I Resigned Over Iraq, Now Let's Learn the Lessons

Iraq War Protestors
Protestors outside the auditorium where the Iraq Inquiry report was presented by Sir John Chilcot, London, July 6. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Sir John Chilcot's report into the Iraq war was a long time coming. But his dispassionate analysis of events leading up to the war and its aftermath have been well worth waiting for.

Chilcot's criticisms are penetrating and, in some cases, devastating. Most of the facts were known one way or another, but in drawing together so many of the underlying reasons for the U.K. intervention, he has produced a comprehensive analysis of what went wrong and lessons that must be learned.

Few could disagree with his heartfelt plea that in future it will not be possible to engage in a military endeavor on such a scale without careful challenge, analysis and collective political judgment being applied.

The exaggerated claims; the flawed intelligence and process for obtaining legal advice; the inadequacies of cabinet scrutiny and the disastrous aftermath are hugely telling. Inevitably, much attention will focus on who's to blame for the U.K.'s worst foreign policy decision since the attempt to take back the Suez Canal in 1956. Chilcot certainly doesn't pull his punches.

While Chilcot didn't rule on the legality, or otherwise, of the action, the calls for Tony Blair to stand trial for war crimes will no doubt echo far and wide. But as someone who resigned over our decision to intervene in Iraq, I hope we will focus rather more on learning the key lessons for the future. I disagreed with Tony Blair over Iraq but I never doubted his sincerity or belief in the actions he took.

The prime minister and foreign secretary made strenuous efforts to get a second resolution through the U.N. to ensure, without doubt, the legitimacy of the action. As Robin Cook, former foreign secretary, explained during his dramatic resignation speech on March 17, 2003, the very intensity of those attempts underlined how important it was to succeed.

The invasion of Iraq was often compared to the U.K.'s humanitarian action in Kosovo. But that was supported by both NATO and the EU. In contrast, the U.K. went into the war in Iraq without the agreement of any of the international bodies in which we were partners. Neither internationally nor in the U.K. were people persuaded there was an urgent and compelling reason for military action in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but whether he ever was a clear and present threat to the U.K. was open to considerable doubt.

Again to quote from Robin Cook, the case that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was never wholly convincing. There were considerable doubts that, with regard to WMDs, Hussein had a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target.

Like many, I was also convinced that there should have been more time for the inspections, and it is highly significant that Chilcot concluded that intervention took place before all the peaceful options had been exhausted.

As tellingly, he also stated that the severity of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was presented with a certainty that was not justified.

The failure to prepare properly for war because the government did not want to be seen to have made a pre-emptive decision cannot be justified and left our troops in a vulnerable position, which Chilcot has fully identified.

A similar failure to prepare for the aftermath failed the Iraqi people and the tragic outcome is still being suffered by so many Iraqi people. We should never forget, too, the loss of life of so many British troops and civilians.

The U.K. will probably never be the same again. Certainly for me personally, it was the most traumatic point of my political life. Perhaps my most vivid memory was the action of Jacob, my son at the age of 14 leading his school out in protest. How proud I was of him.

For the country, the lessons must be learnt. But they need to be the right ones. The British humiliation over the attempts to wrest back control of the Suez Canal from Egypt has long been seen as a hugely significant milestone in our decline as a world power.

Wrong on Iraq as we certainly were, this should not distract us from our proud record of internationalism and humanitarian interventions. The obvious risk from the aftermath of Iraq combined with Brexit is that we become detached and isolationist in a very troubled world. That would be a great mistake.

Philip Hunt is a Labour peer in the U.K.'s House of Lords. He resigned from his ministerial role in the Department of Health in 2003 over the decision to intervene in Iraq.