting that the author of this article would have us believe the American perpetrators of the crime against humanity committed in Iraq in 2003 should be held accountable but in attacking Jeremy Corbyn he has, in effect, aligned himself with the Blairites who supported Tony Blair when he led the charge for Britain to be an accomplice in this tragedy that has not yet run its full course. I haven’t checked the record, but I would bet that Jeremy Corbyn and Robert Parry were on the same page in the lead up to the war on Iraq. Which side was the author on at that time?

  11. DeborahWales
    July 10, 2016 at 1:59 pm

    Corbyn? Feckless? ….. What planet are you on? The man has more integrity in his little finger than either Blair or Bush could ever aspire to in a thousand lifetimes.

  12. Oz
    July 13, 2016 at 12:34 am

    Blair was Bush’s poodle? I’m having a little trouble buying the idea of hapless Tony Blair being manipulated by the diabolically brilliant svengali, George W. Bush. I’m trying to recall now which of the two countries invented geopolitics, in the course of centuries of experience as the biggest empire in recorded history.

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